AMSTERDAM – While congratulations must go all around for the US national team reaching the decisive CONCACAF Hexagonal round, the reality is improvement is needed if they are to navigate their way out of it and reach the 2014 World Cup.
With the exception of the campaign ahead of the 2002 World Cup, the USMNT generally tends to sail through the next-to-last round. Four years ago, they clinched advancement with two games to spare, winning five of six third-round games with a 14-3 goal differential.
They certainly did not cruise this time, so Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff must, to some extent, alter course. There's probably no need to be alarmist ahead of the always tricky “Hex,” but a few tweaks are necessary to get wind back in the team's sails.
There's no way to be cute about it: The center back stable needs to be solidified. Unlike in some quarters, it says here that raiding defensive midfield stock is absolutely not the way.
There's almost nothing to be done about the inevitable burglar that is age or repeated injuries, the combo that's harmed the Carlos Bocanegra-Oguchi Onyewu partnership that many expected would be leading the way during these World Cup qualifiers. Form issues are plaguing longtime No. 3 Clarence Goodson and Tim Ream, while there are clearly forward types that give handymen Geoff Cameron and Michael Parkhurst a struggle.
All in all, it's past time to start graduating the next class. To put it mildly, the team needs to see Matt Besler, George John and especially Omar Gonzalez. We need to see them now, and we need to see them as often as possible by time the Hex starts in February.
Go back to the book
From last fall to the 5-1 friendly drubbing of Scotland, Klinsmann appeared to have the team gradually finding their way in the new, more aggressive tactical set-up detailed in US Soccer youth technical director Claudio Reyna's (pictured, right) 2011 curriculum.
The boss wasn't always matching the called-for 4-3-3 formation, but he generally kept faith with a related shape and several facets of the play directives in the book were improving. Even through their third-round qualifying struggles, the US still insisted on playing out of the back, one of the key changes.
After losing 4-1 to Brazil, though, previously encouraging parts of the new way started disappearing. Klinsmann reverted to the "empty bucket" midfield for a disappointing draw with Canada before fielding as many holding-midfield types as natural attackers (three each) in disappointing qualifiers against Guatemala and Jamaica. The result was that scoring chances became too rare, despite sizable advantages in possession.
The last two games were made much harder than they needed to be by a predictably headache-inducing “vertical spine” look, but at least the attack balance was restored. The team responded with five goals after hitting just six (three of which came against lowly Antigua and Barbuda) in the first four third-round matches.
Long story short, the coach would do well to get back to his original revolutionary program. He seems to have put too much pressure on himself to be clever – something that comes easier when you don't try to force it by policy. Besides, the guy was a striker. He should manage like it.
Play the wild card
There are few better maneuvers than unleashing something the opposition isn't prepared for into the attack, and few better times to pull the trick than when the chips are on the line.
Stateside fans know this well, with John O'Brien becoming a key guy during the 2002 qualifiers and Eddie Johnson terrorizing the region in 2006. Four years ago, archrivals Mexico started integrating Gio dos Santos into the senior side to great effect during the latter stages of qualifying.
This time around, Klinsmann has some options who'd love to fit the bill. And that's not including Terrence Boyd, who has already been seen by a couple CONCACAF foes, but remains a partially-sleeved potential ace.
Uncapped Molde FK winger Josh Gatt (pictured, right) is the obvious choice, equipped with the rocket pace and derring-do to frighten almost any defense. Rosenborg midfield engine Mikkel Diskerud has yet to show his final-third touch in CONCACAF waters.