WASHINGTON – You'd really expect more against the No. 88-ranked team in the world, wouldn't you?
Yes, that's where New Zealand sit at present, sandwiched between fellow island nations Cyprus and Antigua & Barbuda. Not that you'd have known it by the trouble they posed on a crisp fall evening at RFK Stadium on Tuesday.
After keeping things relatively simple and straightforward over the past few months – and his team thereby prospering, more or less – Jurgen Klinsmann just couldn't resist an inviting chance to tinker against the All Whites. It nearly burned him in the sense that the Kiwis competed tenaciously and went close to snatching a late win, but it should also provide useful food for thought as he considers his options for two simply enormous World Cup qualifiers next month.
Here are three thoughts from the 1-1 draw:
Out went Friday's 4-4-2 vs. Cuba, and in came something close to an orthodox Dutch 4-3-3 for the US.
Some good things about this shape for the Yanks: It gives a true attacking mid like Sacha Kljestan friendly angles and options for creative play. It revolves around Jozy Altidore's strong hold-up play up top. It frees Michael Bradley to roam freely, find the ball and dictate tempo with a protector – in this case Perry Kitchen – next to him.
Some problems: It doesn't suit American forwards who are traditionally seen to have two-striker systems baked into their games. It demands a lot from the wingers, which is not generally an area of strength and depth for the USMNT. And Jozy all too often gets left on an island and drifts out of games as a result.
I saw a little bit of all these things unfold at RFK. The Bradley-Kitchen-Kljestan engine-room triangle got off to a slow start but caught on quickly and showed real promise. Jozy was up for the fight, but faded down the stretch, due in no small part to the excellence of New Zealand's commanding center back Winston Reid.
The Kiwis, for their part, threw out a 3-5-2 shape (it would be perfect preparation for Mexico if Piojo Herrera was still in charge of El Tri, and might yet give a glimpse of Costa Rica's plans) that troubled the US at times. Burly target man Chris Wood battled well up top and gave a preview of what Trinidad & Tobago's Kenwyne Jones will bring to the table later in the Hex.
Julian Grabs the Mic...
Probably no one improved their stock during this window more than Julian Green, who scored in both US games and brought the all-too-rare quality of 1-v-1 aggression on the ball. He was assertive, creative and industrious, and it may have earned him a spot on next month's roster.
We'll give Green the benefit of the doubt despite All Whites goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic being unsighted, flat-footed and generally unimpressive on the play.
Klinsmann is clearly thrilled with Green's efforts over the past 10 days.
“From the first day, every training session he went at people. We always told him, ‘Your strength is one against one. Your strength is taking people on, getting into the box, making something happen.’ And that’s what he did,” the coach said on Monday. “It’s kind of felt like he still has that stuff at the back of his mind. You don’t have to repeat it anymore, and now it’s really nice to see that.”
Kljestan also grabbed the eye, and might even be a bolted-on starter despite having only ended his international exile a few weeks ago. The Red Bulls man is connecting attack and defense for the US in a way that few have in the Klinsmann era.
...But the 'Keepers Fumble It
William Yarbrough got the start in goal, and nearly handed New Zealand a very early lead with a goalmouth spill that left his defense scrambling to clear. A few minutes later he dropped a set-piece delivery that could've proved catastrophic in a bigger game, even if he was bailed out by the ref's whistle. In general he looked jittery and insecure in his command of the box.
That appeared to open the door for David Bingham, who replaced him at halftime. But the Earthquakes 'keeper didn't exactly seize the chance with both hands, conceding a rather sloppy equalizer to Monty Patterson. Yes, it was a seeing-eye ball through a forest of legs in a crowded goal box...but he'll know he could've done better when he sees the video.
To his credit, Klinsmann reeled off the first eight names on his goalkeeping depth chart when asked about it this week. Tuesday's performances will have many fans second-guessing the order of that list; whether the coaching staff does the same remains to be seen.