Jurgen Klinsmann and the United States men’s national team certainly did not get their hexagonal World Cup qualifying campaign off to a good start earlier this month as they lost 2-1 to Honduras in San Pedro Sula.
And while the initial response to the team’s loss was mostly reactionary anger, the past week-and-a-half has provided some much-needed perspective.
Still, Jurgen Klinsmann must bear his share of the responsibility for the loss.
Here are four mistakes Klinsmann made.
Selecting the Formation
Once again, Klinsmann, believing himself to be a tactical mastermind, threw the United States out onto the field in an untested Frankenstein-like off-balance formation.
He essentially lined the USMNT with a back four, one defensive midfielder, two center midfielders, a left midfielder, a withdrawn forward and one striker.
With no right-sided midfielder, Jermaine Jones was expected to drift wide while the U.S. was on the attack to provide width. Jones was also expected to cover defensively for right-back Timmy Chandler when Chandler went forward to provide the width.
As has happened so many times when Klinsmann has deployed the U.S. in an unfamiliar and untested formation, the team struggled to find any consistency in attack and went long spells of the game unable to create any sort of sustained possession.
During the game, Jones, who was tasked with providing width on the right side of the field, was found playing to the left of Michael Bradley on more than one occasion, leaving the entire right side of the midfield unmanned. Clint Dempsey, who has always been most effective for the U.S. when played centrally, was then forced to drift wide to find space.
Over his 18 months in charge, Klinsmann has deployed the U.S. in a 4-2-3-1, a 4-1-3-1-1, 4-1-3-2, 4-1-2-1-2 and a 4-1-2-3. This type of constant change has hampered any ability of the players to develop a coherent tactical understanding of their roles.
The best managers in the world give their players consistency in a system with clearly defined roles. Klinsmann has done just the opposite.
Not that this should be a surprise to USMNT fans, or German fans for that matter. Germany and Bayern Munich captain Philip Lahm, who played under Klinsmann for both club and country, has said about Klinsmann,
“We practiced little more than fitness. Tactical things were neglected. The players had to get together before [the games] to discuss how we wanted to play. After six or eight weeks, all players knew it wouldn't work with Klinsmann. The rest of the season was damage limitation.”
Leaving Carlos Bocanegra on the Bench
Selecting Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez as the center-back pairing for the game against Honduras was the type of decision that gets hailed as “gutsy” when it works out and “incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid” when it doesn’t.
No one seriously doubts that Cameron and Gonzalez have the potential to be solid internationals for the U.S., but the fact of the matter is they had never played together before and were being thrown to the wolves in an away qualifier in one of the more hostile atmospheres in world football.
Cameron has a promising future and has proved at Stoke City he is worthy of inclusion in the starting lineup, but at the same time, nearly all of his games with Stoke have been as an outside back.
Gonzalez was making only his fourth appearance for the U.S. and had never played in anything other than a friendly for the team.
Carlos Bocanegra, on the other hand, while certainly advancing in age and not as fleet of foot as he once was, has played in all but two games for the USMNT under Klinsmann when the first-team lineup has been called in.
In fact, Bocanegra, after Tim Howard, has the most minutes played of any American player under Klinsmann.
The two games Bocanegra has missed for the U.S. were the away loss to Jamaica during the semifinal round of qualifying and this month’s loss to Honduras. And, the one other game Bocanegra played in but did not play at center-back, the U.S.’ away game to Antigua, the U.S. back line was in constant disarray.
While the U.S. will have to move on from Bocanegra sooner rather than later, his leadership, communication and skill in organizing the back line were sorely missed. The man isn’t the U.S.’ captain for nothing.
The hexagonal is not the right time for experimenting. It is solely about qualification, and Jurgen Klinsmann should have known better when putting together the team sheet against Honduras.
Lack of Cohesion and Flair
In Klinsmann’s 22 games in charge, he has put together 22 different starting lineups.
The lack of cohesion this has caused was no more apparent than against Honduras when the back line was perpetually disorganized. Not only had the Geoff Cameron-Omar Gonzalez center-back tandem never been tried, Timmy Chandler started the game having only played with the team once since 2011. This is also despite the fact that Klinsmann has said in the past that continuity was important to the team’s development.
While some might be quick to credit Klinsmann’s experimentation (he has given 58 different players caps with the USMNT), a closer inspection of his choices reveals how poor those choices have been.
