[USA CONFIDENTIAL] Five games into the reign of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a few of the names have changed, and a different persona may be emerging even if the results haven’t been stellar. Though much of the focus on the early days of Klinsmann's tenure as U.S. national team coach has centered on a feeble attack, other numbers merit closer attention. He's used 30 players, a different starting lineup in each of his five games, and several formations since taking over in late July. Games in November against France and an opponent to be determined will allow for further experimentation and more data to be mined heading into a busy 2012 that starts with a January training camp. Here's what the USA's depth chart currently looks like ...
An emphasis on skill and combination play has produced impressive stretches of ball control and creative movement spoiled by lackluster finishing (two goals in five games). The back line has looked capable at times and confused at others, the midfield displays have ranged from crisp to creaky. The only consistently solid position has been in goal.
Based on his selections and their performances so far, here’s a look at the U.S. depth chart at each position, with a few players not yet picked for a game-day roster by Klinsmann (*marked by an asterisk) also included.
FORWARDS. The struggle to score goals – only two have been netted in five games since Klinsmann took over – naturally puts Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo, et al., under the spotlight, along with the question of whether Clint Dempsey can remain in the “hole” behind the forward(s).
Altidore has yet to translate his goalscoring prowess in Holland with AZ Alkmaar to the national team, and his current state is probably somewhere between a fluid, confident performance against Honduras and a more labored showing that rarely troubled Ecuador. There’s no question he can carve out space, knock down balls, and occupy centerbacks. He’s also surprisingly adept at getting out wide, as he did to center a ball Brek Shea contrived to poke wide from point-blank range in the Honduras game. (He did the same last year at the World Cup in stoppage time against Algeria, too.)
Barring a dramatic resurgence by Edson Buddle, Herculez Gomez, Freddy Adu, or somebody else, Altidore is going to get a lot of playing time. Agudelo’s youth and inexperience are not suited to a starting role just yet, especially if he’s paired with a fairly young (22) Altidore.
As to other candidates who can play up top with Altidore, the only viable option could be Landon Donovan in case Klinsmann opts for more speed. Shea has occasionally played up top for club and country and if a 4-3-3 formation is really on the USA horizon he’s a top candidate at the left wing.
Chris Wondolowski’s late surge into Golden Boot contention with San Jose will probably earn him a recall to the January training camp but his misfires in the pre-Klinsmann Gold Cup weren’t encouraging. Aside from Teal Bunbury -- and he’s still very raw -- nobody other than Agudelo looks viable in the short term among the younger contingent.
Starters: Altidore, Dempsey. Backups: Agudelo, Buddle, Gomez*, Bunbury*, Adu*.
MIDFIELD. Dempsey has certainly emerged as a more dangerous attacker while deployed as a second forward, but that switch plus a few injuries have left the midfield rather barren.
Shea’s ability to play on either flank has masked a failure to generate effective, consistent wide play. In just two national team games, Danny Williams has shown the acumen and ruggedness to handle himself, but whether he can handle the position of right mid is yet to be determined. His attacking instincts are solid, as he showed by getting off three shots against Honduras and working combinations up the flank with rigth back Steve Cherundolo, but often he looks like a central player chafing in the wrong position.
Leading the list of injured are Stuart Holden and Jose Francisco Torres, who won’t be seen until the New Year. If he ever gets healthy, with his instincts and engine Holden can fill the bill on the flank or in the middle. Torres offers touch and vision and a surgical left foot; he’s better suited to a central grafting role rather than out wide flying up the flank and flinging in balls, a la Shea, or as a schemer. Unless he can consistently trick his way through tackles, he’ll be prone to costly turnovers, as physically he’s just not there yet.
Robbie Rogers’ good/bad games under Klinsmann seem to confirm the opinion of predecessor Bob Bradley: not a bad player, but not all that good, either. DaMarcus Beasley showed enough in the last two games to edge his way into the picture but will need to improve significantly to dislodge Shea. He still has his pace and a potent left foot, valuable weapons in all situations.
