Welcome to the Wednesday Q&A series, where we focus on one particular topic – today's being the USMNT – and ask you to react, share, and discuss in the comments section. However, feel free to ask about anything game-related (MLS, USL, NASL, USMNT, CanMNT, etc.) over the next several hours.
The US play two World Cup qualifiers over the next week, and they’re going to do so without one of the cornerstones of the program over the last decade — Clint Dempsey. Deuce is out indefinitely, and that means Jurgen Klinsmann has some stuff to figure out.
The biggest issue: Can this still be a 4-4-2 team without Dempsey?The US played much better this summer in that formation largely because Deuce was able to drop back into midfield, get on the ball, and help in possession at crucial times while running mate Bobby Wood stretched the field. Dempsey was a hybrid midfielder/forward in a way that neither Wood nor Jordan Morris (whose relative strengths and weaknesses are similar to Wood) really is.
Jozy Altidore’s not either, but he brings something those guys don’t: top-tier hold-up play and passing. That’s been the biggest change to his game over the past two years, and we’ve seen it on display again and again with TFC over the last month, as well as this past winter with the US. He’s able to beast guys 1v1 with his back to goal while still creating possession-positive moments, or even sending runners through on net. That's the perfect type of forward partner for Sebastian Giovinco:
I question, though, whether he can be the perfect partner for Wood or Morris, because even with his hold-up play and passing Jozy is still very much a true forward, as are those guys, and the simple fact is that most teams can’t afford to have two true forwards out there anymore. The 4-4-2 cedes numbers in the central midfield, a feature of the formation rather than a bug. Teams try to compensate for that by having one of the forwards drop deep and act as an ad hoc No. 10, morphing the 4-4-2 into a 4-5-1 and allowing long passages of play in which they're playing with even number in the midfield.
Giovinco does that for TFC. Robbie Keane does it for the LA Galaxy. Dempsey did it for the US, but that's — for the time-being, at least — very much a past-tense sentiment, and there's no obvious candidate to fill the role even though Wood and Altidore are both in their respective primes and playing very good soccer.
It's a question of fit, and how to make the team dangerous going forward without surrendering the midfield battle. If they lack that one guy who can switch roles in the run of play, 4-4-2 teams tend to let the opposition dictate the tempo of the game, and when that happens you get performances like the US had against Argentina this summer — entire games in which the front line is disconnected from the rest of the team and build-up play is non-existent.
The alternative is a 4-2-3-1, or perhaps a 4-3-3, but that's problematic for a number of reasons. First is that the US simply did not play as well in that formation this summer, and second is that Wood was much, much less effective from the wing than he was as a center forward. So was Morris when playing with the Sounders earlier this year, and I think we can all agree that we don't want to see Altidore on the wing, right?
The third problematic thing is that whole "goal-dangerous bit." To make the 4-2-3-1 or the 4-3-3 work you need at least one winger you can rely upon for consistent goal production, and there's little of that to be found in the current US player pool. Alejandro Bedoya, Graham Zusi and Darlington Nagbe have combined for eight goals in 103 USMNT appearances; Christian Pulisic and Paul Arriola both may be excellent, but Klinsmann's been hesitant to use Pulisic for some reason and Arriola is only a part-time starter with Club Tijuana. Rubio Rubin could perhaps factor in, but he has three goals in 38 professional games with FC Utrecht.
So in short: Going away from the 4-4-2 has traditionally meant stranding a lone center forward, while sticking with the 4-4-2 has traditionally left the central midfield short-handed against quality teams.
Obviously neither St. Vincent & the Grenadines nor T&T are that — the US should comfortably win both games no matter who’s playing, and no matter the formation. But “Can the US play a 4-4-2 without Dempsey?” and “Can Jozy & Wood, or Jozy & Morris, or Morris & Wood play up top together?” are questions Jurgen Klinsmann has to at least start to answer.
The Hexagonal, after all, is just two months away.
Good talk, Russ.