Klinsmann, in a limited international calendar of fixtures, has given 11 caps to Kyle Beckerman, four to Edson Buddle, four to Chris Wondolowski, three to Brad Evans, three to Ricardo Clark, three to Jeff Larentowicz and three to DaMarcus Beasley.
Perhaps even more disturbing, when broken down by minutes played, Josh Gatt, who is one of the most promising players in the USMNT is 37th in minutes played. Mix Diskerud, who might be the most promising player in the entire U.S. player pool, is dead last in minutes played at 58th. He has played a total of three minutes for the team under Klinsmann.
Joe Corona, who regularly starts for Liga MX champions Tijuana, is 53rd in playing time and Terrence Boyd, who has impressed in most of his opportunities with the U.S., is 27th in playing time.
This isn’t to say that Gatt, Diskerud, Corona or Boyd should have started or played against Honduras, because they are all still relatively inexperienced international players. However, if Klinsmann had used the last 18 months to properly vet and season the U.S.’ youth talent and less time wasting valuable caps on national team retreads, the U.S. would likely be playing the brand of attractive football everyone hoped for when Klinsmann was first appointed.
To belabor the point, Klinsmann once again decided to employ the use of three defensive midfielders against Honduras, a strategy that spectacularly failed against Jamaica back in September’s qualifier.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s tactics have, at times, made former USMNT coach Bob Bradley look overly aggressive by comparison.
Not Recognizing the Unique Conditions This Game Provided
There are many football fans throughout the world that like to bash the relative weakness of the CONCACAF region and decry the “ease” of U.S. World Cup qualification.
One wonders how much of that has pervaded the consciousness, or subconsciousness, of Jurgen Klinsmann.
In European qualification, pitch sizes, conditions, climate and altitude are much less varied than they are in CONCACAF. While much of the northern U.S. was being blasted by a snowstorm, the game time temperature in San Pedro Sula, Honduras was near 90 degrees.
Playing at the Azteca presents altitude and air quality issues rare, perhaps non-existent, in Europe and the type of security concerns prevalent in many Central American countries are not present in Europe. And that’s to say nothing of the ripped up, overgrown, postage-stamp sized pitches and third-world CONCACAF stadiums.
Against Honduras, nine of the starters Klinsmann selected are currently playing their club football in Europe. And while that is certainly understandable (the MLS contingent in the January camp was dreadful in the friendly against Canada), many of them looked utterly unprepared to play in the conditions in San Pedro Sula.
The temperature in San Pedro Sula reached a high of 90 degrees on game day and the air was humid. It was sunny throughout most of the game and the pitch was left long, probably on purpose.
Before the half-hour mark, Jermaine Jones and Timmy Chandler, who both play in Germany where the winter temperature is in the 30s, were the most obviously gassed. Jozy Altidore, based next door to the Germans in the Netherlands, also looked to struggle—although credit must be given to Altidore as his work rate stayed high.
Playing Jose Torres or Herculez Gomez, who both play professionally in Mexico, would have seemed obvious choices for Klinsmann. Torres could have easily been slotted in for Jermaine Jones either a center midfielder, or wide on the left moving Eddie Johnson to the right flank. Gomez could have also been used as a flank player. Instead, both were unused substitutes.
Graham Zusi, who did make a substitute appearance, could have also started out wide or in the middle. Having just played for three weeks in Los Angeles in the U.S.’ January camp, he certainly would have been better acclimated to the conditions than Jones.
Solving the Timmy Chandler dilemma is more complicated as Michael Parkhurst’s winter transfer to Augsburg made him unavailable for the January camp in Los Angeles. Staying in Europe likely meant Parkhurst would have been in the same boat as the other players who fatigued early.
However, playing a traditional 4-1-3-2, as the U.S. used in their wins against Antigua, Jamaica and Guatemala to close out the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying would have given Chandler some cover on the right flank. Instead, Chandler was left on an island most of the match.
Chandler was asked to make overlapping runs into the attacking third because there was no right midfielder in front of him in Klinsmann’s off-balance formation. Additionally, if and when Chandler did go forward, he knew that he did not have a wide midfielder who could cover for him defensively. Add into the mix that this was Chandler’s first World Cup qualifier and the stage was set for a disaster.
While the individual performances of most of the U.S. lineup against Honduras were nothing to write home about, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann must shoulder most of the blame for the loss.
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