Jurgen Klinsmann had an idea as he convened the US men’s national team’s annual January camp at the start of 2015.
The program was drifting a bit, nursing a hangover from the highs and lows of the 2014 World Cup, and Klinsmann introduced a 3-5-2 formation to freshen things up and make the best use of his available personnel.
“Over the long term, I think it’s definitely a card that we should have in our back pocket,” said the German-American manager. “I don't have a preferred system – I'm not a freak for the Dutch 4-3-3 or the German 4-2-3-1 or the 4-4-2 in a diamond. I try to adjust systems to the player material I have.”
How’d it go? The short version is “not great.” Shoehorning Jermaine Jones into the central center back spot, the USMNT looked nervous and ragged in a 3-2 friendly loss at Chile and mostly shelved the concept – until Klinsmann trotted it out as a surprise twist for the big World Cup qualifier vs. Mexico in Columbus the next November.
It didn’t work then, either. El Tri seized an early advantage against a confused US side who switched to a 4-4-2 before halftime but still fell 2-1, a stunning setback that led (along with a 4-0 capitulation at Costa Rica a few days later) to Klinsmann’s ouster and laid the foundations for missing out on Russia 2018.
Fast-forward to the present day, and the picture looks quite different. The USMNT have once again delved significantly into concepts based on a three-player backline, trying out multiple interpretations like 3-4-3, 3-4-2-1 and the 5-3-2 deployed in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Canada.
And despite some recurring unevenness in the Gold Cup squad’s performances, it’s working well enough for some to wonder if some version of it is Gregg Berhalter’s best bet for winning the tournament as they enter the knockout phases with Sunday’s quarterfinal clash against Jamaica in Arlington, Texas (9:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN).
“This group is very versatile. I think we have so many young players who are able to play many different positions on this team,” said fullback Reggie Cannon last week, adding that he believes “to get our best quality onto the field, I think this group is much more comfortable playing three in the back,” albeit emphasizing that the squad remains versed in the four-back alignment that was long the default for most US teams.
“I really think this group is capable of doing both. We have very dynamic fullbacks from George [Bello] to Sam [Vines], from Shaq [Moore] to me to [Kellyn Acosta]. We have very, very physical center backs, and again, very technically sound center backs,” he added. “I think everyone is kind of suited to playing a lot of those different positions and different formations. So it's going to be a matter of seeing what lineup is best for each game.”
The USMNT’s game-winning (and only) goals against Haiti and Canada were scored by wingbacks advancing deep into enemy territory, the former by the left-sided Vines and the latter via his opposite number Moore. The 3-4-2-1 and 5-3-2 looks have also showcased the skill set of James Sands, a cerebral distributor who’s ideally suited for the central defender spot that was such a challenge for Jones six years ago.
“You don’t always have the opportunity to play three in the back, but he gives you that option, certainly,” said Berhalter after the 6-1 rout of Martinique, where Sands shined in his first senior international start. “So really proud of James, proud of the way he's performed in both of the games, and he's been fun to work with so far.”
With Berhalter having admitted almost from the jump that this roster is short on wingers – the most experienced of which, Paul Arriola, has been sidelined by a hamstring issue – a move back to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 would likely require using at least one striker, the likes of Matthew Hoppe or Nicholas Gioacchini, in a wide spot.
However, the Yanks have lost their most experienced center back, Walker Zimmerman, to a hamstring injury, leaving a green group of Sands, Miles Robinson, Donovan Pines and possibly the New England Revolution’s Henry Kessler, who along with forward Cade Cowell has joined the USMNT camp but has not been added to their official roster – at least not yet. Going with four in the back would probably pair Sands and Robinson, while a three-back would require Pines or Kessler to start.
Jamaica’s approach is also a factor. The Reggae Boyz have fielded a 4-4-2 twice and a 4-2-3-1 once in this tournament, and fullbacks Alvas Powell and Amari'i Bell seem tempting targets for the overlaps and overloads that Berhalter’s philosophy seeks to impose on opponents. Conversely, the Caribbean side tends to offer pace in abundance up top and along the flanks, which could increase the risks of transition moments when the Yanks throw numbers forward.
“Playing in a 3-5-2, 5-3-2, whatever you want to call it, we just like to cover as much of the field as possible, and in that formation it helps the backline cover the width of the field,” said Vines in a Wednesday media availability. “Going forward, we're just trying to get into the attack as much possible. Obviously Shaq likes to go forward, I like to go forward. But the priority is to win the game. Whether that’s us defending or going forward, it's kind of just whatever we need to do to help the team.”
Up top, Daryl Dike and Gyasi Zardes were paired against Canada, and those two didn’t show much chemistry, perhaps no great surprise given their lack of match time together. The US will have to evaluate whether the best form of both individuals and the collective can be unlocked with a lone No. 9 or a duo.
In central midfield, perhaps the deepest part of this roster, Berhalter has the option of a trio like Acosta, Gianluca Busio and Sebastian Lletget – Eryk Williamson has been promising in his limited minutes, too – or a twin setup in a flatter midfield setup. He’s also had a full week of training sessions with which to weigh and prepare.
So it’s decision time, both for Berhalter and his staff. Starting on Sunday evening, the margins for error erode considerably.
“We've got to be able to adapt and implement different things. These two formations showed that obviously, we have some strengths there and some weaknesses. But we’ve got to move forward,” said Acosta on Wednesday. “We definitely can fine-tune some things on both ends for either formation.”