11 US Soccer Questions Jurgen Klinsmann Still Must Answer Before the World Cup
If creating a World Cup roster is akin to building a car, the 32 teams heading to Brazil should be in the fine-tuning stages at this point. A little more speed here. A tad more force there. With just over two weeks before the World Cup officially kicks off, teams should be worrying about the little things.
For Jurgen Klinsmann and his U.S. Soccer 23-man squad, the little things will have to wait.
After Klinsmann's squad defeated Azerbaijan 2-0 in the first of three send-off matches before leaving for Brazil, parts are all over the garage and big things are still being decided. Do we need a new front end? Does anyone really know if the back line will hold up under pressure, or will it fall apart in the intense heat?
Following Tuesday's match, Klinsmann said, via Franco Panizo of Soccer by Ives:
I think it was exactly what we needed at this point of our preparation after two fully loaded weeks at Stanford with a lot of training sessions, a lot of work. They gave us a good game. We needed to grind it out. That’s what we told the players before. You’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to find a way to score a goal and then a second one.
The engine of Klinsmann's car is in place—we know who and what powers the USMNT—but with just two matches and a few weeks of training left between the official start of this World Cup race, a lot still needs to be done if anyone expects Klinsmann's team to go anywhere.
That said, the first send-off match will never be as crisp as the last, and while the opponent in Tuesday's victory is the weakest of the three the USMNT will face before leaving for Brazil—Azerbaijan is ranked 85th in the current FIFA rankings, while Turkey is 39th and Nigeria 44th—one must hope Tuesday's result was a 90-minute exercise in removing all of the rust.
There are questions that linger—we chose 11 loose parts, if you will—some of which Klinsmann may know the answers to, with others that Tuesday did little to fix.
1. Dempsey's Groin
Clearly the biggest concern coming out of the win on Tuesday night is the health of Clint Dempsey, who was in warm-ups for the USMNT before becoming a last-minute scratch with what Klinsmann called "groin soreness." Both at halftime in speaking with Jeremy Schaap of ESPN and after the match with the pool of reporters, Klinsmann was confident that Dempsey will be fine.
It’s not serious at all. He had a little pain yesterday in training and he told me about it. In the warm-up, he was just a little bit nervous about it. I talked to the physio about it and he said he needs just one or two days of rest. That’s what he needs and because of that work that we did, the players have pretty much been on the edge.
Wondolowski was active in Dempsey's absence, but the U.S. is going to need its captain at full strength if there is any hope of getting out of the group stage in Brazil.
Moreover, Dempsey needs time with whomever he will team up with on the front line, as well as more time with Michael Bradley—the aforementioned engine of this All-American ride—and the rest of the attacking midfield. The team plays differently when Dempsey is on the field, and the rest of the players were surely impacted by his absence.
How long he is out, and how that affects the preparation for Ghana, is Klinsmann's most pressing issue coming out of the first send-off match.
2. Jozy, Wondo and the Ice Man
Fitness aside, the biggest lingering question about the attacking force for U.S. Soccer is whether Jozy Altidore is a lock to start against the intensely physical back lines of Ghana, Portugal and Germany. (Imagining Altidore trying to outmuscle Pepe and Bruno Alves is making me quiver.)
Klinsmann uses Altidore as a target forward in both a 4-4-2 formation (which really becomes a 4-4-1-1 with Dempsey on the field) and the 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1). The USMNT has grown accustomed to playing with Altidore alone up top, and that may not be the best plan of attack in Brazil.
Altidore has not shown he is consistently strong or skilled enough to play that target role. His first touch near the box often lets him down, and he rarely uses his physically imposing stature on the field to his advantage. His best work for the U.S. team has actually been when he receives the ball outside the box, deeper up the field, where he can lay the ball off to a midfielder or use coinciding runs to create more space.
As an in-the-box target man, Altidore struggles. How many times did he fall to the ground against Azerbaijan on Tuesday? And while he got a few of the calls near the box, it's foolhardy to expect he will get them in Brazil with a (hopefully) higher caliber of referee.
Altidore's work up front can make the job of everyone around him easier, but when he's not on form—and let's be clear: he is not on form after a disastrous season in the English Premier League in which he scored one goal in nearly 2,000 minutes—he bogs down the entire attack.
More than anyone, Altidore needs time to gel with Dempsey. It's not about scoring for Altidore, but he has to show more than the few flashes he did against Azerbaijan. He has to do more.
Frankly, Aron Johannsson, who scored a second-half goal on a wide-open header, is the better option to start right now. Klinsmann seems to like him as a second-half spark, while Altidore's skill set is far less effective coming off the bench. And while Wondolowski got the nod in Dempsey's absence on Tuesday, Johannsson is a better option than him as well.
