GLENDALE, Ariz. – The 59,066 fans in attendance at University of Phoenix Stadium certainly got their money’s worth from Wednesday night’s 2-2 draw between the U.S. and Mexico. It was a friendly, sure. But four goals, several emphatic momentum swings, a bit of controversy and Julian Green’s debut offered more than enough intrigue and entertainment.
What the back-and-forth match failed to provide, however, was additional clarity about where the U.S. stands as next month’s World Cup camp approaches. Asked following the match what lessons might be have been learned, midfielder Kyle Beckerman said simply, “That’s something for you to decide. I don’t know.”
The only safe conclusion is that the two weeks of training in California and three subsequent exhibitions in May and June will be critical. While other World Cup teams might use that time to smooth out some rough edges, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann will need every precious second to finalize his 23-man roster and then settle on a plan for the June 16 opener against Ghana.
He’s been in charge for nearly three years and has managed 47 matches. Klinsmann’s players will tell you that he’s challenged them in new ways, inspired them to pursue a more proactive, dynamic style of soccer and created unprecedented depth and competition throughout the squad. But it's still almost impossible to discern what the U.S. does best or who should start. At this point, 10 weeks before kickoff in Brazil, midfielder Michael Bradley and goalkeeper Tim Howard arguably are the only true shoo-ins.
Bradley was the American man of the match on Wednesday. He was immense in the first half, marauding at will through midfield and knocking Mexico off balance with his dribbling, energy and vision. Bradley opened the scoring in the 15th minute when he slammed home a corner kick from Graham Zusi. The Toronto FC star turned provider in the 28th, when he headed Tony Beltran’s cross into the path of striker Chris Wondolowski.
Mexico controlled most of the second stanza and leveled the score in the 68th. But Bradley’s earlier dominance wasn’t forgotten. At this late date, it raised a fundamental question about how the U.S. midfield should be organized.
Over the past year, Klinsmann typically has paired Bradley with Jermaine Jones at the heart of a 4-2-3-1 formation (when a full squad was available). Both players are strong defensively, and both have an instinct to push forward, leaving them to work out who should advance and who should withdraw. In the heat of battle, it hasn’t always functioned smoothly.
There was far more clarity on Wednesday. Beckerman, who thrives as a defensive organizer, stayed put in front of the back four as Bradley pushed forward. In defined roles that played to their strengths, Beckerman and Bradley flourished for significant stretches.
Bradley said following the game that Beckerman “does a good job of taking care of things and kind of being disciplined, so it gives me more freedom to be mobile, to be on the move, to get forward, to be up and down, to be more two-way. There’s no doubt I enjoy that.”
Landon Donovan said, “I thought Michael was great tonight … I think people forget he can play in a role like that when he has the freedom to. Having Kyle in there behind him helps a lot. Kyle does such a good job of tidying everything up.”
Bradley was afforded even more space by Klinsmann’s decision to use two forwards (Clint Dempsey and Wondolowski), rather than the customary high striker supported by three attack-minded midfielders.
“Often we had situations where we didn’t get enough support to our forward, especially if you look at Jozy [Altidore],” Klinsmann said.
On Wednesday, Dempsey could stay higher if he chose, Bradley had room to run and Wondolowski received the service he needed to score his third U.S. goal this year. Late in the second half, after a long period of Mexican ascendancy, the hosts adjusted and recaptured their rhythm. Substitute Eddie Johnson had a potential game winner called back on a razor thin offside ruling, and an apparent foul on Green was uncalled on the edge of the penalty area.
“I think any team probably does,” Beckerman said when asked if the U.S. played better with two forwards. “You’re more dangerous. When we have the options that we do with two forwards, it’s probably better.”
It might be difficult to imagine Klinsmann shelving the 4-2-3-1 or deciding to bench Jones, for whom the coach has great admiration. But a week ago, it was impossible to imagine Klinsmann parting ways with long-time assistant Martin Vasquez, who’d been by his side since they worked together at Bayern Munich in 2008-09. Vasquez planned and ran most of the national team’s practice sessions and was considered Klinsmann’s primary tactician. He was removed from his post and reassigned on Sunday in a move that sent shockwaves through the U.S. camp and beyond.
Now, a tactical reset is possible less than two months before the World Cup.
If Vasquez is expendable, then anyone is. Klinsmann rightly values success over sentiment. For more than a year, Omar Gonzalez has been the obvious frontrunner to be the big man in back alongside Matt Besler. The LA Galaxy stalwart was outstanding in both World Cup qualifiers against Mexico last year. But that Gonzalez hasn’t seized the job and had a rough outing on Wednesday – he lost his mark on both El Tri goals – adds to the uncertainty.
“Naturally, it’s open,” Klinsmann said of the competition for playing time in central defense before rattling off the names of three more players who might fill the role.
That’s far from the only tough decision Klinsmann faces. Is the impact Bradley has in a more advanced role worth shackling the other center midfielder? Could Jones accept that role? Can Beckerman, who thrives in CONCACAF, handle the speed and dynamism of Ghana, Portugal and Germany? Would the support of a second forward help Altidore rediscover his scoring touch? Might that 4-4-2 then relegate Donovan to reserve duty? Where does Geoff Cameron, an English Premier League starter, belong? And what about Fabian Johnson?
Those questions address the heart of this team's identity. And it’s a lot to figure out.
Four years ago, coach Bob Bradley sent the U.S. on to the field in South Africa in a formation that played to its strengths. The Americans had good defensive midfielders, lacked punch up front and thrived on the counterattack. Klinsmann wants his team to be more versatile.
“We need to have at least two or three different systems for the World Cup to hopefully confuse the opponents at little bit,” Klinsmann said.
Graham Zusi agreed.
“Different games are going to bring different situations and for us to be able to adapt to those could be very vital,” he said.
National teams aren’t clubs. Players come and go, the full complement rarely is together and training time is at a premium. Mastering multiple systems, especially with so much uncertainty in the lineup, seems like a tall order. It hasn't happened yet. Klinsmann and his players have about a month, starting May 14 at Stanford University and ending June 16 in Natal. The depth certainly has been established. The options and permutations are plentiful. It’s now time to narrow them down.
“I think all the players who were here today gave everything they had and understand that a game goes at least 90 minutes, maybe in a World Cup it goes 120 minutes, and we don’t have those 90 minutes,” Klinsmann said. “We have 55 or 60, maximum, on that level. It’s not enough. So it means we have a lot of homework to do.”