Right now we appear to be in the darkest US soccer timeline. The U-23s just got rolled by Honduras in Olympic qualifying, the USMNT were bossed in a 3-2 loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup, and the guy who's arguably our best player is on a plane headed back to Germany after falling out with coach Jurgen Klinsmann:
Klinsmann sent Fabian Johnson home -- coach unhappy Johnson removed himself in extra time of U.S.-Mexico despite not being injured. #usmnt— Doug McIntyre (@DougMacESPN) October 12, 2015
There are two ways to look at that reporting from Doug. First is "Who wants a player, no matter how talented, who doesn't have what it takes to run through a ****ing wall against Mexico if that's what it takes to win?"
And that's reasonable, in its mildly psychotic way.
The other way to look at it is this: Fabian Johnson just came off a lengthy and lingering calf injury, and played 110 minutes in stifling heat at a position (right back) that is not his best (he's a left winger for his club team, Borussia Moenchengladbach).
Johnson has repeatedly had muscle problems following Klinsmann camps, which puts him in good company. Jermaine Jones suffered and played through a hernia this past January, and hasn't really been the same since. Clint Dempsey has had a series of muscle injuries at and since the Gold Cup, and Aron Johannsson pulled his adductor back in September at US camp (then played through it).
UPDATE: Johnson's club, Borussia Monchengladbach, says that he is currently back in Germany undergoing treatment for a "thigh injury."
And of course there were the series of hamstring strains, pulls and tears suffered during last summer's World Cup. Guys get hurt, guys can't move, guys become a liability out on the field.
So perhaps Johnson's willingness to sub himself out should be commended. He was clearly worn out by late in regulation, and made zero effort to track Oribe Peralta on Mexico's second goal, which came five minutes into extra time:
Landon Donovan said in the lead-up to the World Cup that he was too old, too worn out physically to go 100 percent at Klinsmann's camps, and was pacing himself so he'd be fresh for the tournament. And then he was dropped. Matt Besler challenged Klinsmann's notions about fitness this past January, and he was exiled for most of this calendar year.
Johnson is the latest casualty of that ethos.
Regardless, there is a game to play on Tuesday against Costa Rica (6:30 pm ET; ESPN | WatchESPN | UniMas | UDN), and there are a few simple things I'd like to see:
1. Play to the Strengths of a Creator
Michael Bradley has been Klinsmann's preferred No. 10 over the past two years, and has delivered goals, assists, and tireless work on both sides of the ball. Bradley can put a 70-yard pass on a dime, has an excellent eye for a through-ball, and is capable of making surging, one-man runs through the midfield to generate chances for himself.
What he isn't is a trick-foot wizard, a guy who just skins defenders 1-v-1 around the box. Lee Nguyen, who's earned a call for this one, is that, and the US should play to that strength:
The US need to get Nguyen on the ball in the final third. If he's dropping deep to pick it up off the defenders (as Bradley often does), the US are in trouble.
2. Bobby Wood is CONCACAF tough?
Here's what a former USMNT'er said to me on Monday:
"Chris Klein used to play every game for us against CONCACAF teams, because he could be a son of a *****. And we needed him to do that. And then the World Cup came and it was 'Thanks Chris, see you later,' and I'm not sure we have that in this bunch."
The unspoken implication is that the current USMNT group is softer than previous generations, which is difficult to argue with given the way they were bossed by the likes of Haiti, Honduras and Panama this summer (and it's discouraging to see the U-23s suffer from the same thing).
Bobby Wood, however, looks both relentless and un-intimidate-able. He puts pressure on opposing defenses with his movement off the ball, and is willing to take a beating (so far) on it as well.
I hope we get to see Wood from the start. It's only a friendly, of course, but Ticos will be Ticos, and the lumps Wood takes now can pay dividends when it's time for World Cup qualifying.
3. Figure Out the Defensive Spacing
Costa Rica haven't been great since the World Cup, but they still pose real, tactical problems for whoever they line up against. Like Mexico they'll probably play two tucked-in wingers around a center forward, and like Mexico they'll get a ton of their attacking initiative from their wingbacks.
The US have to come out and meet those wingbacks early, or tuck in and just force cross after cross after cross. Against Mexico on Saturday, Klinsmann's gang never really figured that out.
But now it's time. The Gold Cup and Confederations Cup is gone, Olympic dreams are fading, and World Cup qualifying starts next month.
If solutions aren't found, this could be a very short, very unhappy World Cup cycle.