Surely the wind was an issue in San Francisco, but Wondolowski had two chances to give the U.S. a first-half lead off headers in the box, and he failed to net either. The second was admittedly a twisting ball stopped by a great save by keeper Kamran Aghayev, but the first was a poor effort from Wondolowski, heading the wide-open chance right at the keeper.
In Brazil, that ball has to go in.
In the second half in San Francisco, Johannsson's header did. Wondolowski was active in his time on the field, and he did a solid job in a surprise start, but he is there to finish. So is Altidore, and both should be given parts of the next two matches to prove they can.
If not, there are other options available. The question is whether Klinsmann will go to them.
3. Bradley and Jones
The engine of the car needs to be running smoothly in two weeks, and while we know what that engine looks like, some serious fine-tuning clearly needs to be done.
Bradley is at his best when he is able to get involved in the attack. The first U.S. goal came off a contested header that fell to Bradley, who rocketed a shot that had to be stopped by a defender on the line, careening to an opportunistic Mix Diskerud, who buried home the rebound.
That is the type of play Bradley needs to do more of, but he can't when he doesn't trust that Jermaine Jones will stay home in a more central defending role.
Jones has his merits at this stage. He's one of the few players on the team that has high-level European club experience. He is incredibly tough and physical—bordering on dirty—and he can disrupt what the opponent is trying to do in the center of the field when he stays home.
It's clear Bradley has played better when he feels his center-midfield partner is more focused on the defensive end. Kyle Beckerman was one of the three midfield players who did not get time against Azerbaijan, making it seem Klinsmann has no plans to use the MLS standout over a player with more European experience.
Klinsmann trusts Jones, but it just doesn't look like Bradley does. At one point in the match against Azerbaijan, the cameras caught Bradley giving Jones the "stay the heck back" hand gesture, reminding him that they can't both roam and join the attack whenever they want.
Will Jones let Bradley get forward without worrying about a gaping hole behind him? Will the formation or the personnel have to change if he doesn't?
4. The Center-Back Woes
Klinsmann selected three traditional center-backs for his World Cup roster. On Tuesday, only two of them played, and just one of them started.
Matt Besler, who was surprisingly solid in qualifying, which made him a lock for Brazil, got the nod at center-back with Geoff Cameron, a player who has to be on the field for Klinsmann, only nobody can figure out where.
Cameron would be best served in a defensive midfield role, but there is a logjam there with Jones and Bradley patrolling the middle of the field and Beckerman waiting on the bench.
Cameron could be better served out wide as a right-back—something he did quite a bit for Klinsmann out of necessity in qualifying—but with a healthy Fabian Johnson controlling that position and other options in Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin on the team, the chances of Cameron playing out wide are slim to none.
So center-back it is, out of need more than anything.
Besler, however, looked timid in the first half. It was more than that—he looked nervous. His passes in the back were short and off target. He had a bad giveaway early in the match that a better offensive team would have buried past Tim Howard.
If Besler is nervous against the lackluster striking force of Azerbaijan, what will he look like against the other teams in Group G?
The problem is that Besler is the best of the bunch. Omar Gonzalez came in for Cameron in the second half and looked even less prepared for the world stage. He had one highlight moment in which he thwarted a one-on-one challenge in the box after a Bradley turnover, but even then he went to ground for no reason, nearly creating a penalty-shot situation instead of staying strong on his feet.
Gonzalez takes too many chances in the box for him to be trusted against a more aggressive and skilled offense. That seems obvious. And yet, Gonzalez got the nod before John Brooks, who didn't play at all against a team that would have given him the opportunity to show some development.
The inclusion of Brooks in the next two matches will answer the question of whether Klinsmann really thinks Brooks is ready or if he was just making good on a promise to bring him to Brazil.
No matter what that call, it seems after one match that Clarence Goodson would have been the better choice over some (or all) of the options at center-back. He isn't great, but at least he can be trusted not to panic.
5. Fabian and the Left-Backs
"Fabian and the Left-Backs" sounds like an imaginary indie rock band, but now it's a World Cup reality.
A year ago, we all just assumed Johnson would be the left-back, but when he was injured and DaMarcus Beasley had to fill in for Klinsmann during qualifying, those plans changed.
Johnson is a natural left-back, but he has played right-back for his club team, making the decision to install him on the right side easier for Klinsmann to make. Still, you can see he's more inclined to cut inside on his runs, and he's far more comfortable going back to the center-backs or Howard with the ball than he is pushing passes up the sideline to his wings.
It's also interesting that Johnson being installed on the right puts Timmy Chandler in the mix on the left. Beasley deserves first consideration after what he's done the last few months, but if Chandler is fit, he is surely the more secure option as a natural defender.
