This year’s January camp has taken on a different feel then past editions, and not only because coach Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. national team will stay together well into February.
Traditionally, the winter gathering in Southern California focused primarily on the fringes of the national team picture. Sure, MLS stars like Landon Donovan were around but for the most part, a significant chunk of the U.S. core remained with their European clubs. That offered the national team coaching staff an opportunity to take a look at prospects or hopefuls in a low-pressure environment -- perhaps introduce a few new faces or start to think about the back end of a tournament roster. Few friendlies were less meaningful or compelling than the late January StubHub Center walkthrough. Odds were, the 11 U.S. starters who took the field wouldn’t play together again.
That's changed this winter, in large part because so much of the national team's core now plays in MLS. Thirteen U.S. field players started at least one World Cup match last summer. In 2015, 10 of them will suit up for MLS clubs. This month, Klinsmann had the opportunity to assemble much of his top talent and do some substantive work. That’s atypical.
There still are plenty of reasons to take a look at newer and younger players, chief among them is the upcoming Olympic qualifying tournament. But with Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey available, not to mention younger fixtures like DeAndre Yedlin and Mix Diskerud, this year’s January camp allowed for unprecedented continuity. Throw in a game like Wednesday evening’s showdown against Chile -- the Americans’ first friendly in South America since 2000 -- and this was anything but the proverbial “camp cupcake.”
And that’s why the 3-2 loss to Chile feels a bit different than a typical exhibition setback. Granted, no game in foreign confines is an easy one, and La Roja is ranked 14th in the world. But the Chilean team that recovered from a pair of deficits in Rancagua, about 50 miles south of Santiago, featured only a single player who appeared at the 2014 World Cup. Although it resembled the sort of squad the U.S. used to field in January, the hosts dominated the Americans during the second half and exited deserving winners.
The trends are not promising. Since that stirring, last-gasp victory over Ghana in the Group G opener in Natal, the U.S. has won only one of nine matches (three at the World Cup and six friendlies). It now has lost three straight for the first time since 2007. On Wednesday, the U.S. wasted a halftime lead for the fourth time in five games. Each was an exhibition, meaning wholesale, second-half substitutions inevitably altered tactics and chemistry. But Klinsmann’s desire to create a deeper pool of talent and meaningful competition at all positions means those substitutes are on the hook as well. And they haven’t delivered.
The U.S. was on a 19-0-2 run with a halftime advantage under Klinsmann. In the past four months, it’s 0-2-2. The Americans have been outscored by a combined 9-0 in the second halves of their past five games. Colombia, which came from behind and beat the U.S., 2-1, in mid November, represents the only world-class opponent faced since the summer. Rosters and circumstances change, so pinpointing a single reason for the lackluster U.S. performances -- fatigue, tactics, chemistry or confidence – is difficult. But it’s clear Klinsmann’s team is in a rut.
The January camp offered the perfect opportunity to escape. There was ample time for a reset with key players in the fold, to establish a system and a style. Klinsmann wanted his team to impose itself on the opposition. The U.S. was able to grind out a couple results in Brazil despite an inability to do so. The Americans left the World Cup with their identity in flux, leaving Klinsmann to reconcile ambition and reality. The current camp, which will conclude with a Feb. 8 friendly against Panama, would provide the chance to address a few key questions. Can Jones really be an international defender? Can Yedlin, for that matter? Should Bradley return to his traditional spot in defensive midfield? Is Dempsey, now 31, a frontrunner or playmaker? Is Diskerud a creator or a box-to-box presence? Should this team play to its strengths and, if so, what are they?
Klinsmann may have tried to answer a few of them with the new 3-5-2 formation deployed during Wednesday’s first half. He told reporters that the lineup was a function of the available personnel, and it did highlight some of his charges’ strengths. Yedlin and Brek Shea were given plenty of room (and responsibility) on the flanks, where neither was the last line of defense and where their speed and attacking instincts might make a difference. The U.S. isn’t blessed with a glut of good outside backs, and the 3-5-2 alters that equation.
Bradley withdrew, relieved of the burden to simultaneously create and cover that he shouldered at the World Cup. Altidore had company up top and lo-and-behold, he scored a goal. And the U.S. enjoyed a numerical advantage in midfield. At halftime the U.S. led 2-1 thanks to pretty strikes from Shea and Altidore.
But there were issues. Despite the numbers and options in midfield, the U.S. failed to establish much of a rhythm with the ball. There were, not surprisingly, difficulties along the three-man back line, where Jones’ compulsion to look up field created havoc. Chile had too many opportunities to hit unobstructed crosses. Altidore did far too much depending and, while his 31st-minute finish was outstanding, he was less effective in his hold-up and combination play. Dempsey was relatively quiet. Starting forward Bobby Wood was invisible.
Klinsmann reverted to a 4-4-2 in the second half and the U.S., now lacking any numerical advantage in midfield, was overrun. Yedlin and Shea fared poorly as traditional outside backs. Dempsey saw even less of the ball. Columbus Crew midfielder Wil Trapp, one of three Americans to earn his first senior cap, struggled with the game’s pace, and the group's collective energy level appeared to fall through the Estadio El Teniente floor. Trapp’s fellow debutants, defender Steve Birnbaum and Gyasi Zardes, fared better, and that may bode well for the future. But with each successive setback, the future matters a bit less.
The dawn of a new World Cup cycle feels fresh. But the period during which Klinsmann can plot and plan and consider the opening moves of his four-year chess match is coming to a close faster than expected. The longer a rut lasts, the tougher it can be to get out. It’s worth noting that the last time the U.S. experienced anything similar was just after the 2010 World Cup. Bob Bradley’s side entered the following summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup on a 1-4-4 slide that began with the round-of-16 loss to Ghana. And the Americans didn’t flip the switch in time. The U.S. labored in the Gold Cup, falling to Panama in the group stage and blowing a two-goal lead and losing to Mexico in the final. Bradley, who’d guided his team to first place in its World Cup group and the silver medal at the 2009 Confederations Cup, was fired a month later.
That’s not to say Klinsmann’s job is in anything resembling jeopardy. It simply illustrates the speed at which fortunes can change. The 2015 Gold Cup kicks off in five months and between now and then, the U.S. has friendlies scheduled in Denmark, Chile, Netherlands and Germany. In November, qualifying for the 2018 World Cup begins. The U.S. may be traveling to San Pedro Sula, Kingston or Panama City before Thanksgiving. Cycles come quickly. The future is close to now.
This has been a team reshuffled several times. The 4-3-3 that Klinsmann deployed at the start of the 2014 qualifying campaign gave way to a 4-2-3-1 and then, just before the trip to Brazil, a 4-4-2 that failed to produce the proactive soccer the manager has been preaching. There have been glimpses, for sure, but it was grit that carried the U.S. through Brazil. And now even that seems to be fading. The Americans now need to re-establish some continuity and identity before second-half stumbles and tactical ambiguity define it for them. It’s still unclear what this U.S. team is supposed to look like or what style Klinsmann can squeeze out of the current crop of U.S. players. And that isn’t the way you want to enter the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying. Klinsmann and his players have more than a week before facing Panama at StubHub Center. For the sake of what’s to come, they should hope that game doesn’t look like a typical winter walkthrough.