Welcome to the Wednesday Q&A series, where we focus on one particular topic – today's being the future of the US roster – and ask you to react, share, and discuss in the comments section. However, feel free to ask about anything game-related (MLS, USL, NASL, USMNT, CanMNT, etc.) over the next several hours.
The US men's national team has played five games in the Copa America. Two of them were against opponents we should have beaten and did; two were vs. opponents who were favored to beat us and they did; one was against a team that we were slight favorites against, and we gutted out a 2-1 win.
So it goes. By those numbers it wasn't a particularly noteworthy tournament – none of the results were surprising just in W-L-D terms. The scorelines of the win over Costa Rica and Tuesday's loss to Argentina were, however, shocking. The US fanbase seems absolutely stunned in the wake of last night's 4-0 drubbing, and I'm right there with you all: I personally think it's the worst and most embarrassing loss of the modern era (that era beginning with qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, and everything after).
But even with that defeat it's pretty clear that if the US keep up this pattern they will eventually punch a ticket to Russia in 2018. They are once again beating the teams that have less talent than them, which is 1) everybody in CONCACAF except Mexico, and 2) all but about 20 teams in the world. It's not progress in any sense of the word, but it's... fine. It's enough. The rising tide of talent does the job.
So this is a functional question rather than a philosophical one:
Functionally, we learned from Copa America what will be enough to help us advance through the Hexagonal and to Russia. However you feel about Michael Bradley at d-mid, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron in central defense, DeAndre Yedlin at right back and Brad Guzan in goal, just remember that they were good enough to put together wins over Costa Rica, Paraguay and Ecuador.
I'm not saying upgrades should be ignored if they present themselves. What I'm saying is that the smarter approach is to build upon a foundation that has a baseline of success – to optimize rather than to tear down and start anew. Use that 4-1-3-2 look that was so solid at the back and find a way to make the rest of it more dangerous.
With that in mind, here are three adjustments I'd like to see Jurgen Klinsmann make over the next six months in order to prep for the US for next year's Hexagonal:
1. Figure out a way to push Fabian Johnson up to his natural role on the wing
Johnson put in a man's performance at left back throughout this tournament, and deserves credit for that. But his nous in possession and creativity in the final third were badly missed by a US team that didn't generate a single shot of any sort against Argentina on Tuesday. Getting him onto the left side of that "3" line in the 4-1-3-2, or on the left wing of a 4-3-3, should be high on Klinsmann's list of objectives.
Possible solutions: Eric Lichaj, Timmy Chandler or Brandon Vincent
• Lichaj should have been at this Copa America, full stop. He's played over 12,000 minutes in the Premiership and Championship in England over the last five years, and has 11 solid caps to his name in Red, White & Blue. Plus he'll be just 29 in 2018.
Chandler has been less good with the US and his commitment is rightly questioned by the fanbase, but he's still a Bundesliga starter. Vincent, meanwhile, got off to a slow start with the Fire this year, but has come into his own over the last six weeks and pretty clearly has an international-level future.
It's clear that Klinsmann has never valued chance creators and that the US have suffered for it. Neither Nagbe nor Pulisic is, so far, a traditional No. 10, but neither has to be in order to be effective. Pulisic looks plenty comfortable on the wing, and Nagbe's ability to play both sides of the ball and his comfort in traffic has made him a very, very effective box-to-box player at the MLS level.
Plus he's been pretty good in his few national team looks, too:
Possible solutions: Writing their names down on the team sheet, Nagbe in central midfield and Pulisic on the wing opposite Johnson
• I don't mean to say that either/both should play every minute of every game, but pushing them further up the rotational ladder alongside the likes of Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya makes sense. Nagbe needs to partner with Bradley in games that mean something; Pulisic needs to show whether his future is as a winger, or perhaps as Dempsey's replacement underneath a center forward.
This process for figuring this stuff out needs to start soon – as in Saturday's third-place game, and not 65 minutes into a must-win qualifier next spring as an act of desperation.
3. Value hold-up play
Starting Chris Wondolowski as a center forward was always going to fail because Wondo does not possess that skillset. Starting Clint Dempsey as a lone center forward in the World Cup was always going to fail because Deuce does not possess that skillset. Starting Bobby Wood there was better, and moving Gyasi Zardes up top in the second half of the Argentina loss at least showed that Klinsmann can recognize the lack of hold-up play is a problem (even if it's hardly Zardes's strongest suit).
And let's remember that Jozy Altidore, before his injury this spring, looked really, really good holding the ball up.
• Against the best teams, the US will have to sometimes skip the midfield entirely. We call this "The Brian McBride Gambit," and obviously Sapong is a monster in that situation.
Morris still lacks, but he's been developing rapidly in his rookie year, and while it remains to be seen what Boyd will look like when he finally returns, he was always a rugged and willing No. 9 who'd allow the attackers around him more time and space in which to work.
Ok folks, thanks for keeping me company!