Assessing the State of USMNT Entering Hexagonal Round of World Cup Qualifying

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2016

JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 06:  Sacha Kljestan #16 of the United States (R) is congratulated by Christian Pulisic #10 and Fabian Johnson #23 following a goal during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier against Trinidad &Tobago at EverBank Field on September 6, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The United States men's national soccer team secured a spot in the Hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Tuesday with an emphatic 4-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago in Jacksonville, Florida.

The victory at EverBank Field clinched top spot in Group C in the penultimate round of qualifying in North America. The first-place finish earned the Yanks a match with Mexico at home on November 11 to open the Hex before visiting Costa Rica on November 15.

Ahead of what is expected to be the most competitive Hex of all time in just two months, let's assess the USMNT program as a whole with the 2018 FIFA World Cup less than two years away.

We broke down the state of the program into four categories. The performance section deals with the results on the pitch since the start of the year. The current personnel category is a look at who should be involved moving forward.

As it always is with any national-team program, development is key to examine as well, especially with a new generation of stars coming up the pipeline.

Finally, we'll take a look at the managerial decisions of Jurgen Klinsmann, who has come under plenty of criticism since taking the job.

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Performance

The USMNT's competitive slate didn't get off to a great start in 2016 as they fell 2-0 to Guatemala on the road in World Cup qualifying on March 25. Four days later, the Yanks reversed that result with a vital 4-0 victory that kept them alive in Group C.

After three consecutive victories in friendlies leading up to the Copa America Centenario, the Yanks dropped their opener at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, to Colombia.

Fortunately, the USMNT recovered with a pair of impressive wins over Costa Rica and Paraguay to close out group play. In the final group game against Paraguay, John Brooks delivered a masterful performance at center-back with his side down a man.

Jun 21, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; United States defender John Brooks (6) in action during the match against Argentina in the semifinals of the 2016 Copa America Centenario soccer tournament at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The quarterfinal win over Ecuador in front of a packed house in Seattle was the final positive of the tournament for the Yanks. A demoralizing loss to Argentina in the semifinal and a defeat at the hands of Colombia in the third-place contest set the Yanks back.

Luckily for the USMNT, they were able to dispel any negative energy that lingered from the Copa in their 6-0 win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Friday. Tuesday's thumping of the Soca Warriors was one of the best performances of the Klinsmann era thanks to the attacking talents of Jozy Altidore and Christian Pulisic.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jozy Altidore #17 of the United States in action during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago at EverBank Field on September 6, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The last two results have put the Yanks in a good direction moving forward, but it's important to consider the opponents. They were expected to win both games, and in order to dominate the Hex, the USMNT will have to earn results in more difficult places than St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

When it comes down to performance in the Hex, the Yanks have to win all five home games. That starts with Mexico in a yet-to-be-determined location, likely to be Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio—the traditional site for the home Mexico match in the Hex.

When it comes to road matches, all of them will be difficult, especially the ones at Mexico and Costa Rica. However, the good news about placing first in the semifinal round is the Yanks will have time to prepare at altitude for the match at the Estadio Azteca on June 13.

Given the importance of the trip to Mexico City, the Yanks should host the June 9 contest against Trinidad and Tobago at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, or Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado.

The trip to Costa Rica may be the most difficult since it comes four days after the Hex opener versus Mexico, but that singular result shouldn't hurt in the long run.

The Yanks won the Hex during the last World Cup cycle with 22 points, and third-place Honduras clinched a World Cup berth with 15. If you do the math, that means five home wins paired with at least two results on the road will earn a spot in Russia.

Klinsmann's men are capable of achieving that as long as the correct personnel are on the pitch.

    

Current Personnel

Tuesday's win over Trinidad and Tobago could prove to be a turning point in the Klinsmann era in terms of selection.

Previously exiled Sacha Kljestan moved into a starting role after a strong performance off the bench Friday, while 17-year-old Pulisic earned his first start for the Yanks as well.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 06:  Sacha Kljestan #16 of the United States drives toward the goal during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago at EverBank Field on September 6, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/G
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Pulisic proved the stage is not too big for him, as he was the best player on the pitch for the home side at EverBank Field. In addition to his skill on the ball, the Borussia Dortmund player impressed with his work rate tracking back. Instead of putting his head down after losing the ball, the teenager ran right at an opposing player to win it back.

Jozy Altidore's presence at forward also changed the way the Yanks played over the last two games. The Toronto FC striker has had trouble staying healthy recently, but he's returned to the pitch in the form of his life.

If the powerful forward continues to thrive in the final third in Major League Soccer from now until November, he should be an unstoppable force on the international stage.

The one tweak Klinsmann will have to make to his attack is his usage of Bobby Wood. The Hamburger SV man and Altidore are both solid forwards, but they didn't combine well Tuesday when they started alongside each other.

Wood may be a better option off the bench in relief of Altidore for the time being.

John Raoux/Associated Press

With Clint Dempsey out for the moment and Gyasi Zardes on the sidelines until November at the earliest, Klinsmann also has to line up complementary attackers to Altidore in his starting lineup. The German did that Tuesday by aligning Kljestan next to Michael Bradley, with Pulisic and Alejandro Bedoya on the wings.

Fabian Johnson will most likely move back up to midfield for the Hex. The Borussia Monchengladbach man played at left-back Tuesday because of a defensive shift forced by DeAndre Yedlin's suspension.

Three-quarters of the back line is set, with Yedlin, Geoff Cameron and John Brooks all locks to start if healthy. The Yanks have plenty of depth at center-back, but their biggest area of concern is left-back.

