The U.S. drew 2-2 with Mexico last night. With a competent referee, they may have won 3-2. Conclusions warrant caveats – the match was an off FIFA calendar international friendly – but, with the bulk of the squad now American-based, it offered at least a reasonable forecast of where the team stands heading into Brazil. It was not optimistic.
There were positives. Michael Bradley thrives in an aggressive, upfield role where he can create and disrupt. Nick Rimando will be among the best third-choice keepers in Brazil. Chris Wondolowski may warrant a place in the final 23 or even the Starting XI. None of that will matter though, if the U.S. cannot tighten things up at the back.
Both goals against came from central defensive miscues. Frailty there is concerning, since central defense was supposed to be settled. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler have been first-choice for a while. If not a strong pairing, they at least looked functional. It is especially worrisome, since the U.S. is still banging rocks together hoping for a spark at both fullback spots.
Klinsmann’s major task, assuming the U.S. job three years ago, was to rebuild the back four. Two months out from the World Cup, it remains, writing frankly, a complete mess. We don’t know who the right four players are. There may not be a right four players. Compounding the trouble, the U.S. midfield cannot cover them.
Deploying Bradley as a playmaker and general irritant in the front third may be his ideal role. Unfortunately, it necessitates a strong, sober central midfielder behind him, and the U.S. does not have that player. Jermaine Jones has the skill-set without the temperament. Kyle Beckerman has the temperament without quite having the skill-set. Maurice Edu has not asserted himself. The best option, Geoff Cameron, may be the only U.S. option at right back.
Mexico, as a result, had acres of space down the wings and between the defensive line and midfield. A better team would have made more of that. Every team the U.S. will face in Brazil will be better than Mexico. Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo. Germany has a smorgasbord of attacking options almost as talented as Cristiano Ronaldo. This won’t be CONCACAF.
Much of this vulnerability is unavoidable. International teams, for the most part, are stuck with the players they have. Klinsmann can’t control the fact squad stalwarts are aging and just two Americans, Cameron and Fabian Johnson, play regularly in one of Europe’s top four leagues.
But some of this problem is avoidable. Klinsmann advocates swashbuckling, attacking soccer. It was his style as a player. It was his style at his previous coaching stops. While actually attempting to pass the ball out from defense is admirable, the U.S. is not good enough to match blow for blow at top-level. Their best striker is a non-entity. Clint Dempsey and Donovan look, to quote the inimitable Ian Darke, as though they are “treading through treacle.” Ambition going forward only exacerbates the problem the team has at the back.
Klinsmann’s reforms should reap benefits broadly to American soccer down the line. But, to advance from the grueling Brazil group in 2014, the U.S must play an uglier, more practical and perhaps a more “American” game. They need to be organized defensively, to be physical and spirited to the point of exasperation and to convert their chances on set pieces. Setting out to win 4-3 against Germany or Portugal would be suicide.
Jurgen did make course corrections that got a wayward Germany on track before 2006. However, that was also Germany. Having Michael Ballack at his apex makes things a bit easier.
[USA Today Sports]