Jürgen Klinsmann’s U.S. team lost its first hexagonal match to Honduras. Hysterical reactions are inevitable, as are self-important, tranquil retorts to the hysteria. A proportional response would rest between those two poles. The current qualifying position after one match should not be disconcerting, though the team’s form should be setting off alarms.
Style is ancillary in the Hex. It’s a ten-match toil. Get the points. Finish in the top three. Qualify. This group has substantial parity. Judging from past years, the safety zone should be around 17 points. Throw out the Mexico matches. Win the four home games. Obtain as many points as feasible on the road. Try your best against the rivals, but make sure a result there is a bonus rather than a necessity.
Losing is never a good look, especially at the start. That said, losing what may be the second toughest away match in a group of 10 in no way cripples them. Mexico dropping home points against the lowest-ranked team, Jamaica, last night was worse. A draw might have felt better, but it was not essential.
The qualification situation may not be critical, but don’t let that comfort you. The Honduras effort fits a broader pattern of underwhelming performances under Klinsmann. This team has made no progress.
Talent is not the issue. Eight of the 11 starters for the U.S. yesterday play significant roles for clubs in the Premier League, the Bundesliga or Serie A. Jozy Altidore has scored 17 goals in Holland so far this season. The other two, Eddie Johnson and Omar Gonzalez, were top-caliber MLS players. That’s enough ability. CONCACAF is strengthening. Areas of the roster are thin, but this team has no limiting factor. There’s no excuse to justify not qualifying for the World Cup.
Responsibility for the present malaise rests with Klinsmann. He promised a vibrant brand of soccer. He said he would find “Latin” players with technique. He said he would instill a more attacking intent. It has not materialized. Whatever impetus the USMNT has gained going forward in open play under him has been checked by defensive regression. That’s precisely what happened against Honduras.
The two conceded goals came from individual mistakes, mostly from Cameron and Gonzalez in central defense and Tim Howard. The probability of such individual mistakes increases when players are disorganized and under duress. Neither Cameron nor Gonzalez had played together or played in the Hex before. Klinsmann exacerbated pressure on them by fielding a front-loaded team, aggressive formation that could not hold possession.
Klinsmann selected a 4-3-3 with three forwards. That forces the left and right back to cover a lot of space on the wings defensively where a wide midfielder would normally be. That can leave the two central defenders and the goalkeeper quite exposed. Doing that is dandy when you are Barcelona and you have Xavi, Iniesta and others to sit on the ball 85 percent of the game. The U.S. had Michael Bradley and no one else who could pass when challenged.
Honduras received the ball back easily and had the space to be dangerous with it. A U.S. loss was a fair outcome. Mistakes happen. Good defensive teams limit opportunities for their defenders to make mistakes. When you let teams run at your defenders it is only a matter of time. Klinsmann’s tactical plan seemed to be to attack and have his defenders to pick up whatever mess came of it. That has been a pattern throughout his coaching career.
Klinsmann did not qualify Germany for the World Cup. They were the hosts. Part of the reason his semifinal run was so surprising, was that their buildup matches were so awful. The Germans hosted the 2005 Confederations Cup, and conceded 11 goals in five matches. Australia scored three times against them at home.
A similar thing happened when Klinsmann took over at Bayern Munich. His team scored a great number of goals. They also allowed 45 goals in his 33 domestic matches in charge (For comparison: the 2012-13 team has allowed seven goals in 20 matches in the Bundesliga). Particularly telling were defeats to Wolfsburg (5-1) and to Werder Bremen (5-2) at home where well-drilled teams with some talent picked them apart.
His U.S. teams have not been that porous, but the competition has been poorer. Honduras was the first qualifier against a team in the SPI Top 60. Despite playing relative minnows such as Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala, the U.S. has kept just one clean sheet in seven qualifiers.
Klinsmann has coached 23 matches over almost two years. These aren’t growing pains. There just has not been growth. It’s not even clear in what direction this team is supposed to grow. There has been nothing but rhetoric and letdown. Klinsmann has deployed eight different formations and cycled through players. The process has resembled trial and error far more than development.
These are early days. Things may coalesce here as they did with Germany. But with no American Michael Ballack or Joachim Löw emerging to paper over the cracks, it is time to be concerned.
[Photo via Presswire]