"Will there be life after Landon?"
That's a question I asked in this space more than two years ago, and it's been the subtext of everything Jurgen Klinsmann has done as manager of the US national team. Forget Landon Donovan's breathtaking speed, or his reliable set pieces, or even his nearly 60 goals.
Donovan's true value is as a chance creator for the US. He sees and connects passes that nobody else in the pool does, and the US suffer when he's not available.
Fabian Johnson and Graham Zusi have done some reasonable work as replacement focal points; Mix Diskerud can produce a moment of brilliance; and Alejandro Bedoya has, on occasion, looked very clever from out wide. But the trickle of chances turns into a faucet when Landon's out there.
Bear that in mind over the next seven months as Brazil 2014 approaches –180 scoreless minutes shouldn't have anybody in a panic, but these dead-end friendlies are a helpful reminder of just how much the US were missing.
Here are three other things to take away from Tuesday's drab 1-0 loss in Austria:
1. Sorting out the roles of the wingers
In our prematch "Scouting Report", Dan Haiek and I highlighted the role of Brek Shea, and specifically why he's suited better as a sub than as a starter. He doesn't pass well in possession, and is – generally speaking – a better north-south player than someone who can pinch into the midfield and act as a release valve.
It's problematic for the US since Klinsmann's left midfielder has typically been used as an ad hoc central midfielder, someone who needs to make possession and penetration exist in balance.
Shea struggled in that role, and ended up spending too much time inside where he was ineffective. The knock-on effect was that Bedoya, a more technical and sure player in the middle, had to push very, very wide on the right side. Not good.
The best way to conceptualize it is this: Klinsmann's starting left midfielder has to be adept at controling the game, and bringing other attackers into it. The top sub in that spot has to be capable of changing the shape of the game on an individual level.
That second description is nicely married to Shea's skills. The first is beyond him unless he makes a significant jump in playing time and production with Stoke City in the next few months.
2. The enigma that is Jermaine Jones
He's a midfield hard man that often fails to put on the most rudimentary pressure:
He is a gifted passer of the ball...
Jermaine Jones delicate outlet ball to relieve pressure and kickstart counter has potential to be so essential if learned by rote.— Zack G. (@ThatDamnYank) November 19, 2013
Who struggles to connect simple passes:
Jones has been a turnover machine 25 minutes in. Teammates are putting out the flames, but #USMNT will get punished at WC on plays like that— Franco Panizo (@FrancoPanizo) November 19, 2013
He is a veteran leader who appears, at times, almost helpless against the red mist:
You can't spell "composure" without omitting most of the letters in "Jermaine Jones." #usmnt— Beau Dure (@duresport) November 19, 2013
There were multiple times in this game when, after a nice series of passes, Jones would either play backwards or simply stop the ball from moving entirely. And his undisciplined running takes touches away from Michael Bradley, which I still think is a crime.
He remains a valuable player for Schalke. It's beyond time for that version of Jones to show up regularly for the US.
3. John Brooks needs more time cookin'
Brooks is a talent, but this game should have slowed the "He should be starting over Besler!" train.
Particularly worrying are his instincts for when to come up off his line, and when to sit deep. You can see it on the goal above – Brooks should have been on David Alaba's hip, strong enough in the challenge to either win the ball, or at least force Alaba to play backwards. Instead he was five yards away, making his break into the play just a step too late and then scrambling back into position.
This came after a series of poor, high steps by Brooks in which he didn't win the ball, stop the play, or even slow it down. Omar Gonzalez covered nicely for the most part, but "Omar Gonzalez running at his own net trying to track multiple runners" is not a great recipe for US success.
Being in the Bundesliga, Brooks is in perhaps the best spot in the world to learn how to be a dynamic central defender. But he's got to get the basics down quick if he's to be a factor next summer.