USMNT: 5 Improvements Yanks Must Make Prior to World Cup Qualifying
Jürgen Klinsmann keeps saying it's not about the results. He wants to see a squad that is growing and players who are happy with their soccer.
Feeling good is alright, but there will come a time when fans will stop feeling good. That time will come when the Yanks aren't winning.
This week, Concacaf (the regional governing body) released the schedule for the next round of World Cup qualifiers. Beginning June 8th, the USMNT will face Antigua & Barbuda, Guatemala, and Jamaica. None of these teams will strike American fans with fear (they are ranked 90th, 99th, and 50th), but that doesn't mean qualifying will be a walk in the park.
More importantly, American fans are used to qualifying for World Cups these days. They won't want to just advance, they'll want to dominate games and advance with style. They'll want to see a team that's ready to succeed at the World Cup.
As Klinsmann gets ready for June 8th, he will need to fix some glaring problems with the American squad. What's a smiling German to do?
Here are five improvements that Klinsmann and his staff should make if the Yanks are going to be successful.
Shoring Up the Back Line
To put it politely, Clarence Goodson didn't play his best soccer this week. He was almost solely responsible for France's only goal as Loïc Rémy left him in the dust and slotted the ball into the goal.
Goodson has, at times, looked solid-enough for the Yanks, but solid-enough frankly isn't good enough. Klinsmann will need to settle on a partner for Carlos Bocanegra.
Most likely, that partner will be Oguchi "Gooch" Onyewu, whose return to first-team soccer at Sporting Lisbon can assuage some fan worries. Together Boca and Gooch will be a very strong pair of central defenders in front of one of the world's greatest goalkeepers.
However, Gooch's health and the fact that Boca is already 32 will make fans wonder, who could fill in that role if needed? Tim Ream, Clarence Goodson, and Michael Orozco Fiscal have failed to impress in friendlies.
Klinsmann will need to pull a rabbit from a hat before qualifying comes. And let's hope that rabbit has more pace than Clarence Goodson.
Call Up Omar Gonzalez
If US fans are worried about the center back pairing, imagine their bemusement that Omar Gonzalez has not been called into Klinsmann's squad.
Perhaps we should remind Klinsmann of Gonzalez's resume: 2009 Rookie of the Year, 2011 Defender of the Year, and MLS Best XI in both 2010 and 2011. That and he plays for what some have called one of the best teams in MLS history. Yes, this guy has yet to receive a call up from the USMNT.
Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Gonzalez could end up playing for the American's arch-rivals in soccer: Mexico. Until Gonzalez plays a competitive match for the Americans he can still switch allegiance.
Should that happen, I think fans would be forgiven for storming Klinsmann's Californian beach house with pitchforks. Gonzalez is young (23), but he will hopefully be in his prime for the World Cup in 2014 and the US will want him seasoned for international play.
There are few specific suggestions I can make, but this is one: Jürgen, put Omar Gonzalez in the USMNT now.
Two Up Top
Friendlies are a chance to experiment and learn, right? If so, let's hope that Klinsmann learns some lessons from last week's friendly in Slovenia.
Klinsmann has been experimenting with a 4-3-3 lineup with little success. Bob Bradley often tried it too and he discovered that the Yanks tended to get pinned back, effectively becoming a 4-5-1. That leaves Jozy Altidore all alone.
With Altidore finally blossoming on the European stage for AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie, fans will want to see him bring some of that magic to the American squad. But the biggest difference between the Yanks and the Dutch table-toppers is that for AZ Jozy isn't alone up top. It's not magic: if you give Jozy a strike partner, he scores goals.
On Tuesday, Klinsmann paired Jozy with Edson Buddle and guess what? Three goals. That's more goals scored than in all of the other games played under Klinsmann so far.
The lesson? Give Jozy a second striker to play off of. Buddle has often flattered to deceive for the Yanks, but he is better than nothing. Maybe it's Chris Wondolowski, maybe Juan Agudelo: someone will eventually fill that role.
But one thing is for sure, the Yanks need to start auditioning deep-lying forwards to pair with their target man so that strike-partnership is ready for qualifying.
Integrate the Kids
With Bob Bradley, you knew what you were going to get: Jozy up front, Donovan and Dempsey on the wings, and Michael Bradley in the engine room. While Klinsmann will certainly rely on many of the same cast of characters, he has already started to bring in fresh faces to his squad. The next step is getting those players to fit the existing system.
Brek Shea earned his first cap under Bradley, but looked remarkably out of his depth. Under Klinsmann he's earned a second chance and this time he seems ready for the international pace of the game. Shea has impressed on the left wing, but he needs time and perhaps a new European challenge before he cements a starting spot. The Yanks typically don't play with pacy left-wingers and if Klinsmann's going to change the team's shape, Shea will need to give him reason to change. By the way, can we start calling Shea by the nickname "Fraggle Rock?"
Klinsmann has brought in other new faces thanks to American GIs. Timothy Chandler, Danny Williams, and Fabian Johnson all played this week for the Americans: all are the product of a covert American operation to combine the genes of American soldiers with German women (note to Michael Bay: start making this movie).
Chandler, who plays on the right wing for FC Nuremberg, has been used in the perennial trouble-spot for the Americans: left fullback. So far, he has looked solid, but he's a player with a lot of promise and Klinsmann will need to work hard to get him impressing out of position. Johnson and Williams are newer to the squad and we haven't quite seen what they can do yet.
Klinsmann deserves some credit for bringing in some new players (I'm not forgetting about Gonzalez, though), but the next step is getting those players on the same page as the rest of the squad. Maybe that means getting some German lessons for the rest of the team.
Unleash Donovan's Imagination
American fans are often criticized for always praying for the next big thing. You can talk all day about Freddy Adu or Jozy Altidore, but you should be talking about the guy who is already the big thing.
Landon Donovan is by far the most creative force on the American squad. Dempsey is brilliant, sure, and Howard is legendary, but when it comes to putting other teams off their game, you have to go with Donovan every time.
Donovan has his detractors. They say he disappears during games, but what you can't see when you only watch games on TV is how much work Donovan does off the ball. When you go to a game (and go you should) you can forget everyone else, just watch Donovan. He pulls defenders out of positions and he throws in tackles, but more importantly he has a creative vision that American players tend to lack.
The problem is: where do you use a player like Donovan? He has played in an advanced, behind-the-striker role and he's also played as a winger who cuts inside.
As Klinsmann tinkers with the correct formation, he'll need to think through how to get the best out of Donovan (as well as with Dempsey, but that's another story) in whatever lineup he chooses. If he plays behind Jozy, how do we make sure he doesn't drop too deep (thus leaving Jozy alone) and if he plays on the wing, does that mean we can't use Shea?
These are questions above my pay-grade, but as with all these other problems, fans will want it sorted soon. World Cup Qualifying is just around the corner and that is the best time to solidify the American squad and tactics. Nothing is more important than finding the best way for Donovan to work his mojo on the pitch.