One has to wonder, though, if the team would be better served with that decision coming in the next two weeks, so Johnson and Chandler can both be in more natural positions on the other sides of the field.
Still, at this point in the World Cup journey, it's good to see a group of full-backs the coaching staff—and fans—can start to trust. Klinsmann just needs to figure out where to put them.
6. Formation and Tactics
Call me old-fashioned, but I like a good 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, so I was happy to see Klinsmann install that formation against Azerbaijan.
Klinsmann has said he plans to use three different formations at times in the World Cup, depending on the opponent and in-game situation, so it will be interesting to see how the tactics change against Turkey and Nigeria.
Frankly, Azerbaijan's model of putting 10 players behind the ball didn't do much for the U.S. in terms of movement and spacing, but it was a good lesson on how to score with little space. That's important for the World Cup.
The diamond midfield also let Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya both get wide and tuck in for overlaps from the defenders, making the team far more difficult to cover and much tougher to counter. (Not that Azerbaijan had any interest in countering.)
The questions Klinsmann still has to answer with regard to the formation, however, are important. What happens to the offense if Altidore is out? Dempsey, Wondolowski and Johannsson aren't exactly lone forwards. And if Klinsmann goes to a more offensive 4-3-3 by advancing Bedoya or playing three traditional forwards together, how narrow will a midfield of Bradley, Jones and Zusi have to play?
And what is the third formation? Could Klinsmann be thinking about a five-man back line, playing three center-backs, which would allow Johnson and Beasley or Chandler the opportunity to get down the flanks more freely? Or is that just crazy to think about this late in the process for a team without any real, solid options at center-back?
7. The No. 10
Heading into the match on Tuesday, there was a lot of chatter about which player would wear the historic No. 10 jersey now that Donovan is out of the mix for Klinsmann's current roster configuration.
The honor—or burden, perhaps—went to Mix Diskerud, who came in during the 71st minute and immediately had an impact on the match, scoring the game's first goal just four minutes later.
Diskerud had a high-energy 20 minutes and seemed aggressive in an attacking-midfield role in replacing Bedoya.
Bedoya looked active in the first half, but as the game moved along, he slowed and his effectiveness on the left flank lessened. Could Klinsmann be preparing a system where Bedoya and Diskerud sub in like-for-like during the World Cup, giving himself the leeway to replace an attacking midfielder with another forward if trailing, or another defensive midfielder like Beckerman if trying to hold a lead?
If that's the case, which player will Klinsmann use as a starter, and which will come off the bench?
Both Bedoya and Diskerud seem better when installed as a super-sub type of spark off the bench, but they can't both be. Can they?
Diskerud hasn't proven he can be that dynamic playmaker for 90 minutes yet, but maybe that's not what Klinsmann needs out of his No. 10 this time around. Still, this reads like a lot of maybes, which means nothing after one match is settled. How long it takes will depend on how much the staff trusts Diskerud.
8. Faith in How Many?
I threw a little question out on Twitter during the match asking how many players people feel comfortable about after one match. The most I got back was three: Howard, Bradley and Zusi.
Even some people questioned Bradley's game on Tuesday, and with Dempsey's injury, there are far more questions as to the starting lineup than answers.
I took a more optimistic approach to the lineup, and it seems there were five or six players I felt Klinsmann can trust when facing Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
Howard is a rock. Bradley will be fine once (if) he trusts those around him, and Zusi has proven to be Donovan 2.0 on the right side, as sure a starter as any player could be at this stage of the World Cup process.
There were two or three others I feel confident about starting. Fabian Johnson is a fine wing defender on either side. He's not Dani Alves or Philipp Lahm, no, but he does enough that my heart doesn't skip a beat when he's faced with a one-on-one. And Geoff Cameron deserves to be on the field somewhere. Whether that is center-back at the World Cup level remains to be seen, but my fears are lessened when he is involved.
The sixth player I felt handled himself well, at least for a half, was Bedoya, who proved he can be active and work hard on the flank to pressure the opponent and turn defense immediately into offense. This is not a fast team, especially with Altidore and Dempsey up top, and Bedoya adds some of that.
My confidence wavered as he tired, however, putting me back down to five players. Oh, but let's not ignore Johannsson, for whom I'm totally in the bag at this point. I like him certainly more than Klinsmann does.
And that's the real question here: How many of the players does Klinsmann trust? And at what point in the process with that answer be "all 11"?
9. The PKs
Another question posed on Twitter on Tuesday night: Who in the world will take the penalty kicks for this team?
You know it's a World Cup cycle when people get mad at you for asking that, suggesting that the U.S. won't get out of the group stage this year and won't have to worry about a penalty-kick situation.
