[USA CONFIDENTIAL] One game doesn’t mean all that much, particularly in regards to the USA, which is a work-in-progress, plain and simple. So why does it seem like panic has set in?
It’s easy to get carried away with one result. Already England’s 1-0 defeat of European and world champion Spain Saturday is being hailed as a “dethroning,” even though Italy, Portugal, and Argentina have also beaten Spain in the past 18 months. (That throne is getting pretty crowded.)
The French team that beat the USA, 1-0, Friday hasn’t called for any comparisons to the great Michel Platini-led teams of the 1980s, nor the Zinedine Zidane-Laurent Blanc-Marcel Desailly World Cup champions of 1998, nor the losing finalist in the 2006 competition. Still, there’s a sense the Americans were badly outclassed by Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, Loic Remy, Marvin Martin, Mathieu Debuchy and others on the field if not on the scoreboard.
The assumption that Maurice Edu is the more attack-minded of the central midfield pairing with Kyle Beckerman is just that, an assumption. Never has USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann stipulated that Edu is anything other than he is: a hard-tacking grafter responsible, like Beckerman, for stopping attacks and funneling the ball to the wide players, outside backs, and forwards. Against a potent team like France -- even at less than full strength -- backed by more than 70,000 demanding fans, containment in midfield has to be the priority.
If one wants to quibble about the players being too similar, that’s somewhat true, though while the players may fill similar roles, they are not mirror images of each other. What was apparent against France is they don’t always mesh too well or cover for each other or balance each other out by their touches, decisions and movement. Maybe what’s needed is not a different style of player, but one with more ability.
Yet against a strong European foe like France what every American player needs are teammates of poise and skill and vision. Right now, those elements are in short supply.
The attack didn’t suffer because the U.S. played with two central midfielders who are not especially proficient with killer through balls or mazy dribbles or delicate chips into the goalmouth. Many teams can attack efficiently with a pair of two-way midfielders, if the other four front players are of sufficient talent and collective intelligence. Right now, it’s not happening, and probably won’t until Klinsmann can get a potent partnership cooking between Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and at least one other player, be it a central midfielder or wide player.
Against France, Dempsey and Altidore were all right and that might have been good enough had not wide mids Brek Shea and Danny Williams been poor. With only two real options to play the ball to and outside backs Tim Chandler and Steve Cherundolo locked down in defensive mode most of the time, it’s not surprising that Edu and Beckerman labored.
Who are the candidates? Stuart Holden could play in either spot, but he’s out injured for at least a few more months. Jose Francisco Torres, also injured, has good vision and a nice touch and will have a chance to regain a regular spot next year. Both Williams and Fabian Johnson play in the middle for Hoffenheim, with Johnson usually in a more advanced position, and they, too, will be auditioned extensively in 2012. But as internationals, they are far from proven commodities.
Sasha Kljestan must be doing something right at Anderlecht but he’s played only 24 minutes (against Costa Rica) for Klinsmann and wasn’t picked for the France and Slovenia games. DaMarcus Beasley has worked his way back into the pool and might be given a real chance to lock down the left mid slot, which could push Donovan to the other side – or into the middle? -- and alleviate some of the concerns. Alejandro Bedoya has all the skill in the world but needs to shore up a few other areas.
What about the MLS contingent? Some fans and journalists are clamoring for Freddy Adu but his play for the Union doesn’t suggest he’s anything more than a fringe player at this point. Brad Davis is coming off a great season for Houston and Benny Feilhaber has 2010 World Cup experience, but Klinsmann doesn’t seem eager to stock his attacking spots with MLS players, other than Donovan or Shea, who showed in the Stade de France he’s not that far up the learning curve just yet. Robbie Rogers? We’ll see.
Until Holden and Torres come back, assuming Dempsey continues in his role as a de facto partner for Altidore, Klinsmann probably won’t have enough quality players to fill out an XI that can seriously challenge a team like France. Using Michael Bradley in central midfield can help, but what the USA needs are six or seven competent attackers, be they forwards or midfielders or something in between, to fill those four slots consistently and effectively. Right now, they aren’t there.