None of the central combinations used by Klinsmann among Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, Jeff Larentowicz and Torres have taken root. During the testing-out process, lack of cohesion and confusion are to be expected, yet the current cast of characters consists of either two-way players or those suited mainly to a holding role. A Holden or Benny Feilhaber or Sacha Kljestan could change this dynamic and lend a true attacking flair, with preference perhaps for Holden or Donovan, both of whom are imbued with enough workrate and range to lessen the burden on a more defensive counterpart.
One option is a mix of two-way central players and reliance on attacking impetus from four outright attackers and occasionally the outside backs, no matter who they may be or how they are deployed. Critics cry out for an incisive, insightful, all-conquering No. 10, but no such finished product exists in the current pool, and many national teams – such as Mexico – do just fine without one.
Starters: Shea, Bradley, Donovan, Williams. Backups: Holden*, Torres, Edu, Beasley, Jones, Beckerman, Kljestan, Ricardo Clark.
DEFENDERS. How different the Gold Cup could have been if Nuremberg had not told Tim Chandler to bypass the competition has been shown by his performances at left back. He had been considered a left-back candidate by Bob Bradley, who never got the chance to test him in that position.
He’s not a natural on that side, but tracks and tackles tenaciously. At age 21 there’s tons of room to mature and improve on his positioning and reading of the game. In his four appearances for Klinsmann (three at left back) he’s hit a number of good crosses with his right foot and a couple of decent efforts from the left.
Right now, the left-back job seems his to lose, though by the time World Cup qualifying starts next June Eric Lichaj should be healthy and fit enough to mount a challenge. Lichaj’s Gold Cup performances were mainly positive, and his move to right back early in the Gold Cup final when Cherundolo was injured opened the floodgates for Mexico. He is recuperating from a torn hip labrum that is projected to sideline him until January.
Edgar Castillo played left back in Klinsmann’s first two games in charge (Mexico and Costa Rica) and aside from great speed, didn’t show enough to merit serious consideration at the national team level. He’s also out of the mix at Club America. Michael Orozco Fiscal played in those two matches as well as the first half against Honduras; his departure in favor of Oguchi Onyewu at halftime of that match quite snugly delineates their positions on the depth chart.
It’s taken Onyewu nearly two years to fully recover from the ruptured patellar tendon he suffered in the Hexagonal finale against Costa Rica, and a stark measure of his progress should come next month against France. How well captain Carlos Bocanegra is keeping his form with a change of teams from the French League to Glasgow Rangers will also bear watching.
Other center back options are Clarence Goodson, who played decently in his only appearance for Klinsmann against Belgium, and Omar Gonzalez of the Galaxy. The exclusion of Gonzalez to date has generated an uproar of comical exaggeration, though much of that is rooted in Tim Ream’s struggles. (If Gonzalez isn’t summoned to the January camp, that will be cause for panic.)
Starters: Chandler, Bocanegra, Onyewu, Cherundolo. Backups: Goodson, Lichaj*, Orozco Fiscal, Ream, Jonathan Spector.
GOALKEEPER. The hiring of former England international Chris Woods, who counsels starter Tim Howard at Everton, as U.S. goalkeepers coach gives a clear indication of how this position shapes up.
Unless Brad Guzan can break into the starting lineup at Aston Villa or Marcus Hahnemann swoops back into the picture, Nick Rimando of Real Salt Lake will be the experienced backup and Bill Hamid gets the call from the youth contingent, of which there are prospects – Sean Johnson, Dan Kennedy, Tally Hall – but no serious candidates.
Starter: Howard. Backups: Guzan*, Rimando, Hamid.
UP NEXT. For the two proposed November games against France, on Nov. 11, and another opponent to be announced, four days later, Klinsmann is expected to rely mostly on European-based players, though he can call up any MLS player other than one whose team reaches the championship game. The conference finals will be played Nov. 5-6, and the league will sit out the following weekend during the FIFA dates.