Coming off a four-point effort in their last two World Cup qualifiers, it would be easy to think that all is well for the United States men’s national team. But a number of questions still linger, buoyed by the U.S.’ poor performance against Honduras to open up the hexagonal, the U.S.’ struggles in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying, a lack of offensive production and questionable decision-making by U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
So, what can be done to shake off lingering doubts about Klinsmann’s leadership and put the U.S. on a solid footing heading into this summer?
Here are four ideas.
In Klinsmann’s 24 games in charge, he has put 24 different starting lineups out on the field for the U.S., changed the team’s formation at least six times and normally raises eyebrows with his roster selections by both who is included and who is left out.
To an extent, some of this is understandable. Klinsmann has been limited, at times, in who can be called in due to injuries. He was obviously experimenting, as he should have, with the formation in his first games in charge of the U.S. And, he has, for the most part, stuck to his strategy of calling in players who are currently in good form with their clubs.
However, Klinsmann’s decisions about the lineup, the formation and the roster have always had a haphazard, piecemeal, random feel to them.
Klinsmann is always willing to try to justify his decisions, but his lack of organization or any clearly coherent thought process has been the focus of much criticism. Most recently, those complaints were voiced by the players themselves, if anonymously, in Brian Strauss’ piece for the Sporting News, which came out before the team’s March World Cup qualifiers.
One win against Costa Rica and a fortuitous draw away to Mexico is not enough to make those concerns go away.
Vet the Youngsters in the Gold Cup
One of the big criticisms of Klinsmann over his nearly two years in charge of the USMNT is the lack of opportunity given to some of the more exciting prospects in the U.S.’ player pool.
To be fair, every player must earn both their call-ups and their playing time, but having had 15 friendlies to work with, it seems a bit silly that Terrence Boyd, Juan Agudelo, Josh Gatt, Alejandro Bedoya, Joe Corona and Mix Diskerud have all have played less than 180 minutes under Klinsmann.
On one hand, Klinsmann must be given credit for bringing along Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson and Graham Zusi. However, taking over the team in August of 2011 gave Klinsmann a period of almost three years to develop players for the next World Cup. Now 13 months away from Brazil, many of those players are still sitting on the sidelines waiting for their opportunity.
This summer’s Gold Cup is the perfect opportunity to finally get those players some action and see which players stand out.
Use a Two-Striker Set
Clint Dempsey’s versatility is both a blessing and a curse. While Dempsey is always the U.S. player most likely to score, he is not truly a No. 7, a No. 10 or a No. 9, but rather a hybrid of all three.
With the USMNT under Bob Bradley and in his club games with both Fulham and Tottenham, Dempsey has often faced the same dilemma. Bradley usually started Dempsey on the wing and then moved him up top for the last 30 minutes of the game when his poaching skills were most needed.
Fulham played Dempsey on both the wings and up top and Tottenham have played him on the wing, up top and as the attacking midfielder.
Most often, under Klinsmann, Dempsey has been deployed as a No. 10, working underneath a single striker.
In 11 of Klinsmann’s 24 games in charge, Jozy Altidore has started as that solo striker. And despite Altidore’s 30-goal tear with AZ Alkmaar this season, he has not been able to bring the same form to the USMNT.
So what is the big difference between Altidore’s club form and his form for the U.S.? Many would point to the fact that Altidore plays up top at AZ with a partner, not as a single, isolated striker (he also receives far more service from his club midfield).
The difficulty for Klinsmann is how to put the U.S. into a two-striker set. If Klinsmann is insistent on playing three center midfielders, a two-striker set is impossible.
He could play a Bob Bradley-style “empty-bucket” 4-2-2-2, but that would feel like a regression in style.
He could go back to the 4-1-2-1-2 that produced four goals against Slovenia in November 2011, but that leaves the U.S. narrow in the midfield.
Finally, Klinsmann could play the U.S. in the 4-1-3-2 that worked well in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying.
However it is accomplished, the U.S. needs to be in a two-striker set. In the U.S.’ first three hexagonal World Cup qualifiers, it has only managed three shots on goal, two of them goals by Clint Dempsey. Clearly, the level of offensive production needs to increase, and giving the U.S. two players up top should go a long way toward solving that problem.
Make Peace with Landon Donovan
Despite the fact that both Klinsmann and Landon Donovan have always said the right things publicly, insisting that their relationship is not fractious, the questions have persisted.
A recent article by Goal.com explored the history of their divide, and whispers of Donovan and Klinsmann not seeing eye-to-eye have remained at the forefront of USMNT fan discussions.
The fact of the matter is, if the U.S. is to achieve its fullest potential over the next year, Klinsmann and Donovan must find a way to work together.
Even though Donovan is clearly near the end of his career, he is still one of the most gifted players in the USMNT’s player pool. His playmaking ability, passing and movement off the ball are far above what any other player can offer the U.S. on the wing.
Whether Klinsmann likes it or not, part of being a manager is having to occasionally swallow one’s pride and make things work with a “difficult” player. Klinsmann may disagree with Donovan’s sabbatical, but whatever problems the two have had, Klinsmann is the manager and must be the one to reach out and put those problems in the past.
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