With the 2014 World Cup underway, is it bad that Jurgen Klinsmann's likely tactics remain completely up in the air?
The former World Cup winner made waves when he decided to exclude Landon Donovan from his final 23-man roster for this summer's tournament. While the 32-year-old Los Angeles Galaxy star is clearly on the decline and years past his best, he likely had a role to play, even if it was as small as an impact substitute.
Klinsmann had this to say about leaving off Donovan, per U.S. Soccer:
This is certainly one of the toughest decisions in my coaching career, to tell a player like him, with everything he has done and what he represents, to tell him that he’s not part of that 23 right now. I just see some other players slightly ahead of him. He’s been in that final 30 roster and now the last 10 days, he did everything right. He was always positive; he took it the best way possible. His disappointment is huge, which I totally understand. He took it very professionally. He knows I have the highest respect for him, but I have to make the decisions as of today for this group going to Brazil. I just think the other guys, right now, are a little bit ahead of him. I told him that and he understands it, but obviously he is very disappointed.
Since fans have had a few weeks to let cooler heads prevail, Donovan's snub has dominated less and less of the conversation. After all, why talk about the guys who aren't going to the World Cup?
Let's take a look at the 23 players who will carry the hopes of a nation on their shoulders, as well as the starting XI.
|Brad Guzan||Aston Villa|
|Nick Rimando||Real Salt Lake|
|Matt Besler||Sporting Kansas City|
|John Brooks||Hertha Berlin|
|Geoff Cameron||Stoke City|
|Omar Gonzalez||Los Angeles Galaxy|
|Fabian Johnson||Borussia Monchengladbach|
|DeAndre Yedlin||Seattle Sounders|
|Kyle Beckerman||Real Salt Lake|
|Michael Bradley||Toronto FC|
|Brad Davis||Houston Dynamo|
|Julian Green||Bayern Munich|
|Graham Zusi||Sporting Kansas City|
|Clint Dempsey||Seattle Sounders|
|Aron Johannsson||AZ Alkmaar|
|Chris Wondolowski||San Jose Earthquakes|
The biggest surprise inclusion on the overall squad is winger Julian Green. While the Tampa, Florida, native has shown promise in the Bayern Munich youth system, he's very inexperienced for a tournament this grand, having appeared as a substitute in just one match for the Bayern first team.
Should Green make an appearance, he'd be the youngest American player to appear at a World Cup, per ESPN's Paul Carr:
If he plays, soon-to-be 19-year-old Julian Green will be the youngest American to appear in a World Cup game.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) May 22, 2014
Many fans felt that Green was promised a role in the national team in order for him to spurn Germany for the U.S. He dismissed any such speculation, per Soccer by Ives' Ives Galarcep:
I asked Julian Green what he thought of notion he was promised World Cup spot before camp even started. He scoffed, stated he had to earn it— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) May 23, 2014
In a way, the Green situation is the cost that American soccer must pay for not cultivating any home-grown talent of its own. The structure of youth soccer in the country and MLS' single-entity system make it very difficult for the U.S. to discover and nurture emerging young talent.
As a result, players with the potential of Green will be handled differently. If that means they're fast-tracked to the national team, so be it.
The other big surprise was Timmy Chandler. Before playing against Azerbaijan on May 27, he hadn't appeared in a national team match since his disastrous performance against Honduras in a World Cup qualifier on Feb. 6, 2013.
Some supporters took exception to how Klinsmann always stuck to his belief that every player would have to earn his place in the squad. Yet even by the most objective standards, Chandler and Green have done little to prove themselves with the U.S.
Brad Davis was another somewhat surprising inclusion, but his performance against Azerbaijan showed that he can be deadly on set pieces and crossing in from the left flank. At the time of writing, Davis has the highest rating (7.63) of any Houston Dynamo player, according to WhoScored.com.
Klinsmann used a 4-2-3-1 for much of the qualifying campaign, but of late, he's been trying out a 4-4-2 with Michael Bradley in an attacking midfield position and Jermaine Jones as a deeper defensive midfielder. He used the diamond against both Azerbaijan and Turkey in the United States' warm-up friendlies for the World Cup.
What's nice about this formation is that both Bradley's and Jones' roles are clearly delineated. When playing the two in a double-pivot in the past, they would both move forward at times, leaving the back four exposed. It was the same problem Germany had at Euro 2012 with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, so the issue isn't unique to the States.
While not up to the level of Kyle Beckerman in terms of a pure defender, Jones is an underrated passer who can at least help get the ball moving from the back. He also possesses enough speed to cover the flanks for the full-backs when they want to get forward.
