SEATTLE – Unbeaten in three straight World Cup qualifiers, fielding what’s become a cohesive lineup at last and, most crucially, figuring out a way to score goals.
Welcome to the new US national team. At long last, the Americans feel like they’ve hit a groove, their first in two years under Jurgen Klinsmann, and they’re eager to build on what they’ve accomplished recently in Tuesday night’s qualifier here against Panama (10 pm ET, ESPN/UniMas, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
“You’re starting to see the team take more shape,” captain Clint Dempsey said at Monday’s press conference. “We’re starting to have more chemistry, we’re getting more comfortable. The new faces are settling in, making an immediate impact. The vibe is good.”
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But just as the US stumbled on a good run of form – especially on offense, where they’ve combined for six goals in their past two games – their chemistry will be tested again.
With Jermaine Jones out with concussion-like symptoms and Graham Zusi suspended for yellow-card accumulation, Tuesday’s run-out won’t be an unprecedented third straight game under Klinsmann that features the same starting lineup.
That means suddenly resurgent Jozy Altidore won’t have his personal catalyst, Zusi, to whip in inch-perfect crosses for him to hammer into goal. It means Michael Bradley will be robbed of his central midfield partner just as the two of them were developing the best chemistry they’ve ever found.
“In a perfect world with your club team, you play with the same lineup five, six games in a row and that would be great,” midfielder Sacha Kljestan told reporters after training on Monday. “But it doesn’t really happen with the national team – not with many national teams.
“I’m sure it was nice for the guys to get two games in a row, the same 11 guys on the field. Unfortunately we have an injury and a yellow-card suspension. … Guys are fighting to get back in the team and play.”
Should Klinsmann opt for more creativity out of midfield to unlock Panama's airtight defense, Kljestan is on the top of that list as the US again will have to find their answers from within. The playmaker is a prime candidate to slot into the midfield – perhaps next to Bradley, where he has lined up eight times in a national team shirt, or even on the wing should his coach ask him to.
Klinsmann has made a habit of forcing players out of their comfort zones to learn new positions – take for instance Friday’s hero in Jamaica, midfielder Brad Evans, who has now excelled in two straight games at right back. Or even his Seattle teammate Eddie Johnson, who has lined up wide twice for Klinsmann recently despite a prolific career as a striker.
It’s something the coach has stressed particularly in the last 12 months, and he’s confident that whomever he chooses on Tuesday, he has the personnel to fill the gaps so the team doesn’t miss a beat.
“I think the team more and more understands what we want to build here and how we want to fine-tune things,” Klinsmann said Monday. “Players who are maybe in a second position than their personal spot know exactly what to do when they come in. I think the backups we have at their positions are very, very good.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.