I hate to burst that ridiculous "new to soccer every four years" bubble, but penalty kicks happen all the time in the regular course of play.
In Tuesday's match, the USMNT deserved two different penalty-kick opportunities: first on a handball in the box after a Jozy Altidore flick-on in the first half that was deemed incidental contact; and second on a clear takedown of Brad Davis inside the box in the second half that was whistled, but given outside the area.
Neither provided a chance for the U.S. at the spot, but it did introduce the question of whom Klinsmann will trust to take an in-game penalty.
Even when healthy, Dempsey can't take them. He can't. HE CAN'T. So who can?
Zusi has been the go-to guy for free kicks, but he's less of a natural scorer than distributor, and he did somewhat famously miss a penalty that could have won Sporting KC last year's MLS Cup. (They won anyway.)
So who, then? Altidore? Is it Altidore?
Without Donovan on the field—or in Brazil—it could be Altidore who gets the nod for an in-game penalty. I might pick Bradley first, but that guy already has enough pressure heading into this tournament. Maybe it should be someone like Beasley?
Let's hope in the next two matches, a situation comes up where Klinsmann has to make that call. It's better to know now than in Brazil.
10. The Ball, the Wind and the Jungle
The elements were surely an issue on Tuesday, with the wind whipping so ferociously the ball was actually rolling on several free kicks.
“It’s a difficult game for a lot of reasons,” Bradley said, via Franco Panizo of Soccer by Ives. “Obviously, the conditions, the wind make it difficult, and this is a team that is difficult to play against."
Elements can be a part of any tough match—see The Snow Game, for example—and the situation in the jungle in Manaus is going to be tough for both the United States and Portugal in the second match of the World Cup. How each side handles the elements could go a long way in determining which team gets a positive result in that group-stage match.
Frankly, the United States didn't handle the elements very well on Tuesday. With the wind pushing balls all over the field, the team consistently opted to play the ball in the air rather than building up with controlled ground passing.
The control game has never been the strongest point of any U.S. team, but given the elements at play against Azerbaijan, the ability to adapt seemed difficult for some players, especially those in the back.
Moreover, there was ball after ball being rocketed over the net on Tuesday. That could have been because of the wind, but it has to stop before the team goes to Brazil.
It's interesting, in seeing the erroneous shots cascade into the crowd, that U.S. Soccer chose to use a Nike ball for this friendly. USMNT has been training with the Adidas Brazuca ball during camp but opted to play with a sponsor-affiliated ball instead of one they will use in two weeks.
Money talks, it seems.
11. Brooks, Green and the 24th Man
And now the elephant(s) in the room.
Other than Kyle Beckerman, the only two field players who did not play on Tuesday were John Brooks and Julian Green, the two players Klinsmann was able to coral into the USMNT fold this season, and the two players with the least experience on the roster.
If there are two names fans wanted to see prove they can play at a top-flight level, they're Brooks and Green, yet Klinsmann opted to leave them out of the lineup on Tuesday, giving them 180 minutes of time (at most) to prepare for whatever contribution they will make in Brazil.
That is the biggest question for Klinsmann. If he chose Brooks and Green over Goodson and Donovan, did he do so with any intention of actually playing them, or are they just along for the ride?
Brooks is clearly the last option at center-back after his woeful initiation for the national team. Green has less pressure on him as an offensive wing player—his mistakes are less likely to cost the U.S. a match than a center-back or central midfielder—but it was surprising to see him excluded from the lineup in a game that could have used his pace and footskills in a cramped offensive third.
Is Klinsmann playing this decidedly close to the vest, or will Green (and Brooks for that matter) be given time in each of the next two matches? Even then, will that be enough time to truly get a sense if either is World Cup match ready?
Now, I promise not to belabor this last issue—and maybe the question is more for the fans at this point than for Klinsmann—but Clint Dempsey pulling up in warm-ups sent out a giant signal into the sky that Landon Donovan may be needed if someone gets too hurt in camp to play.
Look, we aren't wishing for anyone to get hurt, but of all the players on the team, Dempsey is one of the most important to make sure he is healthy in Brazil.
Still, if someone does go down with an injury, will Klinsmann really call in Donovan, or will we be getting some excuse about the things Joe Corona can do on the field that Landon can't?
After all that's been said, done and written over the last week, is Donovan still the 24th man? And as Taylor Twellman mentioned when discussing Dempsey's injury on the ESPN telecast, is it time we all stop talking about it?
That is, until the situation comes up, which it looked like it might for a spell on Tuesday. Let's hope it doesn't again, and let's hope Klinsmann can get some of these questions answered and more of this machine running smoothly in time for Ghana.