Many players have tried to solidify a spot in the starting XI at left-back during the Klinsmann era, but he has had a tendency to revert to veteran DaMarcus Beasley. Johnson is the answer for now at left-back, but he doesn't play there at the club level. Kellyn Acosta picked up a start on the left defensive flank Friday, but he was omitted from the lineup for Tuesday.

Until the Yanks find someone who can play consistently on the left side of defense, teams will continue to attack that weakness. One of Klinsmann's main goals of the two October friendlies against Cuba and New Zealand should be to find a steady left-back.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Klinsmann also has to get away from his reliance on veteran players since some of them won't make an impact in Russia. At some point during the Hex, Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones and Chris Wondolowski need to be left off the roster for good. The USMNT boss may be able to replace Graham Zusi as well with a younger set-piece taker.

Some of the rising stars in the program have received an opportunity, but to enter Russia with the best squad possible, Klinsmann needs to continue the influx of young players.

    

Development

Klinsmann must get credit for inserting Yedlin, Brooks, Wood, Zardes and Pulisic into key roles of late, but that's only a group of five players who have made their mark since the 2014 World Cup.

Five of the regular starters for the USMNT are over the age of 28, with either Brad Guzan or Tim Howard in goal being the oldest depending on who starts.

In addition to the five players mentioned above, Altidore is 26 and should be around the program for quite some time.

Klinsmann has built a nice core of young stars, but the players filling in the other roles and coming off the bench are getting old with no true replacements following them in the system.

Acosta's inclusion Friday showed Klinsmann has trust in the 21-year-old, but he is nowhere close to being ready for the tests the Hex presents. Like a few other players under 25, the FC Dallas youngster may have to be thrown into the fire to see what he's made of.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

Paul Arriola earned a deserved cameo Tuesday, and he impressed by scoring the final tally of the contest. Midfielder Caleb Stanko, 23, also came off the bench in the second half.

Jordan Morris is waiting in the wings at forward, but there is no guarantee he'll get much playing time with Altidore and Wood ahead of him on the depth chart.

The pair of October friendlies and the annual January camp will be crucial for Klinsmann as he looks to build a younger core that can contend deep into the knockout round in Russia.

Matt Miazga, Ventura Alvarado, Eric Miller, Tim Parker and Cameron Carter-Vickers are some of the names worth watching in defense.

Carter-Vickers is one of the top prospects at Tottenham Hotspur at just 18, and he could work his way into the national-team setup if he secures playing time in England.

Atletico Madrid's Juan Fernandez (L) fights for the ball with Tottenham Hotspur player Cameron Carter-Vickers (R) during the International Champions Cup football match between English Premier League team Tottenham Hotspur and Spanish club Atletico Madrid
SAEED KHAN/Getty Images

Emerson Hyndman and Perry Kitchen are among a growing crop of central midfielders in the pipeline. One of those players will be tasked with replacing Jones and Beckerman at some point in the future.

Bradley has one central-midfield starting spot locked down, but if Klinsmann wants to use a more defensive setup during the Hex, he might have to call on one of the younger guys in order to give them experience and finally cut Beckerman loose.

Morris, Pulisic, Rubio Rubin and Julian Green are among the forwards waiting their turn behind Altidore and Wood. It's worth keeping an eye on Green as he plays with Bayern Munich's first team this season.

The talent is there to be taken advantage of, but the only person who will determine when it's time to make a full shift in the direction of youth is Klinsmann.

   

Managerial Decisions

Every little thing Klinsmann does is under examination due to some of the questionable decisions he's made in the past.

The coach's biggest mistake in 2016 was his lineup selection for the Copa America semifinal against Argentina. Lionel Messi and Co. picked apart the conservative starting XI used by the Yanks that allowed for little time on the ball.

The USMNT boss redeemed himself a bit during the latest stretch of games by recalling Kljestan, who has been in terrific form for the New York Red Bulls since the start of 2015. The 30-year-old immediately proved to Klinsmann what he's capable of with his time off the bench Friday that turned into a start for Tuesday.

In the past, Klinsmann has been reluctant to call in older members of the talent pool who have been cast into exile. Benny Feilhaber, Eric Lichaj, Jonathan Bornstein and a few others can bring experience to the Yanks, but the USMNT coach has opted not to call them up despite the needs at specific positions.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 06:  Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann of the United States smiles following a victory against Trinidad & Tobago during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier at EverBank Field on September 6, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sa
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The other knock on Klinsmann has been his reliance on the veterans he calls into the squad for every match. That strategy hurt him when it mattered the most at the Copa, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if he started Beckerman, Zusi and Jones in the first away match of the Hex against Costa Rica.

One day Klinsmann has to break that habit, and maybe it will come after the January camp when he gets a closer look at the younger players at his disposal. When the switch occurs, it will be welcomed with open arms by the many waiting for it to happen.

However, when Klinsmann opts to go younger, there will be some expected growing pains. Not everyone will be able to work his way into the squad with success like Yedlin, Brooks or Pulisic. The good news for the former Germany international is he doesn't have to revamp his entire squad, but there are positions like left-back and central midfield that need fresh blood.

It would be wise of Klinsmann to throw them out on the pitch sooner rather than later to gain as much as experience as possible without costing the team results.

If he can institute a youth policy in the next year, he will have a large group of players to choose from when the roster decision for Russia has to be made.

Joe Tansey covers U.S. Soccer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.