The United States Men’s National Team has had a bit of a roller coaster year with historic away wins over Mexico and Italy and an away draw against a Russian side that has been making waves in European World Cup qualifying.
At the same time, the U.S. struggled in World Cup qualifying, losing to Jamaica, barely beating lowly Antigua and Barbuda and going into the last game of the semifinal group stage not knowing whether or not it would advance into the hexagonal.
So, with a new year upon us, here are three areas the U.S. definitely needs to fix.
Not even the most ardent U.S. fan can argue that the U.S. defense is not in need of a makeover.
Carlos Bocanegra, who will be 35 when the 2014 World Cup kicks off and who is playing second division football in Spain, is currently the U.S.’ best center-back.
And while Geoff Cameron has shown promise, he is still relatively inexperienced in international or top-flight play with only 11 caps for the national team and 11 appearances for Stoke City (the rest of his professional career was spent in Major League Soccer).
After a series of disappointing national team performances and a rough club season, it appears that Clarence Goodson could be nearing the end of his national team career.
Tim Ream has had a disastrous season for Bolton, seeing appearances in only seven of Bolton’s 17 games and having one of his performances described as a “nightmare” by the Manchester Evening News. And his previous USMNT appearances were not spectacular to begin with.
John Anthony Brooks, the 6’ 7” center-back for Hertha Berlin in Bundesliga 2 could be an option, but he was also recently called up for Germany’s U-20 squad and as a dual international could still choose Germany.
Maurice Edu has been listed on the last two U.S. rosters as a defender, but ironically appeared as a center midfielder in both of those games. Edu has also only seen one appearance for Stoke City and that was as a late-game cameo substitute. And, in two other appearances at center-back for the USMNT, Edu put in mediocre performances.
Omar Gonzalez seems to be an obvious choice, especially after 2011 MLS Defender of the Year honors and helping the LA Galaxy to a strong regular season finish this year. Gonzalez has also looked good for most of the MLS Playoffs, but struggled mightily Sunday night against Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson, as the Galaxy played the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference Finals.
Other potential choices could include Seb Hines, Zak Whitbread, George John, Matt Besler or Alfredo Morales, but one thing is clear. If the U.S. doesn’t find some depth at center-back, and soon, qualifying for the World Cup will not be easy.
The lone bright spot for the U.S. in terms of its defense is the comparative depth of the outside-back pool which includes Steve Cherundolo, Fabian Johnson, Michael Parkhurst and potentially Timmy Chandler, Edgar Castillo, Eric Lichaj and Greg Garza.
For better or for worse, USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has not been afraid to experiment with the U.S. lineup and formation during his short tenure with the team.
In just over one year in charge, Klinsmann has lined the team up 4-3-3 with three defensive midfielders, 4-1-2-1-2, 4-3-1-2, 4-1-3-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-2-1-3 and 4-1-2-3.
And, while the constant changes have given Klinsmann and U.S. fans a lot of information about who can and cannot play what positions, the team still does not have a consistent style of play—something Klinsmann repeatedly said was a priority in his first few months in charge.
It is important for teams to be able to play multiple formations and to be able to adjust their strategy to fit each opponent, but this much change makes it hard for players to clearly define their roles on the team and their roles in relation to each other—another thing Klinsmann repeatedly said was important when he was first in charge.
There is no doubt that the 4-3-3, whether deployed as a 4-1-2-3, a 4-2-1-3 or a 4-2-3-1 (they are all very similar systems), is en vogue right now in world football, but the fact is the U.S. has been most productive offensively when using two forwards.
It may seem like backward thinking, but it has produced the best results.
One of the most maddening things about the USMNT team right now is their inability to manage games.
One of the concepts that the U.S. women made famous years ago was the idea of “five-minute moments.”
Those “five-minute moments” are defined as the five minutes to start and end each half and the five minutes after either team scored a goal. These moments reflect periods of the game when mental composure is key, whether it is in being ready to play, closing out the half or managing the emotional highs or lows of scoring or conceding a goal.
In the USMNT’s recent World Cup qualifiers, these are the moments the team has struggled.
In the Antigua and Barbuda match, the U.S. conceded a goal right after the U.S. had scored.
In the Guatemala match, the U.S. conceded in the first five minutes.
In the Russia match, while not within a “five-minute moment”, the U.S. conceded the opening goal off a ridiculous giveaway while trying to play a short free kick.
This trend is something that has plagued the team going back to the Bob Bradley era, when the team gained a reputation for working its way back into matches after conceding early.
While the U.S.’ ability to come back under dire circumstances time and time again is impressive, one wonders how much better the team could be if they could avoid giving up the silly goals in the first place instead of having to exhaust themselves to find the equalizers.
If the U.S. is to survive the hexagonal and do any sort of damage at the 2014 World Cup, they will need to learn to manage their games more effectively.
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