The United States Men's National Team is preparing for two critical games in their quest to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals. Their preparation, and the confidence of USMNT fans, could be shaken by a series of unfortunate events.
- The USMNT is missing four starters from the 2-1 loss to Honduras, including their No. 1 netminder, Tim Howard.
- Several crucial veterans are missing. Steve Cherundolo and Tim Howard are injured. Landon Donovan is still on his soul-searching vision quest, and Carlos Bocanegra was left off the roster, because he isn't getting minutes for his club team.
- A hit-piece published earlier this week by the Sporting News quoted anonymous players who claim that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is not up to the task of leading the team. (Anyone else hear Jozy Altidore's whine in those quotes?)
It would be easy to conclude that the team assembled in Denver is inexperienced and on the verge of collapse. A disastrous pair of results against Costa Rica on Friday and Mexico on Tuesday could put the U.S. in a deep, dark, qualifying hole.
Without Bocanegra and Cherundolo, the U.S. defense is sorely lacking in experience. The six defenders listed on the roster have only 12 combined World Cup qualifying caps. Three of those defenders have zero qualification experience, and Omar Gonzales appeared in his first qualifier in the loss to Honduras.
Their average age is 26.
Saying the U.S. defense is inexperienced is like pointing out that water is wet.
Experience in defense is crucial. One study of the world's top clubs found that starting defenders are on average four years older than other field players.
In the 2010 World Cup Final, half of the defenders on the two finalists' rosters were over the age of 30. The average age for champion Spain's starting defense was 27.75 years. The Dutch runners-up started a defense averaging 28.25 years.
This isn't surprising to anyone who knows the game. Defending is as much about positioning and timing as it is athleticism and technical skill.
Learning good positioning and proper timing takes only a few years of good coaching. Being able to execute those lessons without thinking takes years of playing at a high level. Doing it for 90 minutes without an error takes even longer.
This was evident in the Honduras game. Both U.S. center backs, Geoff Cameron and Gonzales, played very well for most of the game. But it only took one instance of lost concentration for Honduras to get the game winner.
The obstacles don't get any easier, every team in the Hex fields a fast and powerful front line fed by creative midfielders. Lightning fast counterattacks are the primary offensive weapon for four of the American's Hex opponents, while Mexico can pick apart a defense on the dribble or through passing combinations.
There is nowhere to hide an inexperienced defender in CONCACAF qualifying, much less an entire back four.
Make Some Lemonade
Even though the American's two best defenders have only seven qualifiers between them, they are both gifted athletes and will dominate the aerial game with their size.
Geoff Cameron plays in arguably the world's top professional league where he faces elite competition in practice and every time he takes the field. His technical skills are a high enough caliber that his EPL coach has started him at both fullback positions, outside and central midfield positions, and he even started two games as Stoke City's withdrawn forward.
Omar Gonzales was on his way to similar heights before an ACL tear set him back. He is now fully recovered and seems to have no lasting effects from the injury. He led his team to an MLS championship last fall and recently put in two dominating performances in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Perhaps demonstrating more tactical acumen than he is given credit for, Klinsmann included two World Cup veterans on his roster who can play defense.
Nominal midfielder Maurice Edu was superb at center back in the Nats' first-ever win at Azteca. He brings nearly as much qualification experience, 10 caps, as the rest of the defense combined.
DaMarcus Beasley makes a Lazarus-like return to the national team with his 26-match qualifier experience. U.S. fans still cringe at some of his past defensive performances for the U.S., but the DaMarcus Beasley called in for these qualifiers is not the same player. He is far more experienced and played extremely well for his Liga MX side.
Klinsmann will be tempted to start Cameron and Gonzales in the center again, but the situation warrants a tactical change. Cameron can play anywhere on the back line and will line up as a fullback, Edu can slip into the center with Gonzales and Beasley should take the fullback spot opposite Cameron.
The U.S. defense instantly goes from wide-eyed rookies to a comfortable combination of talent and experience. Throw in a battle-tested veteran goalkeeper in Brad Guzan, who is single-handedly saving Aston Villa from the drop despite playing behind a back line of kindergartners, and the lemons start to taste sweeter and sweeter.
The reality is that this is the player pool the USMNT must deal with for this World Cup cycle and, as Klinsmann has said, the only way to get World Cup qualifying experience is to play in World Cup qualifiers.
What else could Klinsmann have done? Pair up Bocanegra with Oguchi Onyewu? Give Alexi Lalas a pair of cleats and some shorts?
Where should Geoff Cameron play against Costa Rica?
Cameron and Gonzales are the most talented pair of defenders the USMNT has ever fielded. And Klinsmann knows this.
With an inexperienced defense, he runs the risk of losing these two games and perhaps not even qualifying. But, if he can bloody his very talented Hex-rookies and get them ready for Brazil in the process, then he wins his bet.
And there is nothing like a couple of results to shut up "anonymous players."