Fans of the United States national soccer team can probably relate a lot to Goldilocks. When they watch the Americans play most of the time it’s either too hot, too cold and rarely, juuuuuust right. Sunday’s 4-3 victory over Germany in the U.S. Soccer Centennial Celebration at RFK Stadium was a fitting way to celebrate 100 years of the sport in the States. It was everything good, bad and ugly about American soccer, aside from Jack Edwards screaming jingoist statements from the top of his lungs following a goal. There was even the comically inept own-goal by Germany keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen to add a little levity to the celebration, along with U.S. hanging on for dear life in the final 10 minutes when the result appeared to be in the bag.
Making things all the more confounding is that the U.S. put forth this spirited display against Germany only a few days after being blown away by Belgium in 4-2 loss in Cleveland, causing a mild panic. Granted this was a German team missing nearly a dozen regulars, but the change in performances by the U.S. – in some spots – was night and day.
If there’s a pattern for the USMNT, it’s when you expect nothing following a bad result the team manages to exceed expectations. Conversely, in the rare times you’re counting on the U.S., it tends to underwhelm. This trend goes back to well before Jurgen Klinsmann was hired.
Off the pair of friendlies against top-tier European competition it’s hard to draw declarative statements toward how the U.S. will do heading into Friday night’s CONCACAF World Cup qualifier in Jamaica. Trying to gauge the U.S. performance one game to the next feels increasingly like a fool’s errand. Still, there were a couple takeaways to marinate on the next couple days before the game in Kingston.
Jozy back?: Against Germany Jozy Altidore announced he wasn’t fooling around with a top notch volley to open the game’s scoring in the first half. It was his first goal for the U.S. since Nov. 2011. If the goal vs. Germany were only a simple tap-in, people would still be worried about trusting Altidore going forward into qualifying, but a goal like that — along with his intelligent movements in the box throughout — makes people take notice. It’s partially why U.S. fans have been so frustrated by Altidore, independent of what he does for his club team in the Netherlands. We’ve seen him flash the talent and sometimes become ‘unplayable’ for the opposing defense, so there didn’t seem to be any logical reason a player with his ability would go nearly two years without scoring internationally.
Even more impressive, perhaps, was Altidore’s hold-up play inside the box and pass to Clint Dempsey in the second half that made it 3-1. Often we’ve seen Altidore drift ineffectually out of matches, this time he put his stamp on it from the opening whistle. With a dominant showing vs. Germany you’d assume he’ll be able to carry it into Friday’s game in Jamaica. (If only it were that simple.) Still, Altidore clicking up top takes a lot of pressure of Dempsey, who’s scored six of the Americans eight goals in 2013 including a spectacular strike vs. Germany on Sunday that moved him into second-place all-time on the U.S. goal scoring-charts.
Any way to defend this defense?: Often times we’re able to sugarcoat and/or find silver linings to dire showings by the U.S. You might need to track down circa 2004-era Ari Fleischer to positively spin the seven goals allowed by the U.S. against Belgium and Germany. You could say Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Tim Howard & Co. won’t see anyone in the caliber of Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku or Miroslav Klose (who didn’t do much vs. the U.S.), coming up in qualifiers. Still, the back line looks nervy, disorganized and even conceded a rare goal off a corner kick vs. Germany.
Klinsmann used his 27th different lineup in 27 games in charge of the U.S. on Sunday, its the defense causing him most of the lineup headaches either through injury or ineffectiveness. Would a change of shape to a 3-5-2, or something else be in order? It’s getting close to crossing your fingers and praying with the American defense, if it isn’t at that point already.
Wither, width?: Klinsmann rolled with a 4-2-3-1 in both friendlies. Sunday it was Fabian Johnson and Graham Zusi starting in the wide attacking roles. Johnson looks natural on the wing, pressing forward and his possible hamstring injury isn’t a good development moving into the qualifiers. Zusi, though creative and good passer – he had the assist on the Altidore goal – isn’t a burner who can get behind his defender. The U.S. has gotten over-lapping runs by DaMarcus Beasley from left back to create some attacks from wide position, but the right side remains an issue. Anything the U.S. can generate from wide areas will only help. The team isn’t exactly known from stringing a lot of passes together to work the ball up the field for goals, favoring short quick bursts. It behooves a squad to cross the ball when Altidore, Dempsey and Michael Bradley are adept finishers moving forward into the penalty area. If not crosses, maybe more long passes over the top like Jermaine Jones floated to Altidore to set up Dempsey’s first goal.
Too much depth?: Part of it is by necessity in defense, but is Klinsmann’s continual auditions for players causing more harm than good? Take Sunday trying out Brad Evans at right back. Sure, that’s part of the reason friendlies exist so you can try out new players, but isn’t it only creating more confusion since most players the German-born coach trots haven’t distinguished themselves? Sooner, rather than later, Klinsmann needs to denote his core 30-odd players and leave it at that and move forward. The window for auditions should be closely rapidly.
Solid celebration: ESPN did a nice job going through some of the best moments achieved by U.S. Soccer over the last 100 years in its pregame show. Yes, those moments exist. Would have been nice for a little more on-field ceremony stuff, if only to see what guys like Roy Wegerle, Joe-Max Moore, etc. are looking like these days. RFK looked as good as it has in years. All-in-all, a fine day for the Federation.