USMNT trends: Results aside, key developments from March matches
A story published Wednesday on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s website was headlined, “A Veteran Voice: Bedoya Looks Beyond Immediate Results.” Lest the veteran midfielder risk losing faith, looking beyond the results is just about the only option available.
The U.S. national team drew 1-1 with Switzerland on Tuesday and lost, 3-2, to Denmark last week. And its recent record isn’t good. Since defeating Ghana in the opening game of the 2014 World Cup—that was more than nine months ago—the Americans are 2-6-4. The last time the U.S. suffered through a similar stretch was, interestingly, during and immediately after the 2010 World Cup. Coach Bob Bradley’s team went an uncharacteristic 2-4-6 from the start of the South African tournament to the beginning of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. After finishing second in that competition, Bradley was fired.
There’s no indication that the national team’s current run under Jurgen Klinsmann has put his job in anything resembling jeopardy. Rather, it’s a sign that the year following a World Cup is a time for tinkering and experimentation. But as Bradley’s departure suggests, the subsequent Gold Cup is crucial (if anything, the 4-2 loss to Mexico offered U.S. Soccer the excuse it needed to finally appoint the coveted Klinsmann). At some point, a winning team must be built.
For now, as Bedoya suggested, final scores aren’t critical.
“[The Gold Cup] is the ultimate goal, and these friendlies allow us to tinker around and play with different things, whether it’s players taking different responsibilities or trying out different formations, to seeing who steps up, and what works and what doesn’t,” Bedoya told U.S. Soccer. “That what these friendlies are for, and that’s more important than results. The results are going to matter when the Gold Cup comes around, and hopefully all these games that we’ve played will serve us as the right preparation for the summer.”
The summer is coming fast. The U.S. has three more exhibitions scheduled before the Gold Cup kicks off on July 7. It will host Mexico on April 15, then head to Europe to meet Netherlands and Germany in early June. If the 2-6-4 record isn’t a sign of where the U.S. stands heading toward the games that matter, then what is?
Here are a few trends, both positive and negative, that emerged over the past couple games:
Of the 14 men who played against Belgium in the World Cup’s round of 16, only four (Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin) featured in the past two friendlies. There are a multitude of explanations for the upheaval, several of which have nothing to do with Klinsmann, but it is a small indication of the churn that can mark the start of a new four-year cycle.
Injuries notwithstanding, the optimist will argue that it’s in U.S. soccer’s best interest for Klinsmann to expand the international player pool. The pessimist will point out the fact that chemistry can be tough to build without lineup consistency. Not only are different players coming in and out of camp, they’re often playing different position from game to game. And the manager said the changes will continue this month in San Antonio, leaving the composition of the Gold Cup roster anyone’s guess.
“We’re going to get a different group two weeks from now in San Antonio against Mexico, with MLS-based players and Mexico-based players, so we’re going to miss all the European guys,” Klinsmann told reporters after the Switzerland game.
Despite the fact that the two groups rarely mix, Klinsmann was optimistic the necessary bonds are being forced.
“We picked up a rhythm now. Everybody’s on board. The competition is going full steam,” he said. “They start to have a feel for each other. They start to build their own group.”
For now, Bradley, Johnson, Jozy Altidore and perhaps Bedoya are Klinsmann’s only sure-fire starters. And for three of those four, roles aren’t clearly defined. Clint Dempsey remains valuable but at 32, he’s on the downslope of his brilliant national team career. He missed the Switzerland and Denmark games with a hamstring issue. The back four is in flux, as are the identities of Bradley’s ideal midfield partner. Should there be a second forward? If so, who should play the role? The status of key World Cup contributors like Matt Besler, Jermaine Jones, Geoff Cameron, Kyle Beckerman, Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi seems up in the air.
On the plus side, players like Danny Williams, Brek Shea and Michael Orozco showed promise over the past week and may be ready to take a leap up the depth chart.
There’s a lot to figure out before July.
