Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward. – Kurt Vonnegut
Following Tuesday night's 1-0 loss to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, the US national team have now won just once in their last six games against CONCACAF opponents. That sole victory came against Cuba – minnows who are already eliminated from World Cup qualifying – while the other results have come against Panama (a draw in the Gold Cup group stage and a PK shootout loss in the third-place game), Jamaica (the Gold Cup semifinal defeat) and Mexico (Saturday's reckoning).
This should give you pause, US fans, as Jurgen Klinsmann et al. embark upon what they hope is a World Cup journey. There will be no easy points to be found from here on out.
"St. Vincent & the Grenadines look like easy meat," you say. And I respond, "So did Antigua & Barbuda last time through, and the US needed late heroics from Alan Gordon to beat them."
Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago are a step up in quality from those teams, and that step is one the US have recently been unable to make.
So I think it's premature to start talking about whether or not the US are good enough to finish in the top three in the Hexagonal. Before they punch a ticket to Russia, they've got to fight through the upcoming fourth round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, which starts in a month.
Right now there are more questions than answers:
1. Creative Loss
There are two real problems with the US when it comes to the lack of scoring chances produced. First is that Klinsmann prefers to play without any creative types in midfield, relying on speed and brawn and physicality to get traction in the attacking third.
Think about the types of chances the US created against Mexico. It was either a set piece, or a long-ball, or a 50-yard Michael Bradley run into the box. There were no combinations around the box, and no danger created out of using the ball through possession. While there is no one player who can solve this issue, guys like Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan have been useful at the national-team level in the past, and Lee Nguyen had 15 good-ish minutes on Tuesday.
Nguyen – a natural No. 10 who's been one of the league's best chance creators over the last few years – was played at left midfield for his cameo against the Ticos. But he still managed to cut inside and get dangerous a couple of times:
In a just world, that's a foul and a dangerous free kick, and any way you slice it, that's a creative player putting a defense under pressure in the most dangerous spot on the field.
We don't see much of that these days.
What we do see a lot of are other issues currently hurting the US...
2. Wingless Wonders
That whole US attack is so horribly narrow, which speaks to Klinsmann's propensity for playing central midfielders out wide (Jermaine Jones just went 120 minutes against Mexico, right?).
By making those personnel choices, the US invite opposing defenses to stay central and compact, and it begs for a Messi-esque act of sorcery from the US attackers. Nguyen's fun to watch, and so are Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes, but none of them is that. Neither is Bradley, neither is Jones and neither is whatever hot new prospect you're thinking of at the youth level.
The US have to attack with width. Here's where it gets tricky, because DeAndre Yedlin has had a number of excellent attacking moments from out wide. However it's important to understand how those moments differ from what a true winger brings to the table.
I'll let Kyle Martino take it away:
Yedlin at his best is a "two options pick the best one" player. Struggles in a " 0 options create 2 and pick the best one" position.— Kyle Martino (@kylemartino) October 14, 2015
Yedlin's going to beat his guy for pace, and he's proved to be an excellent crosser, and he can lay a ball on for a forward making a good run. When the game is happening right in front of him, he can keep up with it and affect to the good – which is exactly what the world expects of a modern, attacking fullback.
But when he's on the wing, with the US on the front foot in possession? He doesn't understand how to make himself dangerous off the ball, and he's not the type to combine in and around the area to good effect.
I'm not trying to pick on Yedlin here, because he's been and remains one of 2015's few bright spots for the US. He's just not a real attacking problem-solver and isn't likely to become one.
There are others, though. Players Klinsmann should've looked at by now:
Meanwhile Mix and Nguyen on bench, Feilhaber and Kljestan out of picture... and fullbacks as wingers, while no Finlay / Lletget @MLSAnalyst— Bhaskar (@xbhaskarx) October 13, 2015
3. The Hole
This is where it gets really freaking bleak for me. The best thing Klinsmann did for the US was (mostly) scrap the central midfield "pulley system" in which there's no true defensive midfielder. Instead, that system offers two side-by-side, box-to-box midfielders who operate – defensively and otherwise – as if they're on a pulley. When one moves up, the other moves back. When one drops deep, the other presses high. Et cetera.
In theory, the pulley system is supposed to give the back line greater protection. In reality it usually causes the exact problem it's supposed to prevent, exposing the entire team in Zone 14:
That's the US going back to the pulley system on Tuesday, and that's Danny Williams failing to read the play and keep up with the danger. Williams isn't really suited to a hybrid role, and given his struggles handling the ball under pressure, I'm not sure he's suited to a pure No. 6's role, either. I could see him playing as a far-ranging destroyer, but in that situation it'd have to be alongside another midfielder specifically tasked with back-line protection and distribution.
Regardless, it now looks like Klinsmann has undone what was previously the best tactical decision of his tenure.
A few more things...
4. You know who's a true winger who understands where and how to move off the ball and can create danger both with and without it? Fabian Johnson.
3. We should see more of Wood because of his engine and fearlessness.
2. The central defense was disappointing, especially once Ventura Alvarado came on. He doesn't take good angles to cut out service, which is kind of an important thing to do when teams are attacking down the flanks.
1. This is now how most US fans feel:
Would like to see one 3 player combination, with good movement on and off the ball. Just one.— Janusz Michallik (@JanuszMichallik) October 14, 2015
I understand the players deserve some blame. But soccer is a team game, and teamwide creativity born of repetition and familiarity is what the goal should be for the US.
With players played out of position, with no true creators in the mix, with lineups constantly chopped and changed, no one has had a legitimate chance to build that kind of chemistry. Klinsmann has been more mad scientist than manager, and the genetically engineered zombie chickens are coming home to roost.