Entering his fourth and fifth games at the helm of the United States Men’s National Team, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is still looking for his first win.
With results at this point a secondary concern to roster decisions, formation tweaking and player evaluation, here are five things Klinsmann should be looking to experiment with against Honduras this Saturday and Ecuador next Tuesday.
With Jose Torres suffering from a broken foot, Jurgen Klinsmann will need to look elsewhere for his playmaker in the midfield. Unfortunately, with Stuart Holden also out after suffering a setback while recovering from his knee injury, Klinsmann’s second best option is no longer available.
Finding a new maestro
In his first games in charge, Klinsmann has deployed the U.S. in a 4-3-3 variation with one holding midfielder, one playmaking midfielder and one attacking midfielder playing just underneath a lone striker flanked by two wingers. While both Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley had been deployed as holding midfielders by previous USMNT coach, Bob Bradley, both Edu and Michael Bradley have played more traditional box-to-box center midfield positions with their clubs and both should be able to do the same for their country.
Bradley scored 20 goals for Dutch club Heerenveen in the 2007-2008 season and Edu has already scored twice this year for Rangers in only 9 games. Both are comfortable playing in traffic, are combative in challenges and distribute the ball well. While neither are true maestros, either of them could deputize at the position quite well.
Trying a new formation
While Bob Bradley recognized that the U.S. could not open up against better international teams and chose to play a defensive/counter-attack style in a 4-2-2-2, Bradley also never opened up the game while playing lower quality CONCACAF sides.
Klinsmann, on the other hand, has lined up the U.S. in a 4-3-3 variation that has produced some nice attacking displays and better possession play from the Americans—but has yet to produce an American win.
Klinsmann’s 4-3-3 also produces significant problems late in the first half and later in the second half when gaps open up between the midfield and the lone central striker, who ends up on an island.
A nice compromise between attractive football that doesn’t win and unnecessary caution against CONCACAF teams would be to play a straight 4-4-2.
The U.S. has always played better with two strikers and playing with two center midfielders on a pulley system, where one pushes forward while the other holds, takes advantage of the U.S.’s personnel for these games.
With Jose Torres and Stuart Holden out, Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley could team up, and playing off one another, could both express their defensive and offensive talents.
Auditioning partners for Jozy Altidore
While Jozy Altidore still has his critics, no one can doubt he is having a red-hot season with AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch League with seven goals in 12 games. With Altidore an all-but assured starter, who will Klinsmann play with him?
If Klinsmann opts for a 4-3-3 with an attacking midfielder playing just underneath Altidore, it will have to be Clint Dempsey.
Dempsey is the only American on the roster (Donovan can do it, but is injured) who can effectively play that position. Dempsey knows how to find space, plays remarkably well with his back to pressure, is strong in the air and can flat out finish.
If Klinsmann opts for a two-striker variation, his options become much less clear.
Juan Agudelo struggles to get regular starts with the New York Red Bulls and has only scored six times in 25 games.
Teal Bunbury has scored eight times in 27 games for the Sporting KC. Edson Buddle has scored five times in 10 games and, while playing overseas, does so in the German Second Division.
All three are capable players, yet none have shown consistent quality at the international level. This one is a toss up.
Finding a left back
With left back being the biggest gap on the U.S. roster since the drop-off of Heath Pearce, the question remains: Who will stake a claim to the position?
While Jonathan Bornstein was a favorite of Bob Bradley, Bornstein’s performances had a great deal to do with Bradley’s demise. Yet Bradley’s lack of options wasn’t for a lack of looking. He tried many options there, including a crazy stint of DaMarcus Beasley at the position.
The latest options include German-American newcomer Danny Williams, Jonathan Spector and Timothy Chandler.
Williams is a virtual unknown, only this week acquiring an American passport. He will soon be joined by Fabian Johnson, also a German-American, who just completed his FIFA nationality switch and who has also some experience playing at left back.
Spector, while already getting seven starts for Birmingham City this year and having some experience at left back, is not quick enough to defend against CONCACAF-style wingers and does not provide consistent service from the flank.
Spector also suffered a slight ankle injury in his last club appearance and has a tendency to make one or two crazy attacking runs each game into the middle of the pitch, resulting in a lost possession and a dangerous counterattack for the other team.
Chandler, after being declared the second coming after his first call up with the USMNT, does not effectively use his left foot when deployed on the left and his last few performances have left much to be desired.
Yes, Carlos Bocanegra could be deployed on the left as he has in the past, and with the return of an in-form Oguchi Onyewu, the battle for starting center back spots will get tighter, but anyone who has seen the last few internationals would have to admit that the U.S. is a far better team with Bocanegra at center back.
Bocanegra is also no longer a spring chicken and struggles a bit to provide good 1 v. 1 defending on the flank against quicker opponents.
The best American option since Heath Pearce has been Eric Lichaj, who was effective as a left back in this summer’s Gold Cup.
Unfortunately, Lichaj is injured.
Look for Klinsmann to give Williams, Spector and Chandler run outs at left back against Honduras and Ecuador with Johnson coming into the mix for the November friendlies.
Evaluating the newcomers
Danny Williams will be the biggest unknown for U.S. fans heading into the October friendlies.
His story is a compelling one: Born to an American serviceman father and a German mother, he has been eligible to compete with either national team.
After visiting America for the first time this summer, he decided that he wanted to play for the U.S. He stated in a recent interview that despite living in Germany his entire life, he has always been treated as a foreigner there.
He also spoke of the pride his father felt when Williams decided to represent the country his father was born in and served.
While Oguchi Onyewu is certainly not a newcomer to the national team with his 60 international caps, this will be the first time since his patellar tendon injury in October 2009 that he has been 100 percent healthy and in form.
Having started six games already this season for Sporting Lisbon, a top European club, Gooch is ready to reassert himself at the heart of the U.S. defense.
DaMarcus Beasley, like Onyewu, is not a newcomer to the U.S. squad, with 93 caps to his credit, but has not been an impact player with the Nats since 2007 when he suffered a horrific knee injury in a Champions League game.
Since then, Beasley has never been the same.
In the season following the injury, Beasley only played 10 games for Rangers FC. The season after that, he played eight. He was transferred to Hannover 96 the next year, but only played four matches in the entire season.
While Beasley has experienced a recent revival with Puebla in the Mexican League, anyone who has seen Beasley with the national team the past few years realizes he is a shadow of his former self. Whether it is because of age or injury, he no longer has the blinding pace that he once used to terrorize defenses.
A step slower, he gets into far more physical challenges than he used to and consistently gets pushed off the ball, no surprise considering his slight frame.
His game has never been based on great possession, great service or great finishing, and without his pace, he has struggled to positively impact the games he has played in.
It is good Beasley has found a home in Puebla, where he can get consistent playing time, but starts in the Mexican league do not equate quality with the national team as Edgar Castillo, Michael Orozco Fiscal and Jonathan Bornstein have all proved.
John D. Halloran