The start of the Jurgen Klinsmann era feels a lot like the end of the Bob Bradley one, in that we have no clue who the best 11 players are. Unlike the Bradley era, where it felt we never had a clue who was going to start which game, Klinsmann is using this set of friendly matches as more of a fact-finding mission than barometer for success. Still, the facts remain from Bradley's tenure: Nobody has any clue who the best four defenders in the system are and if they have enough depth at the position to compete at a world-class level. It may be a while before we find out the answer to either of those questions.
Fun fact: In the last 36 matches that Tim Howard has started in goal for United States Men's National Soccer Team, he has seen 22 different back lines start in front of him. In total, Howard has played behind nearly 30 different variations at some point in his last 36 games for the Red, White and Blue. Keep in mind, this number does not include matches that Marcus Hahnemann, Brad Guzan or Troy Perkins started in net for the USMNT, some of which were important matches in World Cup qualifying. This is just what Howard had to work with.
Since September 6, 2008, only seven players have more than double-digit caps on defense, so there is some consistency. That said, Howard has seen 18 different players line up on defense. Consistency is a relative term.
Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, Jonathan Bornstein, Jonathan Spector, Clarence Goodson, Eric Lichaj, Heath Pearce, Tim Ream, Frankie Hejduk, Timmy Chandler, Edgar Castillo, Michael Orozco Fiscal, DeMarcus Beasley, Omar Gonzalez, Chad Marshall and Marvell Wynne have all started games in front of Howard in the last three years.
That's too many. Well, it's too many for the lack of depth they've shown at the position.
The fact is, Bocanegra is the best center-back and the best left-back in the system and they still haven't found adequate depth behind him at either position. Under Bob Bradley, it looked like the jobs could eventually go to Ream and Lichaj, but under Jurgen Klinsmann, the starting nods have, thus far, gone to Orozco Fiscal and Castillo. Granted, some of the players weren't available for Klinsmann's first few matches, but that just means more potential combinations and throwing more ideas against a wall in hopes something sticks.
I spoke to Howard after the United States' draw with Mexico in Klinsmann's coaching debut, and while he understands the need for a consistent back line, Howard does see some positive signs for the defense coming together.
"Chemistry is vital in defending but it's not the end of the world. You have to have a goal in mind. You have to have a date, a time frame, in mind to where you want to have that foundation, but in order to get there, you have to try new things. You have to build on that. We're trying. It's not easy.
"I'm a big believer in communication. That's the best way you can begin to understand and gel as a back four—body language, verbal communication. That doesn't just happen on the field, it happens in training. It's a process, but I think we're definitely in the right direction."
The key for the entire roster, not just the defense, is what the date to have that foundation set actually is. When does Klinsmann stop fact-finding and start team-building? It doesn't have to be just yet, and this set of friendly matches is certainly helping him get a sense of the players' commitment to the national side and their ability to help the United States qualify for and compete in the World Cup.
That is the goal, right? Compete in the World Cup? That brings up the next question on defense: How long will the likes of Bocanegra and Cherundolo be able to hold down the fort in front of Howard? Of the seven players with 10 or more caps on defense in front of Howard, only Spector will be under the age of 30 for the next World Cup. At what point is it smart for Klinsmann to cut bait on the older players in an effort to let the younger crop of defenders develop together?
I posed that question to former U.S. national team star Alexi Lalas, who told me that it's not as black and white as I make it sound.
"You use [the older players] as much as you can. If you say 'this player is not going to make it three years from now, but I can get something out of him in the next year,' you string him along.
"It's always changing. You see guys who play a big part in qualifying who don't play in the World Cup. I don't think it's necessarily in terms of years. There are six months increments that completely change the way a player is, either in reality or the perception the coach has of them."
As with any player who plays a long time at a world-class level, Lalas was in a similar position to Bocanegra and Cherundolo. He knows how hard it is for an aging player, who was once the best option at his position, to start to see the writing on the wall for the next World Cup cycle.
"It sucks, you know. More often than not the decision is made for you on the national team because it's so elite and you just don't get called in, or when you do get called in, you're now not starting and you figure it out very very quickly. It hurts. It usually never comes when you want it to come, or when you anticipate it will come."
The question isn't just when the older players in front of Howard will be replaced—for this argument, let's assume that Howard is still America's best option in net in 2014 (another column for another time, perhaps)—but who those players will be. Can you pencil in Chandler, Lichaj and Ream into your World Cup starting XI? Does Spector fit in somewhere? Will Orozco Fiscal take this newfound opportunity and flourish? Can Castillo shake off early jitters, or will he be Klinsmann's version of Bornstein? Will Gonzalez, or a young player we haven't seen yet, get into the mix? Will Klinsmann go green-card shopping to fill out his defense overseas? Will Bocanegra and Cherundolo, at 35, still be America's best options on defense?
As Lalas told me, "Jurgen has some decisions to make." He certainly does. Now, when will he start making them?
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