- With the CONCACAF Hexagonal on the horizon, Julian Green and Sacha Kljestan used the opportunities against Cuba and New Zealand to keep themselves in Jurgen Klinsmann's frame.
WASHINGTON — Julian Green scored another goal, Lynden Gooch enjoyed his international debut and Terrence Boyd made a long-awaited return to the field. But it wasn’t all rosy for the U.S. national team on Tuesday night in the nation’s capital, where unheralded New Zealand recovered from a first-half deficit to tie the Americans, 1-1, at RFK Stadium.
Here are three thoughts on the final friendly scheduled before the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the Hexagonal, kicks off next month with matches against Mexico and Costa Rica.
Green makes the most of a long-awaited opportunity
Green scored the Americans’ final goal of the 2014 World Cup, returned to Germany and as manager Jurgen Klinsmann said Monday, he “went into his dive in a certain way.” Green struggled while on loan at Hamburger SV and didn’t play for the U.S. at all last year. But Klinsmann still kept track and when Green earned a spot on Bayern’s senior squad this summer, that represented “a signal” to the U.S. manager.
“When you train alongside [Arjen] Robben and [Franck] Ribéry and Thomas Müller and all those guys day in day out, that means you train on the highest level possible,” Klinsmann said this week. “This might be a good moment to bring him back, see where he’s at.”
Klinsmann had been hoping that Green would come out of his “dive” and play to his strength, which is challenging defenders and creating chances off the dribble. That requires confidence, and Klinsmann said the 21-year-old showed up at camp brimming with it.
“It kind of felt like he still has that stuff in the back of his mind. We don’t have to repeat it anymore,” Klinsmann said.
Green may have been the only U.S. player who looked consistently comfortable on the ball in Friday’s win over Cuba. He scored the second goal and helped set up the first in the Americans’ 2-0 victory. He maintained that run of form Tuesday and tallied a goal that required confidence and a bit of daring. Jozy Altidore knocked down a long restart from U.S. goalkeeper William Yarbrough and the ball fell to Green. New Zealand defender Liam Graham backed off, hoping to keep Green in front him. Green was all too happy to take the space on offer and he deftly froze Graham on the edge of the penalty area before firing a shot inside the near post.
Graham plays in the English third division. All White goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic, who was befuddled by Green’s shot, makes his living in Germany’s fourth tier. Neither Cuba nor New Zealand represent world-class opposition. But as Klinsmann said, Green is getting an up close look at that every day at Bayern, and now he can return to Munich with a bit more spring in his step.
This otherwise forgettable international window may be remembered as a turning point for a player who really needed one.
Slow start and slow finish lead to the first tie of 2016
The Americans were fortunate not to fall behind in the opening minute but couldn’t hold off the All Whites late. The U.S. entered the game 12-4-0 in 2016 and settled for its first draw of the year. The hosts took a lead into intermission thanks to Green and seemed to be settling into the 4-3-3 (or 4-1-4-1) deployed by Klinsmann. It wasn’t a typical alignment and there were players at new positions, so a few early struggles weren’t a surprise. But the ball was moving well and an inability to get a second goal came back to bite the Americans in the end.
“They had a bit of control there, USA,” New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson said following the game, but added that he thought the win was there for the taking at the end. The All Whites dominated the ball in the final 15-20 minutes as the U.S. wore down.
“They’re a very physical team and play in a bit more of the traditional style,” Klinsmann said. “They’re not easy to play.”
In the 72nd minute, a New Zealand corner kick created a bit of chaos in the U.S. penalty area. Kiwi defender Michael Boxall shielded the ball from a couple U.S. defenders and forward Monty Patterson slid a shot between the legs of U.S. goalkeeper David Bingham. The San Jose Earthquakes netminder had relieved starter William Yarbrough at halftime. Yarbrough also faltered, although he wasn’t punished. He spilled a first-minute shot from New Zealand’s Chris Wood, leaving a tasty rebound for another forward who failed to finish the chance
Neither goalkeeper is in frame to play next month and the slow start and finish on Tuesday won’t trouble Klinsmann too much. Friendlies are just that. They’re often several games in one. Changes are made and chemistry is altered on the fly. Overall, Klinsmann said he got what he needed out of the 10-day camp.
“For us, it was important to see the individual performances,” he said.
Kljestan fills a need
For a while, Klinsmann was so desperate to find a playmaker that he insisted Michael Bradley fill the role. That never looked like a permanent solution. And although Alejandro Bedoya can be effective in that spot and Darlington Nagbe still hasn’t gotten a consistent national team run, the position—and perhaps minutes against Mexico and Costa Rica next month—now appears to be Sacha Kljestan’s to lose.
Tuesday was Kljestan’s 50th cap, but his absence from the program and the sense that Klinsmann had moved on leaves this feeling like a rebirth. Kljestan couldn’t get a look from Klinsmann while playing more of a holding role at Anderlecht. Now as a playmaker and MLS assists leader for the New York Red Bulls, he fills more of a need.
Kljestan was outstanding in last month’s World Cup qualifiers and did well to find the game in a new formation on Tuesday night. Kljestan was at the top of a triangle anchored by Bradley and Perry Kitchen, with DeAndre Yedlin and Green on the flanks. It took around 20 minutes for them to find their spacing and rhythm but once they did, the U.S. carried the play. Although the hosts scored only once, they dominated possession (with around 58%) and let New Zealand back into the game late only once several substitutions were made.
Kljestan’s ability to combine with Bradley and bring his teammates into the game is a rare commodity, and he has the vision to see passes that can beat a defense (New Zealand played with five in the back). Like Green, he appears to have made a dramatic return from the international wilderness in time for the Hex.