Stejskal: Searching for a US identity in wake of Copa America Centenario

From a broad point of view, the US’s run at the Copa America Centenario was a mild success.

They beat the teams they should’ve beat, they lost three matches against more talented sides and ended the tournament in fourth-place. From 30,000 feet, those results would be gladly accepted by most American soccer fans – perhaps some would even be proud.

But this isn’t a broad view. Reality on the ground is far, far different.

Yes, the US won their matches against Costa Rica, Paraguay and Ecuador. At times, they even looked good in the process.

But those losses. Oh, those losses.

Despite Jurgen Klinsmann’s claims to the contrary, the US were objectively bad in their opening game defeat to Colombia. They rebounded with a formation switch and victories in their next three matches, but any goodwill they built up with those wins was shattered in the semis. The US were downright awful in their capitulation against Argentina, a match that vaulted American soccer’s collective consciousness into that all-too-familiar pit of exasperated snark, finger pointing and despair.

The Argentina defeat was a very public shaming. There is a significant talent deficit between the US and La Albiceleste, but that 4-0 mauling was about far more than a skill gap. The US have good enough players to at least compete with teams like Argentina. But they don’t have a clear tactical identity. Without one, they’ll continue to get blown away by the world’s best.

Thankfully, I think we saw the beginnings of an identity after Klinsmann switched to a 4-4-2 midway through the first half of the US’s 4-0 win against Costa Rica. As we saw in the Argentina match, it obviously needs a little more time to marinate.

Firming up an identity is the No. 1 item on my USMNT wish-list ahead of the final fourth-round World Cup qualifiers in September and (barring a total meltdown in those matches) the start of the Hexagonal in November. More on that, and a few other things I’m hoping for from the US, is below:

Establish an identity

A couple of weeks ago, before England completed their political, economic and sporting exit from Europe, now-former Three Lions manager Roy Hodgson made this proclamation:

“Systems win you nothing. Football players win you games.”

That quote looks just a little bit silly in the wake of England’s 2-1 loss to Iceland (tiny, impossible not to love Iceland) in the UEFA Euro Round of 16 on Monday. Iceland, who have a population of less than 350,000, are the ultimate “system” team at the Euros. They know they don’t have the individual talent of most of the other teams in France, but they know exactly who they are. They’re committed defensively, dangerous on set pieces and on the counter and, as a result, wildly confident.

On Monday, Iceland’s XI didn’t panic when they went down after an early penalty, equalizing two minutes later before taking the lead in the 18th. They were stout for the duration of the game, severely limiting an English team that had no identity, no creativity and no idea of how they should be playing.

Even with all of that, England probably wins Monday’s match nine times out of 10. Talent usually carries the day. But by having an identity and understanding each other, Iceland (who, it should be noted, have some very talented players of their own) gave themselves a chance.

The US used to have an identity, an understanding of how they wanted to play. That identity didn’t always net the Americans wins against world-class opposition, but it usually gave them a shot.

They haven’t had any sort of ironclad identity under Klinsmann, and it’s repeatedly cost them against more talented opponents. We saw it in the 2014 World Cup against Belgium (a game that could have been a bloodbath if not for some serious heroics from Tim Howard) and we saw it again in the opener against Colombia, who knew the US couldn't trouble them after an early goal, and in the semis against Argentina.

Some of that may come down to Klinsmann’s stated desire to play a more proactive style, something that doesn’t really jibe with a sit-deep-and-counter mentality. But that may be a bit too kind. After all, having an identity doesn’t mean you have to necessarily play the same way every match. You can come out aggressive against lesser foes, and play a more defensive style against world-class opposition. As long as the players are drilled for both situations and have an understanding of what they should be doing in each, the US should have what it takes to compete with absolutely everyone.

But they don’t have that identity at the moment. I think they have a shot at developing one with the 4-4-2 Klinsmann shifted to during the Copa. Until they do establish an identity, regardless of what shape it comes in, the US won’t have much of a shot of ever overcoming the talent gap and getting a result (in official competition) against the world’s best teams.

Out with the old, in with the new

Enough about identity. I’d like for the Copa America Centenario to serve as a bit of a turning point for the makeup of the US roster. I’m a big fan of Chris Wondolowski, Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi, but it’s probably time for Klinsmann to give the next generation a shot to take their places.

We won’t know exactly what we have in players like Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic and Perry Kitchen until they’re given an extended run out on the international stage. I’m not saying those players should necessarily supplant any regular starters, I’m just saying it’s time to give them a chance when one of those regulars misses time due to injury or suspension, as Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones both did against Argentina or in a third-place game that was the sixth game in a little more than three weeks for the US.

Move Fabian Johnson to midfield

Fabian Johnson is one of the US’s best field players, not that you’d know it if you only watch him when he’s with the USMNT. One of the best wingers in the Bundesliga with Borussia Moenchengladbach, Johnson primarily plays out of position as a left back with the USMNT.

He’s more than serviceable on the back line, but the US could really, really use him higher up the field. There are capable alternatives at fullback, too. Matt Besler showed he’s an option against Ecuador, Edgar Castillo is the starting left back for one of the top teams in Mexico and Eric Lichaj (who didn’t make the Copa America roster) has been a steady presence in England’s top two divisions for years. Give one of them a shot -- or find another candidate -- and let Johnson do his thing where he feels most comfortable.

Stick with the Brooks-Cameron center back pairing

One of the most positive developments from the Copa America was Klinsmann choosing and sticking with the John Brooks-Geoff Cameron center-back pairing. Aside from the Argentina match and a moment or two against Colombia, both players were excellent at the tournament. They complement each other nicely, have a solid understanding with each other and form the backbone of a US defense that (again, Argentina game notwithstanding) was pretty stingy this summer.

Keeping them together to allow them to further build their chemistry through qualifying, potentially the 2017 Gold Cup and into Russia in 2018 is as obvious as it is important. It has to be done.

Open up the goalkeeper competition

Tim Howard and Brad Guzan have had the top two goalkeeper spots under lock and key for the better part of the last decade, but it’s getting to be time to scrap the depth chart. Both veterans are coming off of shaky club campaigns, and Guzan didn’t exactly acquit himself well against Argentina. They should each have a shot at the No. 1 spot, but Klinsmann can’t be afraid to move younger options like 21-year-old Ethan Horvath (the third ‘keeper at the Copa America) or Bill Hamid ahead of them if that’s what form dictates. 

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