Having survived Round 3 of CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, the U.S. men's national soccer team (USMNT) and coach Jurgen Klinsmann can now turn their attention to the final steps of the hopeful journey to Brazil.
American fans had come to simply expect a berth in the next World Cup. They can be excused for that expectation. Since the longest of droughts ended with U.S. qualification for the 1990 World Cup—22 years ago—the USMNT has qualified every four years.
The road has never been what the players would call easy, but over the last two decades a prevailing view developed that the U.S. and Mexico are locks for the top two out of three tickets.
Mexico appears it can hold up its part of the bargain this time, even on cruise control. For USMNT fans, however, this third round was something of a shocker. The Americans needed results in the final two games of the round just to advance to next year's Hexagonal, when the final six teams will face one another in a single group of home and away matches.
With new awareness of the real potential for premature team mortality, here are five questions the USMNT and Klinsmann must answer before entering the Hex's opening game on February 6.
Because the World Cup is played at four-year intervals, this is a question that every national team grapples with to varying degrees. Through the qualifiers, do you rely on the players who can get you there, or focus on developing the ones likely to be entering their prime at the World Cup (or the next)?
Conventional wisdom is teams that are confident of qualifying have the luxury of leaning more toward development of younger talent.
The teams that are not confident of qualifying will lean more on the guys who can get them there—the proven and experienced players, who usually are older. They will rely on friendlies to work in the younger players, but even that can be limited when a national team wants to maximize time together for known starters.
The USMNT has reason to be less confident now, after struggling to reach the Hex. However, it also has some growing age issues.
Defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo are 33 years old now. Both would be 35 in Brazil, which is not necessarily old for a soccer player, but both seem to have already lost a step.
The latest roster employed by Klinsmann had several 30-year-olds, including Landon Donovan (who is becoming more injury prone), Jermaine Jones, Herculez Gomez, Clarence Goodson, Kyle Beckerman and Alan Gordon (who just turned 31). Additionally, Clint Dempsey will turn 30 next year.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard also is 33 as is national backup keeper Nick Rimando. For keepers, there is ample precedent of 35-year-olds and up, so little reason to think either couldn't play in Brazil.
If the USMNT fails to qualify for Brazil, odds seem overwhelming right now a porous back line will be to blame.
Geoff Cameron and Carlos Bocanegra combined for a critical mistake that allowed Carlos Ruiz to score only minutes into that last qualifier. It would be easy to dismiss that as a fluke—it was Guatemala's only goal of the match—except for the fact it was far from the only time Ruiz sliced through and behind our center defenders.
Defense has been a growing problem for years. Developing capabilities in attack phase have coincided with diminishing capabilities in defense phase. The USMNT could not hold a two-goal lead against Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup. That was dismissed as, well, a game against Brazil for a tournament cup. They failed to again hold a two-goal lead against Mexico in the last Gold Cup.
In recent qualifiers, MLS-quality strikers like Ruiz, and even strikers who never made it that far like Antigua's Peter Byers, have the ability to push American defenders into desperate situations. In six games against Jamaica, Guatemala and Antigua, the USMNT only recorded one clean sheet.
The problem seems most acute in the middle. Too often American fans have watched through balls fed to opposing single attackers, forcing Howard into defending his frame on his own.
Cameron and Bocanegra will need time together to get in sync with one another, assuming those are Klinsmann's choices for the center positions. They also will need to form better cohesion with their outside partners. They won't have too many opportunities before February.
Is there a Klinsmann style for the USMNT? The coach has demonstrated moderately different player preferences and a desire for friendlies against better sides (like Russia this November 14). Beyond that, what has changed from the Coach Bob Bradley era?
Klinsmann says the Americans will play attacking soccer. That is a vague notion, and one often interpreted as meaning whatever the audience wants to hear. When Johan Cruyff talked about the Dutch style, there was no misunderstanding what he meant. What is the American style under Klinsmann?
Presumably he means some form of direct attack. The Germans tend to default to direct attack, rather than possession like the old Dutch teams and current Spanish, or defensive shells like those based on the original Inter Milan Catenaccio.
Defensive shells had been a preferred American style when playing blatantly superior opponents (at a time when pretty much everyone was blatantly superior). For the USMNT, it was more a last resort rather than conscious preference. With the development of more skilled players, fans saw less of the style. Under Coach Bradley, the team did not resort to it often (though employed a shell to near perfection in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals).
A lot of soccer scoring success is based on either of two attributes.
One is the ability to make the other team's players move where you want them. Possession draws the other team forward in your attack phase, and Catenaccio adaptations draw the other team forward in your defense phase. Both are designed to create space in your attacking third.
The other is to attack so fast, or so often, the opponents eventually concede goals. That's direct attack. It works best when your team is stronger in defense and transition to defense phases (like the Germans often are), because both sides are going to get a lot of possessions.
So far, we haven't seen a clear, coherent style from Klinsmann's USMNT. That begs the question of whether the players themselves could provide a coherent answer, and whether those answers would all be the same up and down the roster. This leads into the next question.
To a large degree, the formation means less than does player understanding about positional responsibilities. But it is a fair guess that when the formation numbers keep changing, so do those responsibilities.
It also is a fair guess the U.S. players may not all fully understand those responsibilities, at least not across all the formations they have seen.
Club teams have time to fine tune tactics, and expand their repertoire to include multiple formations and styles of play. National teams rarely do. Most default out of necessity to relatively simplistic tactics, with only a handful of working variations.
By the end of Round 3, the USMNT seemed to settle into a 4-1-3-2 and 4-2-3-1 toggle. Often, it was the players on the field who determined which they were playing. For instance, when Michael Bradley against Antigua sensed either a threat or an opportunity, he dropped back from an attacking midfield position to become a second defending midfielder. This was a cue for Clint Dempsey to float back into the midfield from an attacker position.
The players seem to adequately understand their roles in these formations. This is especially true of Bradley, who most likely will be the player to continue making those on-field decisions. They seem to work those tactical variations sufficiently well. Against Antigua, for instance, the difficulties scoring were more along the lines of poor execution on a sloppy field than the result of poor tactics. So, is this the formation approach we will see in the Hex?
The USMNT can score on anyone. Two primary reasons why are Dempsey and Donovan. Either can play out of the midfield or as an attacker.
Klinsmann has used both players in both roles. The coach needs to make his preferences known and give Dempsey and Donovan time to fine tune themselves into those roles. More importantly, he needs to build a more refined familiarity between both players and the teammates who will fill in the rest of the puzzle.
Klinsmann could put both up top. Odds are against that option.
He could split them between midfield or attack. Based on what we have seen so far, that is a good guess when playing two attackers (though not necessarily the best choice).
He could set them as permanent, chiseled-in-stone middies for the duration of the Hex.
As already implied, each option would lead to differing roster decisions. Part of Klinsmann's calculus will have to be the fitness of those other players. Is the coach more comfortable with his other midfielders or his other attackers?
Attacker Eddie Johnson has likely earned a starting role heading (no pun intended) into the Hex. Herculez Gomez also seems to have Klinsmann's confidence up top. Hopefully Jozy Altidore will earn his way back into the coach's favor, just to give the Americans that additional attacker option.
Does Klinsmann have the same level of confidence in the potential role playing midfielders? Everything in the middle and attacking thirds of the field will revolve around this question.