Michael Bradley’s role
He remains the U.S.’s most indispensable player, but Bradley’s versatility may be working against him. The 27-year-old is the national team’s best defensive midfielder. The problem is that while Klinsmann has several of those, he doesn’t have anyone who can orchestrate an attack further up the field. Dempsey certainly can create, but he’s more effective closer to goal and the U.S. typically performs better with two forwards. Bedoya is more effective in a wider role, and Mix Diskerud, while skillful, doesn’t have a 90-minute impact. It may be too late for Lee Nguyen. U.S. midfielders who seem poised to break through, from Williams to the likes of Wil Trapp or Perry Kitchen, aren’t No. 10s.
So, Bradley has been pushed forward with more frequency over the past year. While he’s capable of hitting the sort of pass that unlocks a defense (see Julian Green’s goal against Belgium), it’s not his natural position and it puts the U.S. at a disadvantage when the ball turns over and he’s further up the field. The additional burden placed on Bradley was evident in Brazil, where he simply had too much to juggle (especially once Altidore was injured—see below).
Klinsmann and Bradley’s club coach, Greg Vanney, disagree on how the player is best deployed. On Tuesday, Klinsmann asked Bradley (instead of a forward) to pressure the Swiss back four. That left Bradley even further removed from the play when the hosts worked the ball quickly into the U.S. half.
There’s no obvious solution to the problem, at least in the short term. Asking someone like Williams or Beckerman to remain tethered to the back four would at least relieve some of Bradley’s responsibilities, but it’s still not using the team’s best player in his best position. Deploying Bradley as part of a pivot with another box-to-box midfielder has yielded mixed results.
It may not matter as much against CONCACAF opposition. But when playing the sport’s top teams, forcing Bradley to create further up rather than organize further back simply doesn’t seem ideal. But if not him, then who? It’s perhaps the single biggest question Klinsmann faces over the next few months.
Jozy Altidore’s importance
The U.S. was a changed team once Altidore went down in the first half against Ghana. Without his presence up high, his ability to draw defenders and serve as a target for the American build-up, both Dempsey and Bradley were stretched thin and less effective. The Americans were without a key attacking anchor.
Altidore’s move to Toronto FC, where he’ll have the playing time and responsibility required to boost his confidence, looked like it would be a boon to the national team. He scored in January against Chile, opened his MLS account with a pair in TFC’s March 7 win in Vancouver and then had a goal and an assist in last week’s loss in Denmark. It may say as much about the rest of the player pool as it does about Altidore, but the fact remains, he is Klinsmann’s most dependable striker.
That made Altidore’s meltdown and subsequent red card against Switzerland all the more disappointing. It was atypical behavior. In fact, the ejection was his first in 80 caps. But it underscored the fact that the 25-year-old must embrace a position of leadership and responsibility appropriate for a two-time World Cup vet whose presence remains vital to American offensive prospects. For the U.S. to thrive, Altidore must stand up and be counted. Maintaining the composure to handle 90 minutes of defensive punishment, to rise above referees and to create and finish chances that others cannot is essential.
Klinsmann remains unfazed by his team’s troubling tendency to allow late, game-changing goals.
"It might be a theme, but it’s not a problem because we know the reason why certain things happen. We know maybe why in some games, you know, we kind of ran out of gas earlier and then made individual mistakes. Or maybe now, this was a pure individual mistake and [has] nothing to do now with the physical condition, which is good,” he said Tuesday. “It’s not a concern at all.”
He’s certainly right that it’s a theme. Fifteen goals yielded in the final 15 minutes in the past 15 games is the ugly statistic that’s gained traction this week. In the U.S.’s past eight games, all since the World Cup, it’s conceded eight goals in the 80th minute or later. It’s a miserable trend.
But Klinsmann also might be right that it’s nothing to be too concerned about. It could simply be a function of the tinkering described above. In the nine friendlies the U.S. has played since Brazil, Klinsmann has started eight back line combinations (the only repeat: Greg Garza, John Brooks, Orozco, Timmy Chandler). Three goalkeepers have earned starts, which also impacts chemistry, and friendlies typically feature numerous second-half substitutions.
Whatever comfort a back four might develop during the course of a game inevitably is altered by reserves introduced late in a game.
Solving one problem may prove to be the solution to another. If and when Klinsmann finds one or two stable defensive combinations, the U.S. should be able to see matches out more effectively.