Jurgen Klinsmann: 6 Areas the U.S. National Team Coach Needs to Work On
After a slow start in his early matches, the U.S. national team has started getting wins under Jurgen Klinsmann. As a result, much of the early criticism has been pushed into the background as more and more of the public buys into the German's gradual development plan.
There are significant bright spots on the field for the United States.
The team's traditional strength at goalkeeper has not faded at all in Tim Howard. Landon Donovan remains one of the best players ever to wear a U.S. jersey. And Clint Dempsey is beginning to make an argument for himself as the country's first ever truly world-class field player.
However, for all that is good in the U.S. camp, there are still glaring weaknesses and areas that need to be addressed. Here are the six areas that Jurgen Klinsmann must work on if the Yanks are going to make it to Brazil 2014.
The Marshmallow-Soft Center of Defense
Carlos Bocanegra must be getting tired of carrying the dead weight that keeps lining up next to him in the center of the U.S. back line.
The irony of the Nats' weakness here is that they've kept three clean sheets in a row, but against Panama and Italy, the center of defense was exposed repeatedly.
Michael Parkhurst, Geoff Cameron and Clarence Goodson have shown a propensity to get toasted by clever, mobile forwards. Omar Gonzalez is injured and has shown significant deficiencies in his game besides.
Tim Ream has a chance to make a case for himself as the apparent first choice at Bolton, but it's still very early days there. And even though everyone is waiting on Oguchi Onyewu to return, his positioning has always been questionable and he'll be returning from a months-long layoff as qualifying begins.
The scariest part is that Bocanegra will be 35 by the time World Cup 2014 rolls around. Never the most physically gifted player, it will be hard for Bocanegra to compete at the international level at such an advanced age.
The U.S. needs other players to step up, and step up quickly. Otherwise, the center of defense could be their undoing.
Where Are the Goals?
For all their coach's talk of an attacking, free-flowing style, the United States has only once managed to score more than one goal in a match under Klinsmann.
Clint Dempsey's season in the Premier League is proving he can be a danger man for the United States and Landon Donovan will likely add some verve once he can get back on the field for Klinsmann. However, besides the two stars, who is going to score the goals?
Jozy Altidore has still not proved he can consistently threaten teams at the international level. Juan Agudelo is promising but cannot seem to break through completely in New York. Terrence Boyd made a splash at Olympic qualifying but has not gotten a sniff of the first team at Borussia Dortmund.
Klinsmann could look to Mexico where Herculez Gomez has been pouring in the goals for Santos Laguna, but without some injection of menace at the forward position, the United States will struggle.
Integrating Landon Donovan
Landon Donovan is one of the best players the United States has ever produced, but he's threatening to become an afterthought in Jurgen Klinsmann's planning.
Donovan hasn't played for the national team since Sept. 2. In October, he had an injury. In November, he wanted to prepare for the MLS Cup. In January, he was in England with Everton. And that fateful night in Italy? Bronchitis.
Meanwhile, Klinsmann says the national team train is moving forward without Donovan. In March, Klinsmann said:
We need Landon with the team to move forward because the train has left at 200 miles an hour and he was not on the train for eight games, which was not ideal for us but it is what it is.
May and June comes quickly, and that's when Landon needs to be there and understand where is the team. We need him here as soon and as quickly as possible.
Expect Donovan in the starting lineup when World Cup qualifying begins. However, part of the success or failure of the U.S. effort will come down to how well and how quickly the long-absent player can integrate himself into the team.
Where Do Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler Play?
Left-back is the historic hole in the U.S. roster. That position seems to be sorted now that Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler have both turned in noteworthy performances, but the pair have played well enough at left-back and elsewhere that both could earn a place in the starting XI.
Now the question is, who plays where?
Johnson plays left-back every week at Hoffenheim, while Chandler plays right midfield at FC Nurnberg.
Klinsmann could accommodate both players at their usual positions by moving Landon Donovan to the left wing, or he could drop Steve Cherundolo to the bench and go with the young Germans on the outsides of defense.
In the end, it's a nice problem to have. And Klinsmann will have three friendlies to sort things out before qualifying begins in June.
What Style Does the United States Really Play?
Regardless of his public pronouncements, Klinsmann knows the United States cannot play an expansive 4-3-3 against the top teams in the world. He revealed his pragmatism against Italy when the U.S. resembled nothing more closely than one of the 4-5-1 bunker-and-counter teams sent out by predecessor Bob Bradley.
Klinsmann will have a delicate balancing act to marry his preferred playing style with the personnel available to him in the U.S. player pool.
He might decide that the Yanks will be something of a chameleon side. Expansive and flowing against lesser opponents, but cynical and bunkered when the occasion demands. If that proves to be the case, Klinsmann will have set himself a massive managerial task.
Instilling the Right Mentality
The United States expects to go to the World Cup. There's no way around that. The Yanks have qualified through a relatively weak CONCACAF for six consecutive World Cup cycles.
There is no humility in the United States fan or the player pool about qualifying. There really should be. As our U-23s showed in Olympic qualifying, nothing is guaranteed in international football. If you take a win for granted, you inevitably lose. Hubris is not something Klinsmann's team can afford to entertain.
It's easy to get up for a game against Italy or Brazil, but World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF is more often decided during the away match against Jamaica. If Klinsmann is going to extend the Nats' World Cup streak, he's going to have to make sure his squad understands the difference.