While the world was riveted by Tuesday’s Ronaldo-Zlatan show just outside Stockholm, the U.S. national team finished off a memorable 2013 with a rather forgettable 1-0 loss to Austria in Vienna.
The Americans topped the Hexagonal, lifted the CONCACAF Gold Cup and compiled a program-record .761 winning percentage as coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s vision took hold. But questions remain about several key positions, and consecutive shutouts by second-rate European sides (the U.S. tied Scotland, 0-0, on Friday) may not have taught the manager much.
Here are three thoughts (and one more for the road) on Austria’s 1-0 win:
The U.S. improved: The result was worse, but the performance was far better than in Friday’s desultory draw in Glasgow. The Americans looked more energetic and enterprising on Tuesday at the Ernst Happel Stadion. If they’d been a bit more clinical near the goal and a bit more careful with the ball in midfield, a victory wouldn’t have been out of the question. The officials played a role as well, refusing to award a goal when Geoff Cameron’s 17th-minute header appeared to cross the line before being swatted away by Austria goalkeeper Robert Almer.
Jozy Altidore had a couple of very good chances, including an open look in the 74th minute that he hit straight to Almer. Cameron (in the second half), Michael Bradley and Terrence Boyd came close as well. The U.S. dominated the latter stretches but couldn’t find the equalizer and was left to rue a few mistakes that made the difference. Overall, however, the effort was better.
The 4-4-2 still has potential: Klinsmann once again sent his team out in a 4-2-3-1 formation that left Altidore isolated. The manager tried to solve that problem by deploying Brek Shea on the left (in only his second start of the year) and Aron Johannsson in the hole at the top of midfield. It didn’t work. Rooted to the bench at Stoke City, Shea hardly is in form. Johannsson often was too deep to do much damage.
The middle was crowded as both Bradley and Jermaine Jones played relatively free roles, and the U.S. simply failed to click. In the 56th minute, Klinsmann pulled Shea and Johannsson, put Eddie Johnson on the left and Mix Diskerud behind Altidore. Eleven minutes later, Terrence Boyd replaced Jones. The U.S. evolved into a 4-4-2. Lo and behold, with more space in the middle and with Boyd next to Altidore, the Americans found a bit of rhythm.
The visitors had several good stretches of possession over the final 25 minutes and put Austria in retreat on multiple occasions. The goal never came, but it might suggest that the U.S. moves the ball better when the midfielders have a bit more space and when there's someone closer to Altidore.
Jones jitters: Klinsmann’s faith in Jones is unwavering. But Tuesday’s performance should be cause for concern. The Schalke 04 veteran committed too many turnovers and failed to track Austria midfielder David Alaba during the build-up that led to Marc Janko’s 33rd-minute goal.
There also was a sign of indiscipline, as Jones took a swipe at the face of the Marko Arnautović following a collision along the sideline. The Austrian didn’t embellish the contact and the referee must have missed it, but in different circumstances, the same action could result in a red card.
Jones doesn’t like to sit in front of the back four. He wants to push forward and hit penetrating passes. But that’s part of what crowded the field for Bradley and Johannsson in Vienna, and it often led to breaks the other way. At this point, it's impossible to imagine Klinsmann opting for another player in that role. The manager needs Jones to rein it in, play simple and think defense first. Bonus thought: Klinsmann should also seriously consider leaving Cameron at right back. He played well on Tuesday, starts there for Stoke City and is comfortable going forward if need be. If Klinsmann wants his best players on the field, forcing Cameron to unseat either Omar Gonzalez or Matt Besler in the middle seems counterintuitive.