Omar Gonzalez wins a header for the USMNT
USA Today Sports

Tempo-Free Soccer: Going through the numbers with Jurgen Klinsmann's USMNT defense | Gold Cup

In Jurgen Klinsmann’s first outing as the US coach in a 2011 “friendly” against rival Mexico featured a backline of Steve Cherundolo, Michael Orozco Fiscal, Carlos Bocanegra, and Edgar Castillo. Suffice to say, much has changed since that August night.

In particular, Klinsmann has had to find replacements for long time stalwarts Cherundolo and Bocanegra. We can see the changing personnel of the US defense by comparing the most used defenders during the first two years and the most recent two years of Klinsmann’s tenure (as measured by % of available caps, minimum 40%).

US Defense under Klinsmann
US Defense (2011-13) Cap % US Defense (2013-Present) Cap %
Geoff Cameron 59% Geoff Cameron 57%
Steve Cherundolo 59% Matt Besler 57%
Carlos Bocanegra 50% DaMarcus Beasley 52%
Clarence Goodson 50% Omar Gonzalez 48%
Fabian Johnson 45% Fabian Johnson 40%

Interestingly, Geoff Cameron has consistently been the most-used defender for the US in the last four years. He has featured all over the backline and even as a midfielder (those games were not counted in the defensive cap %).

The major sea change was from a Bocanegra-Goodson preferred tandem in the middle to the Gonzalez-Besler pairing so often seen in the past couple years. Without Besler or Cameron on the Gold Cup roster, however, it would not surprise to see John Brooks paired with Omar Gonzalez. And, although he has sometimes played in midfield, expect to see Fabian Johnson at left back and perhaps Timothy Chandler at right back as they were for the famous 2-1 friendly victory over Germany in Cologne.

It is a little difficult to pinpoint the American’s defensive style under Klinsmann, mostly because the wide range of opponents the USMNT face.  For example, just look at the stark differences in defensive statistics in the last two international competitions (2014 World Cup and 2013 Gold Cup).

USMNT Defense
Stat World Cup '14 Gold Cup '13
Crosses Per 90 Minutes 30.5 7.2
Clearances Per 90 Minutes 38.1 12.8
Shots Allowed Per 90 Minutes 20.8 7.8
Average Opponent ELO Ranking 14 77

In the 2013 Gold Cup the US faced mostly inferior competition and were able to control the game through the midfield by dominating possession. As a consequence, the defense often had very little to do.

By contrast the US backline was continuously under fire during the 2014 World Cup and despite the difficult circumstances, they performed admirably (with no small assist from Tim Howard).

A big reason why the US was able to withstand the assault was their organization. In particular, the team (read: Kyle Beckerman) did an excellent job of forcing their opposition’s attacks to the wings where most crosses met the heads of Gonzalez, Besler, and Cameron.

In a previous piece we looked at the cross:throughball ratio and what it means for team’s attacking strategies. In the 2014 World Cup the US opponents had a pretty high cross to throughball ratio (12.0), meaning that they were forced into more wide play than they probably would have liked.

Here is what that ratio looks like when compared to current MLS teams.  Remember, the higher ratio means more reliant on crosses.

USMNT Defense
Team Cross:Throughball
Philadelphia Union 23.0
Columbus Crew SC 17.3
San Jose Earthquakes 12.7
US World Cup Opponents 12.0
Houston Dynamo 12.0
D.C. United 9.6
Sporting Kansas City 9.4
Portland Timbers 8.0
Orlando City SC 7.7
Montreal Impact 7.3
Real Salt Lake 7.2
Chicago Fire 6.7
New England Revolution 6.7
LA Galaxy 5.7
New York Red Bulls 5.6
Vancouver Whitecaps 4.8
Seattle Sounders 4.2
Colorado Rapids 3.9
New York City FC 3.0
Toronto FC 2.2
FC Dallas 2.0

While the sample size is of course very small, it is perhaps one of the few indicators of a USMNT defensive style under Klinsmann. It’s worth noting that the US also employed this style of defense effectively against Mexico in each of its last two trips to the Azteca and may need to do so again should the regional foes meet in the Gold Cup.

The US begin the defense of their 2013 Gold Cup title on Tuesday night when they face Honduras in Frisco, Texas (9:30 pm ET; FoxSports 1 | UniMas | UDN).

Series: 

Stay connected: The official MLS app keeps you connected with the latest news, highlights, scores, standings, and analysis all for FREE. Download for iOS (Apple) or Download for Android