by Jacob Klinger
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Alphonse Karr said as much, and while he was not known to be an especially passionate soccer fan - the game in its modern form had yet to be invented - his insight has proven timeless.
The US team has received an admirable facelift under Jurgen Klinsmann, but two goals in five games is a hard stat to defend regardless of how rejuvenated a team looks. Despite its easiness on the eyes, the transition for Klinsmann’s team is both painfully obvious and at times obviously painful. Yet for all that has been altered under the German World Cup winner, his team’s progress has stalled at attractively losing, not for any lack of tactical presence, but because Klinsmann faces the same binding problem that every national team coach runs into: the limits of his player pool.
No American striker has scored at the World Cup since 2002. Fact. This is the go-to statistic for any armchair manager seeking to explain American soccer struggles in the past decade. The lack of a world class finisher has been painfully obvious for some time and that hasn’t changed. American youth soccer’s historical propensity to neglect individual enterprise, creativity, and other striker-defining traits is well documented, but it hardly tells the whole story.
The do-it-all lone striker is a prized commodity - think Torres at his best with Liverpool - and despite Altidore’s improvement at Alkmaar he is no such striker. Keep in mind Klinsmann is still liberally experimenting and the 4-3-3 could very well be ditched for a different formation. In the meantime, the present hybrid setup does emphasize team strengths. Our central midfielders are largely similar and function as interchangeable parts. The team’s fullbacks are overlapping machines and wingers like Shea, Williams, and Donovan were born to play wide in a 3-man forward line. That said, the best American finisher today hails from Nacogdoches, Texas and plays best tucked behind the striker that Altidore has yet to become.
Beyond AZ Alkmaar’s second leading scorer, the most promising striker is Juan Agudelo. Unfortunately he is 18 and very much still developing. The late switch to something resembling a two striker setup last night indicates some necessary flexibility as the Klinsmann has been very open about the need for strikers to be ‘more selfish’ and ultimately finish. Klinsmann has inherited a team whose best strikers are 21 and 18. Simply put, he can’t change time (Bowie 3:16).
On the other end of the field, there remain ever more constants. Tim Howard is still as commanding a presence as one can ask for in goal and Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu are still America’s best center back pairing by a country mile. This is not good.
Klinsmann’s system requires the center backs to distribute from the back with the ball on the ground. In 1990, the former Germany striker won the World Cup with West Germany under the all-time greatest such forward-thinking defender in Franz Beckenbauer. Clearly there are no such players in the American pool, and worse yet, the central defenders with a seemingly inherent desire to pass from the defense have repeatedly shown that they struggle with the elements of defending that require physical contact with opposing strikers. Tim Ream’s lack of defending on the routine cross that ended up deciding the Ecuador game was only the latest such display. Before him, Michael Orozco Fiscal of Nigerian-elbowing infamy managed to play himself out of Klinsmann’s first XI with similar struggles.
The team that Klinsmann appears to be envisioning expends plenty of energy when it has the ball and can hardly afford to waste anymore chasing at-best optimistic long ball clearances. By the same token, it can’t be a sieve for goals and Bocanegra-Onyewu is the obvious stopgap. They are sadly, just that however as Bocanegra will be 35 at the next World Cup and while Onyewu shows a greater inclination to sensibly move the ball forward, depth and eventually replacements must be found. Until they are, Klinsmann’s number one personnel task is finding someone capable of consistently putting the physical fear of god into opposing strikers - see Onyewu’s continued physical dominations - who can also string together some slick one-touch passing. With no obvious candidates in sight, Klinsmann will have to keep digging and hope his midfield’s possession game can increasingly limit the pressure on his backline.
This brings us to the engine room of any successful soccer team: the midfield. Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones, and Kyle Beckerman have been shuffled in and out under Klinsmann, often appearing together and rarely looking cohesive. The chemistry will come, but the fact remains that they are similar players. Jones is easily the most mobile, Edu the most unspectacularly consistent, and Beckerman the least skilled if not the most ambitious. For reasons unknown, Beckerman has frequently featured as the backbone of this midfield, and although his play has been pleasantly surprising his touch has coughed up possession in some fairly simple situations. His position affords no such luxuries and he hardly looked better next to Michael Bradley in last night’s second half.
One could speculate that Beckerman is merely filling a role for Klinsmann while he sorts out the rest of his squad - Bob Bradley often used Beckerman like this. This logic fails however, when Michael Bradley is factored in. The former coach’s son is a better player than Beckerman in all facets of the game and should be expected to supplant Beckerman. Don’t blame Beckerman though, he is simply an MLS star trying to make the most of his opportunities under a new coach. He is also a sad indicator of yet another constant in the American setup.
America’s best attacking central midfield talent simply cannot stay in form or healthy long enough to have a team properly built around them. This problem goes as far back as the oft-injured days of Claudio Reyna and John O’Brien. Reyna, who was reportedly offered a contract by Barcelona after the 1992 Olympics and O’Brien, the Ajax product should have formed a historic partnership for the US, but were so often recovering from injuries that many of their appearances together were wildly disappointing. Klinsmann admitted that the recovering Stuart Holden was central to his plans going forward before it was decided that he required further surgery that will keep him out for another six months. Jose Francisco Torres, who seemed to be truly blossoming under Klinsmann, has since gone down with a metatarsal injury that will keep him out until December. Bradley, Edu, Jones, and Beckerman are all very respectable professionals in their own right, but they simply cannot orchestrate the sort of attack Klinsmann is demanding of his players right now. The injury situation seems to have at least a temporary solution in the form of Dempsey dropping deeper into midfield, but as was seen in the second half against Ecuador, he cannot control the game throughout in such a role. Mikkel Diskerud seems the next best likely candidate, but his prowess remains to be seen under Klinsmann.
The myriad problems presented to Klinsmann are his to solve with whatever system he chooses or creates, but his options are clearly limited in terms of players. This is why friendlies are played however, and the new manager has tinkered with them like national team fans have not seen before. Fans have grown accustomed to seeing the US succeed in exhibitions and change has clearly created some tumult in the US soccer community. Yet there seems to be no absence of long term planning from Klinsmann and his staff as anyone watching can see the team coming together. With that in mind, the limited players and infinite formations will undoubtedly continue to be tinkered with in the coming months.
World Cup Qualifying starts next summer, and no matter who is playing in what formation, the US will be expected to win. That, above all else, has not changed.
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