He looked very good in the friendly against Azerbaijan:
Jermaine Jones best player on the pitch over the course of the game. Did work for two including a disappointing Bradley.— Cristian Nyari (@Cnyari) May 28, 2014
Playing closer to the attack allows Bradley to be more of a creator rather than defender. He can play a variety of roles in the midfield, but for the U.S., he's arguably better off as a CAM.
Bradley himself also publicly endorsed the formation.
"It means that I'm able to have a little more freedom, have the ability to be a little more two-way and be more up-and-down," he said, per FIFA.com. "It's certainly something I enjoy."
The good thing about the 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 is that they can both be tweaked in the middle of the match to transform into the other. If the U.S. start in a 4-4-2, Bradley can drop deeper, while Clint Dempsey occupies the CAM role, and then vice versa to go from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1.
Some may believe that changing to a completely different formation this close to the World Cup is a sign of desperation, but considering how daunting Group G is, Klinsmann may need to take risks in order to secure passage to the knockout stages.
Barring injury, Tim Howard deserves to be the starting goalkeeper, and that's the end of that. Either Brad Guzan or Nick Rimando would be good in emergency situations, but the Everton shot-stopper is far and away the Americans' best options. At 35 years old, this will almost certainly be Howard's last World Cup.
Fabian Johnson is a wild card in the back four. He would seem a more natural left-back, but Klinsmann hasn't been afraid to play him on the right, with Chandler and DaMarcus Beasley on the left, per Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl:
Intriguing choice of "inverted fullbacks" by Klinsmann with left-footed Johnson at RB & right-footed Chandler at LB.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) June 1, 2014
The switch isn't unique to Johnson, who appeared in 14 Bundesliga matches at right-back, according to WhoScored.com:
* Fabian Johnson has said at various times that he's right-footed or two-footed.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) June 1, 2014
Chandler is predominantly right-footed, which makes the switch to left-back a little more quizzical, but Beasley is a far from reassuring option at the position. Klinsmann is in a tough bind, and his decision here to start Beasley won't drastically help the situation.
In the center, a partnership of Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler should flourish. Cameron is the more physical presence, while Besler is the ball-playing defender, passing out of the back to help create the attack:
My observation is that a central defense pairing of Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler is looking likely in Brazil #usmnt— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) May 12, 2014
Omar Gonzalez was a favorite of Klinsmann for a little while, but after Besler and Cameron started together against both Turkey and Azerbaijan, the Los Angeles Galaxy center-back is on the outside looking in.
At this point in his career, John Brooks is still too inexperienced to be counted upon in a starting role. He's firmly behind Cameron, Besler and Gonzalez in the pecking order.
As mentioned earlier, in a 4-4-2 diamond, Bradley would be the spearhead of the attack, while Jones would be the last line of defense.
Klinsmann may want a surer pair of feet, which could be why he has opted to start Beckerman. The Real Salt Lake defensive midfielder has plenty of experience with the formation playing for his club, and he is more of a pure shield rather than facilitator/creator.
Beckerman's lack of speed may cause trouble, though, if he has to compensate for his full-backs' attacking runs.
More than likely, Klinsmann will stick with Jones in the tournament.
Alejandro Bedoya, Graham Zusi and Brad Davis are his best options out wide. Bedoya is the most creative of the three. He's much better out on the right than he is on the left, and he gets the nod against Ghana.
Zusi and Davis would both be good on the left wing. A natural left-footer, Davis is a strong crosser and could provide support out wide. Zusi, on the other hand, is best suited playing on the left with an attacking full-back so that he can cut inside on goal and not have the team sacrifice any width.
Green and Mix Diskerud will likely fill in as impact subs later in games.
If Klinsmann sticks with the 4-4-2, Dempsey will be utilized as a support striker for either Jozy Altidore or Aron Johannsson. He and Obafemi Martins have formed a lethal 1-2 punch for the Seattle Sounders. Dempsey has both the creativity and skill to play in an advanced position off the No. 9.
The bigger issue for the coach had to be deciding whether Altidore or Johannsson would start alongside the American captain.
Altidore's performance against Turkey was encouraging, but there's no getting around his paltry goal record this season. One goal for Sunderland in 31 Premier League appearances is a terrible return.
Johannsson, on the other hand, is coming off a season in which he scored 17 goals in the Eredivisie, coincidentally filling in for Altidore at AZ Alkmaar after his move to the Black Cats.
In the end, he went with Altidore for the opener. It will be interesting to see how his decision pans out for the United States.