USMNT: Americans Head into Final Round of Qualifying with Several Question Marks

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USMNT: Americans Head into Final Round of Qualifying with Several Question Marks
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One day after the United States' 2-2 draw in Russia, the diagnosis has not changed for Jurgen Klinsmann's Yanks. The Americans were outplayed, and as any and all observers would argue, the draw was a fortunate result.

The team's struggles, especially in defense and midfield, suggest Klinsmann has a difficult task ahead as the U.S. prepares for the final round of World Cup qualifying. The U.S. currently has no matches scheduled between now and the Feb. 6 trip to Honduras, the first match in the final round of qualifying.

The purpose of playing friendlies, as we know, is not necessarily to produce a positive result. More important is evaluating players, tactics and formations. Fortunately, Wednesday's match taught Klinsmann plenty about all three, even in the absence of big names like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey.

Now we wait to see whether Klinsmann learns the right lessons.

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Klinsmann opted for a 4-3-3 starting formation with a number of interesting personnel decisions. Josh Gatt made his first appearance for the senior national team and started on the right side of a three-pronged attack.

Gatt switched sides often with Herculez Gomez and, although he did not score, performed well enough to warrant more call-ups to the senior squad. Gatt has developed almost a cult-like popularity online with U.S. fans, and now he has taken his chance to prove himself.

In the midfield, Klinsmann opted for three defensive-minded holding players in Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Danny Williams. The combination did not work.

Williams' poor decision-making led to Russia's opening goal. He played a quick free kick directly to a Russian attacker in the U.S. half. The mistake seemed to rattle Williams, who gave away possession and found himself in poor positions frequently for the rest of his time on the pitch.

Jones was not nearly as poor, but he did not excel either. Bradley, meanwhile, was probably the best American field player on the night. Once again, though, playing a three-man midfield with three defensive-minded players backfired for the U.S.

The same thing happened in the qualifying match at Jamaica, and one wonders why Klinsmann continues to try the formation. It's worth wondering whether the U.S. would benefit if Klinsmann opted for the 4-2-3-1 formation that is so popular in Europe right now.

The two defensive "double pivot" midfielders in formation would provide cover for the Americans' notoriously spotty defense and allow players like Donovan and Dempsey more creativity in the more advanced three-man attacking midfield.

But with no more friendlies scheduled between now and the start of the final round of qualifying, it's hard to imagine Klinsmann moving to such a setup.

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At the individual level, a number of performances were noteworthy, for various reasons.

Jozy Altidore worked hard and was "a handful," according to Klinsmann (via USSoccer.com). But he failed to recreate the outstanding form he has shown with AZ Alkmaar this season.

Even so, Altidore has impressive physical abilities and is capable of highly athletic feats. The trick for Klinsmann seems to be figuring a way to bring out Altidore's best.

That has been a theme with Altidore for some time, but it's unclear whether the issue is personal or whether his supporting cast isn't giving him enough service. What's clear is that Altidore is a much better player at the club level than international, and that's bad news for the U.S.

Gatt, as mentioned above, performed well enough to warrant another look from Klinsmann. Timmy Chandler, who returned to the side after taking nearly a year to sort out his feelings, had a decent game and will provide depth at full-back.

The main individual talking points from Wednesday, though, were the performances of Bradley and goalkeeper Tim Howard.

In a match that produced few positives for the U.S., Bradley was easily his team's best field player. His goal was top class, and his passing and leadership helped pull the U.S. back into the game in the second half.

Bradley's performance and his goal left some ready to anoint him the best American player currently in the player pool.

It's hard to argue against that on current form. Dempsey has not reached the heights lately that he showed last season at Fulham, and Donovan has hardly played with the team in recent months.

Moving into the final round of qualifying, it's obvious that Bradley will be a vital part of the U.S. team. Another equally obvious key is Howard, who kept the U.S. in the match with several key saves.

The U.S. will need both to show continued excellence in qualifying. But with a make-or-break year approaching, they can't be the only ones.

 

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