Back in June of 2015, the US men's national team were plowing through friendlies en route to a date at that summer's Gold Cup. They cycled through lineups and formations, backline pairings and fullbacks. They downplayed results good and bad, and went into the tournament – which they hosted – with high expectations.
The last friendly in prep for last year's tournament was against Guatemala, the 93rd-ranked team by FIFA at the time. The US wiped them out, 4-0.
Then came the Gold Cup itself, in which the US were wiped out. They were consistently outshot and out-played by the likes of Honduras and Haiti, and eventually lost in the semifinals to Jamaica. Then they lost again in the third place game to Panama, which wrapped up the most miserable US showing in the continental competition this century.
On Saturday night the US faced 79th-ranked Bolivia in the final tune-up friendly before this summer's Copa America. Once again it was a wipeout, with the US pummeling a weak foe by the score of 4-0, and once again it came with a new formation, a new lineup... and high expectations. Jurgen Klinsmann isn't expecting to win, but he wants a semifinal showing (I think that's a fair place to set the bar).
Like last year, there are red flags that suggest this result was some kind of false positive. Like last year, there is a combination of young and veteran talent that seems to fit well together. Like last year, there is every reason to suspect that Klinsmann will undercut his roster's strengths by playing certain players out of position and others through injuries.
Unlike last year, however, I think there is real reason to be positive about this group. For the last 135 minutes – against admittedly weak competition – the US have figured out the shape of their midfield and used it to good effect. That is a vast departure from previous iterations of Klinsmann's national team.
Here's a look at the midfield, the forwards and the (still worrisome) defense:
Bradley Where He Belongs
The big difference between the two teams – this year's US and last year's – is the presence of Michael Bradley as the defensive midfielder. No offense to Kyle Beckerman or any of the other options, but Bradley's a cut-and-a-half above thanks partially to his speed and mostly to his range of passing with either foot.
Here he is picking up a secondary assist:
That is where Bradley operates best, sitting deep with multiple options ahead of him (remember the Julian Green goal at the World Cup?). More importantly, by playing as a true defensive midfielder tasked with shielding the backline and spreading the ball around, he's not asked to take turns swapping spots with Jermaine Jones.
Klinsmann has put Bradley into a box with a specific role, and it is glorious. At the same time, putting Bradley in that box has allowed Jones to seek and destroy and link play all over the pitch. Jones is the team's id, and Bradley its superego. The third leg of the midfield tripod in this one was Alejandro Bedoya – always smart, always in the right position, always perfectly suited to be the sidekick in any piece of play, the ego that connects the id and superego.
Add in the likes of Beckerman and Darlington Nagbe off the bench, and this is the deepest and most balanced US midfield at least since 2002, and quite probably ever.
I mean, Nagbe off the bench:
No previous US coach has ever had a game-changer like that to call upon. The pieces are all there, and they all fit.
And Klinsmann has finally showed signs he understands how to deploy them.
The Unusual Three
With the midfield sorted, the front three in this team's 4-3-3 has become more functional and effective, though I still have plenty of reservations. Bobby Wood (a forward) and Gyasi Zardes (a forward) started on the flanks, while Clint Dempsey (a second striker) started at center forward.
The US's bread and butter has become the type of interchange we saw on the game's opener, the first of two Zardes scored on the evening. Dempsey is naturally inclined to drop back toward the ball, changing the 4-3-3 to more of a diamond midfield with him as a back-to-goal No. 10. When the ball is being possessed on the right side of the field, that is Zardes's signal to dive inside and make a forward's run instead of a winger's run:
Dempsey tries to get into that spot early, and force the defenders either to A) step with him, or B) hold back and let him receive the ball, then turn. Most MLS teams realize it's best to let Dempsey do the latter, but Bolivia obviously weren't watching a ton of Sounders games ahead of this one.
While Zardes has taken to this role with aplomb – not surprising given his surfeit of attacking roles with the Galaxy – Wood has struggled to leave an imprint. He doesn't instinctively curve his runs, instead preferring to go direct to goal.
And – this is important – neither guy is a chance creator. They don't really link play and often struggle to present themselves to the midfield in build-up:
That's a network passing graph made using Opta data. The circles represent the aggregate position of each player's every touch, while the thickness of the lines connecting players represents the number of passes exchanged between each.
If Wood and Zardes are on the wings, whoever is playing center forward (whether it's Dempsey or someone else) shouldn't expect a ton of traditional interplay with those guys.
That, of course, puts the onus on the fullbacks to overlap...
Lost In Space
If Bradley as a No. 6 is the single best thing to take out of these friendlies, then Klinsmann's apparently settling upon a No. 1 pairing in central defense is a close second. Geoff Cameron is an English Premier League veteran and John Brooks is a Bundesliga veteran, and one's right footed and one's left footed, and both start for their clubs, and both are World Cup veterans, and... I mean it's really that easy, right?
OK, well. Maybe it's that easy now. Hopefully.
Fullback is a different discussion, even though Klinsmann is mostly spoiled for choice. He started a pair of center backs out wide in this one, with Matt Besler on the left and Michael Orozco on the right. They predictably failed to leave much of an imprint pushing forward:
Besler is #5, and Orozco #14. Green lines are completed passes, and red incomplete. Both were OK at supporting the team in possession, but there were several bad turnovers that a better team would have punished, and it was pretty clear that both guys weren't playing their natural spots.
It looks like DeAndre Yedlin – another Premier League starter – and Fabian Johnson will be the starters when the US face Colombia next week (9:30 pm ET, FS1). Yedlin is obviously the right choice; Johnson, who starts on the wing in the Bundesliga, is still a liability at fullback.
Thanks to Ben Jata for clipping the following sequence for me:
With play occurring down the right side, why is Johnson pushed up so high on the left? He's wildly out of position in case of a turnover, and even if said turnover happens just one time in 10... well, against a team like Colombia, Costa Rica or even Paraguay (who are dire), that type of space is deadly to concede.
The beauty of the back four is its flexibility. When one fullback overlaps, the other stays back and slides central in order to help the central defenders and make certain the team keeps defensive shape. If both fullbacks overlap on the same play... I mean, that's the equivalent of putting the pedal all the way down on your brand new sports car. It's got to be thrilling, but it's a deadly risk.
And at the same time: Johnson is a winger! He's a playmaker and a creator and a guy who can provide the type of linking among the front three that Zardes and Wood didn't/don't/haven't. Pushing him up into his natural spot would give the US both more creativity and a more solid backline.
Is this progress?
Sort of. The US are playing their best soccer in two years and have a deeper roster than any previous coach has had to call upon (I haven't even mentioned Christian Pulisic yet, right?). Their best player is finally in his best spot, the midfield is finally balanced, and the central defense finally has a go-to pair.
Of course beating Bolivia isn't a reason to celebrate:
Any celebration should come after a quality, front-foot performance in the group stage and a win the quarters. From 1994 through 2010 the US beat the likes of Colombia, Argentina, Germany, Portugal, Spain and – of course – Mexico in games that really mattered. Since 2011, however, results like that are nowhere to be found.
The fans have a right to ask for a return to those days. And the coach, if he looks at his roster and (finally) makes the right choices, has the goods to deliver it to them.