Sometime between the moment that Alejandro Bedoya was announced as the starting defensive midfielder and the 57th minute, when college junior Jordan Morris replaced Jozy Altidore, it became clear that Tuesday night’s friendly against Brazil wasn’t really about fine-tuning the U.S. team that will face Mexico next month for a ticket to the 2017 Confederations Cup.
As tempting as it is to search for some kind of silver lining or lesson amid the debris of an emphatic 4-1 humbling by the rampant Seleção, there really aren’t any. We didn’t learn much. Four weeks from now, when the U.S. and Mexico take the field at the Rose Bowl, the fiasco in Foxborough, Massachusetts, will be forgotten. It will be those 90 (or 120) minutes in October that tell the story of Jurgen Klinsmann’s 2015.
“Disappointing but nothing more,” captain Michael Bradley told reporters regarding the Brazil defeat. “We have no choice but to move on and get ourselves ready for, quite honestly, bigger things. This game is not going to make or break us.”
Said Jozy Altidore, “Going into Mexico, everything is a fresh slate.”
Following the Gold Cup failure, which necessitated the October playoff, Klinsmann said this month’s friendlies against Peru and Brazil, “Are not about developing things for the future. This is about proving a point towards the Mexico game.”
A period of transition, along with the experimentation and tinkering for which Klinsmann is noted, supposedly was over. Now, it was about results.
Except it wasn’t. And a good chunk of that was out of Klinsmann’s control. His preferred outside backs, Fabian Johnson and the un-retired DaMarcus Beasley, were unavailable. The manager called eight center backs into camp, ensuring he likely was going to be testing at least a couple different combinations rather than seasoning a settled pairing. And make no mistake, that’s what many fans wanted to see following the Gold Cup misadventures of John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado.
In midfield, Jermaine Jones hadn’t played 90 minutes for club or country in more than three months, Alejandro Bedoya was still returning to full fitness and Bradley missed the Peru game. Up front, Clint Dempsey, the team’s most reliable finisher, remained in Seattle while Altidore was on his way back from a couple of knocks.
With so many first-choice players unavailable or unfit, Klinsmann had little choice but to look at individuals removed from the context of a coherent, consistent tactical plan. There was no way anything presented at RFK Stadium or Gillette Stadium would resemble the team that takes the field at the Rose Bowl.
And once Klinsmann decided to deploy Bedoya in defensive midfield (a position the FC Nantes man said he’d never played professionally), another brand-new center back pairing, slower outside backs and Bradley as some sort of hybrid playmaker/second forward behind an isolated Altidore, the Brazil result was all but conceded. Credit to Klinsmann if he learned anything from Tuesday’s meltdown aside from “Don’t do that.”
"We obviously have a clear picture for the Mexico game," the manager told reporters afterward. "We have to hope Clint is there, Jozy, Fabian Johnson hopefully is there. There's no doubt about Fabian Johnson as a right back. You have to hope [Beasley] is available there, even if I think that Tim Ream played very, very well at left back, a huge compliment to him. There are a couple of key players that we need to get back on board."
This is the reality of being a national team manager. You don’t necessarily get to pick the team you want. Players come and go, injuries happen, club commitments intervene and form fluctuates. Weeks or months can go by between call-ups, hindering chemistry. Perhaps it’s no accident that recent World Cup winners have been built around a core of players from two or three teams.
On top of that, Klinsmann’s nature is to probe and tinker. He wants to try new things, push his charges’ limits and expand the player pool. As a result, the learning curve steepens (thanks to so players taking on new positions or expanded responsibilities) and continuity suffers. According to ESPN, Klinsmann has started the same 11 in consecutive contests only twice in his 75 matches at the helm. The last time came more than a year ago, when the starters who faced Nigeria in the final World Cup warm-up friendly repeated their roles against Ghana.
The Mexico game isn’t a must win for Klinsmann. He’ll remain the coach regardless of the result and will continue his inspired or quixotic effort to remake American soccer. But the playoff is massive. The Confederations Cup is a big deal for countries outside Europe and South America that don’t typically have the chance to face sport’s elite in official competition. It also offers a sneak, close-up peek at the World Cup host a year ahead of time.
It’s the most important match of Klinsmann’s tenure outside the four he coached in Brazil last year.
Plenty can happen over the next month. So much, in fact, that expecting to use the Peru and Brazil games to answer a bunch of lingering questions about where his team stood four years into his reign was optimistic or naïve. Friendlies predict little. Soccer is a volatile business. The U.S. was flying high after beating the Netherlands and Germany, then fell with a thud at the Gold Cup. As far as Mexico is concerned, Klinsmann doesn't need to focus on the past week. He already has years of observations and data to sort through and, fortunately, he’s got a foundation with which to work.
Altidore described it eloquently following last week’s 2-1 win over Peru, in which he scored both goals (and played with a forward in support).
“Being involved in this team as long as I have, looking at the past national teams, we’re getting better obviously as a soccer nation, as soccer players. We’re developing better players. But our DNA—what we’ve always been about—is the effort, the spirit,” he said. “When we make it hard on opponents, this has to be the foundation. We all know that. As good as we’re going to get playing soccer, building out of the back and all those things, that has to be something that we bring to the table each game.”
Players with an understanding of that foundation–of the cohesion and effort required to beat Mexico when the stakes are high and 90,000 people are watching–should get the call. Never mind the Peru and Brazil games. Klinsmann has to beat Mexico, and nobody else, on Oct. 10. And he has players at his disposal who’ve done it. The U.S. is 3-0-3 against El Tri under Klinsmann’s guidance.
Omar Gonzalez, for example, has started each of the past four USA-Mexico matches in central defense. He was outstanding in the two 2013 World Cup qualifiers.
Kyle Beckerman, a tried-and-true No. 6, started three of the past four games against El Tri. Whether it’s the Real Salt Lake veteran, Danny Williams or a leashed Jones, the U.S. needs someone comfortable and competent in that role.
Bradley always had at least two players in front of him. Dempsey has been a regular. He’s absolutely critical because he’s just about the only American who’s a threat to either finish or create in the space between an opponents back four and midfield. And the U.S. has remained more conservative in the wide midfield positions against El Tri, starting the likes of Bedoya, Graham Zusi, Brad Davis or Mix Diskerud, while ensuring there was a bit more pace at outside back.
The blueprint was there long before last week. If Klinsmann focuses only on beating Mexico, and not pushing people from their comfort zone or proving some kind of point about American soccer’s potential or flaws, his best bet is to rely on the tactics and players that have had success against Mexico. He has men who have proven their point.