CARSON, Calif. – The U.S. national team’s January camp featured a 12-day stay in São Paulo, closed practices in Los Angeles and a climactic friendly that amounted to a match between a U.S.-eligible MLS all-star squad and their K League counterparts.
How much could one possibly learn about Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup plans from that limited roster and limited opportunity to observe?
Quite a bit, it turns out.
Here’s what we think we know following the Americans’ 2-0 win over South Korea on Saturday:
A core is in place
Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey have scored a combined eight goals over the past six months. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones have joined new clubs during the winter before the World Cup – both in leagues considered by many to be a “step down" from those of their former employers. And questions remain about whether the two robust central midfielders are genuinely compatible.
Yet those four players, along with goalkeeper Tim Howard, represent the U.S. core, Klinsmann confirmed Saturday. The manager has unwavering faith in them, even though they all have plenty of work to do before the U.S. meets Ghana in Natal. It’s also now pretty clear that the manager has settled on a 4-2-3-1 alignment, at least at kickoff.
“I think Jozy, he’s keeping his playing rhythm [at Sunderland] and the quality he has, [he’s] our No. 1 center forward that we have. And Clint is the player behind him," Klinsmann said. "We often talk about the spine of our team, which starts with Timmy and goes through midfield with Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley and then Clint and Jozy. I think this is something to build around.”
Klinsmann has built considerable depth throughout the squad and tried players in a multitude of spots. That has strengthened the team’s versatility but opened the door to so many permutations that it becomes more difficult to determine the ideal lineup.
Might Dempsey be more effective closer to goal? Could Landon Donovan play underneath the lead striker, as he did on Saturday? What about the shifty and clinical Aron Johannsson as a second forward? Would the midfield feel more organized with a stay-at-home defender/distributor like Kyle Beckerman rather than a pair of box-to-box rovers like Bradley and Jones?
Klinsmann appears to have answered those questions.
That “spine” pushes Donovan out to the flank, where some figure he’ll be competing with Graham Zusi for a starting spot. Both Donovan and Klinsmann were asked about that potential scenario during camp and each shot it down, paving the way for the South Korea match, at which the pair took the field together for the only the second time. Naturally, they played a role in both goals scored by Chris Wondolowski.
“Both can play either side, so your can play them both, or you can decide to play somebody else on one side, then they compete for the same spot,” Klinsmann said. “Obviously once Clint and Jozy [are leading the attack from the middle], then it might go to the left or to the right.”
Donovan is better running at the heart of a defense and Zusi is a superior crosser, meaning that the L.A. Galaxy veteran very well could start on the left side at his fourth World Cup. That would push Fabian Johnson to left back, leaving Klinsmann to decide on his central defensive pairing and his right back. Or, Johnson could play in midfield and either Donovan or Zusi would sit.
Form and injury are always unpredictable and there are still a host of combinations to sort through, but it appears Klinsmann at least is starting to narrow them down.
“I don’t think you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to scoring goals,” Zusi said. “A lot of the World Cup is who’s hot at the moment. I think it’s a good thing that we have so many options and so many guys are doing well for us. As far as I’m concerned, that’s fantastic.”
Landon the leader
Saturday’s game represented pretty strong evidence that Klinsmann no longer has any questions about Donovan’s commitment or potential contribution. The program’s all-time leading scorer helped set up both goals and was the most consistently dangerous player on the StubHub Center field. Perhaps more importantly, Donovan captained the U.S. for the first time in nearly three years. The malaise that led to last year’s sabbatical appears to be forgotten.
“It was [important]. It was very nice. I really enjoyed it,” Donovan said of the captaincy. “I liked being a part of this group a lot this month – a lot of eager, excited players and I think I really took on the leadership in the right way and I wanted to do that. I was very honored to have the armband.”
In addition to embracing that role, Donovan also showed flashes of what he does best. Many of the Americans’ most dangerous attacking forays on Saturday seemed to start when Donovan collected the ball in space and had the opportunity to look up and run at the South Korean defense. See Wondolowski’s first goal, for example.
Former U.S. coach Bob Bradley rightly built his 2010 World Cup team around Donovan’s lethal control and composure on the counter. The 31-year-old might not possess the same sort of speed four years later, but those runs remain among the most potent weapons in Klinsmann’s arsenal. The U.S. would be well served finding ways to utilize it. Scoring goals isn’t always about patient build-up play.
“A lot of good things come from him being on the ball. Get him in that kind of withdrawn position, a lot of times is where he does a lot of his damage. He’s so good at running and going at defenses and then bringing in other players into the attack. So yeah, when he’s on the ball a lot of good things can happen,” Zusi said. “That was a big part of this camp, was not the side-to-side, build-up, build-up. It was about penetrating balls. When it happens like that it leads to a quick attack. Both our goals [against South Korea] came from just that.”
Style of play
Zusi’s comments hint that Klinsmann is finding a pragmatic balance between building a team that plays the proactive, stylish brand of soccer he prefers and recognizing the technical limitations of the current U.S. player pool.
There is no Xavi, Messi or Pirlo at the coach’s disposal and the Americans have had difficulty passing through the opposing midfield with consistency, especially when under duress.
Klinsmann was hired -- and rewarded with a pre-World Cup, four-year contract extension -- to mount an assault on the sport’s incumbent powers. To do that, he must spark an evolution at American soccer’s tactical and technical foundation and challenge all U.S. national teams to elevate their game, all while giving the senior squad the best chance to win on the day. As the World Cup approaches, Klinsmann is doing both as he focuses on building up from the back and on striking quick out of midfield.
“We really emphasized this camp in being confident in playing,” Donovan said. “Not just lumping the ball forward and hoping to see what happens. We wanted to take this opportunity in a friendly to be confident and try to play. We could go to Brazil and sit back for three games, for 90 minutes, and pray that we get results but that’s not how we’re going to progress as a soccer nation. So we’re going to go with the confidence to play.”
At the same time, as Zusi said, the U.S. often is more dangerous when the ball moves quickly into the attacking third. Whether it’s Donovan on the run or Altidore’s ability to win and then move the ball against an opposing back four, the Americans will score goals doing what they do best.
“A lot of the work we put in this camp was that first decisive ball into the forwards, or bypassing some of their midfielders and getting our midfielders beyond their midfielders and then getting the ball wide and attacking from the flanks,” the Sporting Kansas City star explained.
The U.S.defense, anchored by Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, did try to play smart, possession-oriented passes on numerous occasions despite the South Koreans’ high pressure. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but Klinsmann said last week that he prefers his defenders aim for a teammate rather than the unknown of an area far up the field.
“Maybe [there was] a long ball in between, but overall we wanted them just to become calm, to settle in the game and get balance and for the fact that it was their first [game this season], I think they looked pretty good,” Klinsmann said. “They will get smoother and smoother. They fine tune things every game and they’re getting their legs now.”
Those moments when it does work are critical, Donovan said. Every minute an opposing team chases is one that tests its shape and fitness and makes it more vulnerable to the attack.
“The modern game is such that, the more you have the ball, the more you can wear teams down,” he said. “It’s a lot more enjoyable to have the ball instead of defending 90 minutes. We’re evolving as a nation. That wouldn’t have happened five years ago even. So we’re getting better. We still have a lot of work to do, but it was good progress.”