Sacha Kljestan - United States - close up
USA Today Sports Images

Armchair Analyst: Incremental change, not complete overhaul for USMNT

I will say this for Jurgen Klinsmann: He seems to have improved significantly at constructing a roster. He has improved both in short-term patching and long-term planning, and the team he's called in for friendlies against Cuba and New Zealand over the next two weeks shows as much.

His rosters still aren't perfect, but they don't need to be. They just need to show that he's identifying up-and-coming talent at key spots, is stocking the group with backups for veterans approaching their respective twilights, and is willing to put more creative midfielders into the mix in an attempt to generate something resembling a consistent attack.

To be fair, he stumbled into this solution during the last set of qualifiers: Sacha Kljestan would not have been called up if not for a timely, last-minute injury to John Brooks (and yes, it's Very Jurgen to replace an injured center back with a No. 10). But Kljestan was called up and he did play and he did scorch the hell out of all comers for his country, just as he's done for his club over the last two years.

Kljestan is the best No. 10 in the pool right now, and he's clearly a full-time building block for this roster, and the knock-on effect of that can be felt from front to back. Putting a real playmaker in there allows more service to the forwards, who are playing better than ever; it allows wunderkind Christian Pulisic to play on either wing combining in the channels on the break or around the box in possession while not having to worry about shouldering the pure creative load; it allows Michael Bradley to play in his preferred spot as a No. 6, and in the seven games since he's been playing there the US have gone 5-2-0 with plus-11 goal differential (15 GF; 4 GA); and that, in turn, allows the central defense a stable outlet in possession, which in turn allows the fullbacks to get forward.

Playing the right players in the right spots matters, and giving your most important players continued chances to build chemistry matters, and this roster suggests Klinsmann has finally come around to that way of thinking. It's heartening.

A few other notes:

• Lynden Gooch started the season in the starting XI for Sunderland, then lost his role, then didn't even make the bench, and on Saturday dug back in and got on the field for a minute-long cameo. If you put a gun to my head and asked me to tell you his best position I'd shrug – it just isn't clear – but he's 20, he's got some skill, and he's playing in the EPL. It was the right call for Klinsmann to bring him in for a look.

• No Darlington Nagbe which, honestly, doesn't come as a surprise. Klinsmann has been reluctant to use the Portland midfielder despite his world of talent. Though perhaps the door for a call-up is just a little bit ajar, since Philadelphia's Alejandro Bedoya came off in Saturday's loss to RBNY with a rib injury. If Bedoya is to be replaced on this roster, Nagbe is the obvious call.

As to why Nagbe has receded from Klinsmann's plans over the last six months? My guess is it's his low-key personality and propensity to fade out of games. If I were coach, I'd still absolutely call him in, but I don't think anybody should get too worked up over Jurgen going in a different direction with this one.

• Caleb Stanko got his look for the "Bradley's Backup" job in the last set of qualifiers. This time, Perry Kitchen is back for his crack at that role in something of a reprise of his Copa America call-up. It'll be a real surprise to me if the Hearts captain doesn't get at least a half.

It remains to be seen where Danny Williams fits into the equation. He's played mostly as a destroyer throughout his career, but Reading have used him a bunch in a more advanced role  even as a No. 10 a couple of times. Klinsmann, meanwhile, has used him on the right, left and center of midfield in past years.

• There are a surfeit of young-ish wingers who could or maybe even should be in the player pool, and as of now it's clear that Club Tijuana's Paul Arriola is preferred to the likes of Tommy McNamara, Kelyn Rowe, Ethan Finlay, or Jerome Kiesewetter. Arriola has played well for the US in his brief run-outs, but he's only logged 135 minutes for Xolos this year and has yet to score or assist.

• Klinsmann has made it clear that there's a race to be the No. 3 'keeper behind Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, and this camp's competition will be between David Bingham, Ethan Horvath and William Yarbrough. There will be understandable calls for D.C. United's Bill Hamid to be part of that group, but Hamid has been as error-prone as he's been spectacular over the last two months.

Matt Besler has lost his starting role with Sporting KC, and as such has lost his spot on the USMNT roster for now. No real complaints about the four-man central defense Klinsmann called up, and I can live with the three fullbacks (DeAndre Yedlin, Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler), especially given Johnson's improved defensive showing this summer and the fact that Pulisic's development means Johnson isn't as essential on the wing.

• And finally, the forwards. Jozy Altidore is playing the best soccer of his life, and Jordan Morris has lived up to his potential as a 21-year-old rookie, and Bobby Wood is starting in the Bundesliga, and Juan Agudelo has five goals and three assists in his last six games across all comp–

Wait, Agudelo didn't make it, did he?

Nope.

I'm a Chris Wondolowski stan and have been for seven years, and I'll even defend this call-up given the missing veteran leaders from this squad. There's no Besler or Howard or Guzan, or Kyle Beckerman or Graham Zusi or Jermaine Jones or – obviously – Clint Dempsey. Every coach needs locker room guys who will set the tone and create the culture, and that's Wondo's role.

The fan in me wants to see Agudelo with this group since he's arguably the most talented individual in the forward pool, but the rational human being knows that A) he's got to keep up this form for more than five weeks, and B) keeping veteran leaders who climbed the summit by squeezing every drop of productivity out of their potential (and yes, that's Wondo) in the group sets the right tone. As long as it's just one or two of those guys as opposed to eight or 10, nobody should complain too strenuously.

GOALKEEPERS (3): David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Ethan Horvath (Molde FK), William Yarbrough (Club Leon)

DEFENDERS (7): Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Moenchengladbach), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle)

MIDFIELDERS (8): Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Lynden Gooch (Sunderland), Perry Kitchen (Hearts), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Danny Williams (Reading)

FORWARDS (4): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Hamburg SV), Julian Green (Bayern Munich)

Series: 
Topics: