The real era – for lack of a better description – of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure begins in earnest on Saturday. The coach has made it clear that the last nine months have been about experimentation, not results, but that from here on out, scoreboard matters.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the stock watch heading into what’s been billed as a “five-game tournament,” keeping in mind that it’s the last two matches that really count.
Stock Up: Common Sense
Say what you want about his initial 27-man roster – I’ll certainly do so in a bit – but when starting from that particular group, the cuts Klinsmann made on Friday morning made sense. We’re now down to a healthy four defensive midfielders instead of six, and two of those guys (Jermaine Jones – central defense; Michael Bradley – right flank/central midfield) have real versatility at the club and international level.
Behind the Crest: The Five-Game Tournament
Even Maurice Edu can act as an advanced destroyer, as he did against Italy. It’s not his best spot, and his time with Rangers has absolutely stunted his development, but he’s there if we need him. The only one left who’s really a d-mid only is Kyle Beckerman, and given how good he’s been with the US, it’s absolutely appropriate for him to be on the final roster.
Stock Down: The 4-3-3
Tried it a few times. Didn’t work.
And to Klinsmann’s credit, he’s ever-so-slowly crept toward a system that maximizes the talent he has on hand. His team’s two best results have been the 3-2 win over Slovenia (the US played a 4-3-1-2) and, of course, the 1-0 win over Italy (the US played a 4-4-1-1). In both instances the goal was to get Clint Dempsey higher into the attack, and in both cases it worked.
Would that happen in a 4-3-3? Probably not. Dempsey’s best spot in that formation would be wide on the left as an inverted winger – think Ronaldo at Real Madrid – who can count on service early, often, into space and in isolation. The only way that would happen is if Klinsmann put together a three-man midfield that could be counted on to dominate possession and create chances in volume.
(And for what it's worth, Dempsey's out of the Scotland match through injury, anyway).
That is simply not going to happen with the guys he’s called. It could, of course; a midfield trio of Bradley sweeping behind Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan would be the most creative and exciting the US have ever fielded, and the fact that the latter two aren’t involved leaves me numb.
So this ain’t no revolution. What we have here is much closer to Bora Milutinovic-like pragmatism. Could be worse, of course, but I can’t shake the feeling that it could be a whole lot better as well.
Stock Up: The Second Forward
I am unabashedly a fan of the 4-1-3-2 (or 4-3-1-2) for teams of limited technical ability, a category into which the US fits snugly. It’s pragmatic in that teams which master the 4-3-3 have a higher ceiling, but on the international level that list begins with Spain at No. 1 and ends with Germany at No. 2. Klinsmann’s US are somewhere floating in the abyss after that, occasionally bumping into confused Englishmen, angry Argentines and surly French.
Three keys to Scotland
So I’m quite pleased to see Jozy Altidore (and Terrence Boyd, who could get the start on Saturday) in camp to be the true No. 9s, while Chris Wondolowski and Herculez Gomez are there to – I hope – run off of them, get onto the end of knock-down, sneak to the back post, and generally get goals the same way we’ve seen them get goals for their clubs.
It’s reductionist, but I don’t care. Reductionism works because it eliminates a boatload of possible complications.
Stock Down: Wide Play
The only guys on the team who play wide midfield on a regular basis for their clubs are Landon Donovan, Herculez Gomez and Edgar Castillo. Donovan I have no doubts about at either right or left midfield despite his recent (refreshingly candid) navel-gazing; Gomez produced gaudy goals-per-minute totals with Santos from a right wing spot in their 4-2-3-1 this season, but is coming off an injury and wasn’t often asked to take part in building chances, just finishing them.
Castillo was a cipher offensively when he last wore a US shirt, and is listed as a defender now (he played as a wingback for Tijuana). His club teammate, Joe Corona, is more a guy who can play on the wing than a guy who should. Same with Fabian Johnson, who was a revelation at left back for both Hoffenheim and the US over the last five months, and simply needs to be played there.
This is another area where Feilhaber’s absence – he played left flank exquisitely in the 2010 World Cup, and has been one of the league’s best for the Revs – galls. And why DaMarcus Beasley was left home I cannot begin to suss out.
Stock Up: José Francisco Torres
Torres is a nifty little player, a true No. 8 whose best attribute is that he makes the guys around him better when he’s on the ball. He told the ExtraTime Radio gang on Thursday that Klinsmann wants “every pass to go through me.” He’s been set up to be the second coming of Claudio Reyna, in other words.
But here’s a simple fact: Torres has eight starts in the Red, White and Blue, and the US are 0-6-2 in those games. That includes the World Cup match against Slovenia, in which he was subbed for Feilhaber.
So that’s it, then – Klinsmann has pushed all his chips in on Torres. With no Feilhaber, no Kljestan and Graham Zusi sent back to Kansas City, there are no other real answers if “El Gringo” can’t be the man to control the pace of the game in central midfield.
It’s the first real gamble of the Klinsmann era. And if it doesn’t make you nervous, you simply haven’t been paying attention.