COLUMBUS, Ohio – On the biggest – and first – night of the US Men’s National Team’s 2018 World Cup hexagonal round qualifying schedule, Jurgen Klinsmann took a risk.
The coach went away from the flat 4-4-2 that he had used successfully in this summer’s Copa America Centenario and instead went with what appeared to be a 3-5-2 formation.
Center backs Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and John Brooks anchored the back line, with Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler as wing backs. The familiar midfield duo of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones played their usual roles, with youngster Christian Pulisic in an attacking role behind strikers Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood.
But the plan didn’t work, and Mexico scored their opener in what turned out to be a 2-1 win after just 20 minutes thanks to a curling shot from Miguel Layun, the first goal the USMNT had ever conceded to Mexico in a qualifier hosted in Columbus.
The US gave up their 3-5-2 look just moments later, and Klinsmann blamed his midfield’s play after the game.
“It took us a while to get into the game,” he said. “We switched back to a 4-4-2 a little bit to correct some things because unfortunately at the beginning our midfielders didn’t get into the one-on-one battles we expected them to get into.”
Klinsmann called the initial formation a 3-4-3 rather than a 3-5-2, and reiterated that the combination of Bradley and Jones didn’t give him what he wanted.
“It was a 3-4-3 with Christian Pulisic having all the freedom to roam with the two strikers out front,” he said. “We trained that and it went really well in training, but the key in that system is that your center midfielders need to get into these one-against-one battles, and that’s something that wasn’t happening in the first 25 or 30 minutes. No Michael Bradley, no Jermaine [getting] into these battles. Their players could roam, and that really puts you in difficulties, so that gave [Mexico] their chances.”
The players offered mixed assessments of the new formation, not previously used in a competitive game under Klinsmann. Altidore said the set-up worked “maybe for us three up front – maybe not for the whole team at the back,” and Jones said it wasn’t his place to say whether the formation was the right move.
“For me, it’s not my decision,” he said. “This is a question for the coach. The guys, we tried it and we feel that we have a good roster for that formation.”
It appeared that Bradley and Jones went to the touchline to discuss the formation with Klinsmann during a stoppage in play in the first half before it was eventually abandoned. Jones was asked if he told Klinsmann the formation needed changed and he said there was “no point.”
“We trained it in training and we looked really good,” he said. “But it’s like I said, you have to respect that Mexico is a good team, and they’re especially good with the ball. In the first half, we were always too late and we never really got on the guys. That’s why we decided to switch it over to the old formation, and that was way better, then.”
Jones said Mexico “figured it out,” and Bradley seemed to agree, saying all the players felt a change was necessary.
“I think ultimately it was [decided] amongst us all,” he said. “It was clear that it made sense to change. Look, specifically, they overloaded our right side, which meant that Timmy Chandler could never step out, because Corona was staying very high and very wide. So it wasn't easy for Timmy Chandler to ever step out to Layun. And then the other one that was floating over there was [Giovani] dos Santos a lot, and Chicharito coming over. So they had a clear idea in terms of how they wanted to overload that side. It meant that Timmy Chandler got pinned back and ideally we wanted him to be able to step out and press Layun.”
But the switch could not overcome Mexico's 89th-minute winner, and Jones seemed to capture the USMNT players' attitude toward the tactics.
“We tried something,” he said.