World Cup: Central defense spots no guarantee as Jurgen Klinsmann sizes up backline vs. Mexico

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Jurgen Klinsmann doesn’t deal in guarantees. The German is more of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of manager.

So even though Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez were Klinsmann’s preferred center-back pairing for much of a record-breaking 2013, that doesn’t mean the duo can afford to rest on their laurels ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Brazil.

That’s especially true after a near flawless first half against Mexico on Wednesday went downhill quickly during the second 45 minutes. Gonzalez, in particular, fell victim to a crafty set-piece pick that allowed Rafa Márquez to pull El Tri within one then lost sight of Alan Pulido at the back post on the forward’s 67th-minute equalizer.

“We told the players to be alert from the first minute of the second half, but they were not,” Klinsmann said in his postgame press conference. “It took them too long to get back into the game, and then some mistakes that you can’t make in terms of how you concede the goals. So you take that away, you know you have to work on those things.”

And what’s that mean when it comes to the competition for starting places with Brazil now just two months away?

“Naturally, it’s open,” Klinsmann said. “How much it’s difficult to say.”

Normally a weapon on both sides of the ball in dead-ball situations, Gonzalez turned in the kind of first-half performance that’s established the LA Galaxy Designated Player as clear first choice.

But just one lapse can be fatal at the international level, and Márquez was able to sow confusion between Gonzalez and Kyle Beckerman just four minutes after halftime. The result? A corner-kick goal – shockingly, Márquez’s first-ever against the US – that swung momentum in El Tri’s favor.

“On that play, me and Kyle were talking and I said, ‘Hey, they’re going to pick me, so we have to switch,’” Gonzalez told reporters postgame. “We just haven’t practiced enough set pieces, and I was picked and we weren’t able to switch.”

“I’ve got to a bastard in [the box],” he added. “The only tough part is that you don’t want to be too handsy, because then you get called for the PK.”

The US weathered the storm until Pulido tucked away the rebound from Paul Aguilar’s shot off Nick Rimando’s right post, but the pressure on the backline was ramped up during the second period with Gonzalez and 59th-minute substitute Clarence Goodson forced to put out repeated fires.

“When we gave up an early goal in the second half, the game plan is kind of out the window a little bit,” Goodson said. They’re a team that plays on momentum. … We had a lot to deal with, to be honest, in the second half. If we’re being honest, we were scrambling a little bit at times.”

And while the US survived against Mexico, it’s unlikely that Ghana, Portugal or Germany would have failed to capitalize on similarly sustained pressure.

That’s certainly reason for concern with the World Cup approaching, but Klinsmann remained confident that a first-choice partnership – whether it be Gonzalez and Besler or one or both of Goodson and Geoff Cameron – will emerge before group play opens on June 16 in Natal.

“I will bring into camp more players than 23 in order to see what stage they are, how long they can maintain that focus, that alertness,that sharpness that you need on international level,” Klinsmann said. “It’s normal that they struggle right now because they’ve barely started the season.

“… We are patient in the process. Obviously in two months from now, I will make the decisions of who’s going to be the ideal pairing of the two center backs.”