By Ridge Mahoney
The double-dip of Concacaf Hexagonal qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico is still two weeks away, yet there’s a good chance U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann may have intriguing options for a spot on the field that’s been a black hole for much of his tenure.
That’s the left side of midfield, which is often disregarded when he plays a trio of central mids whether or not he also deploys a forward, i.e., Eddie Johnson, in a pseudo-wide role. In his long career, Landon
Donovan has played on the left side, but he’s still on hiatus and hasn’t been used in that spot since Klinsmann took over 19 months ago.
While Brek Shea may be the only “naturally” left-sided player of the current player pool to feature prominently, there are other possibilities emerging even if they, too, seem more suited to tucking inside than kicking up the sideline. Since Klinsmann has tended to use a German-based central player as a de facto left mid, he could look south of the border to follow the same formula.
As he’s used different alignments and personnel, Klinsmann’s stated objectives of greater fluidity and invention have only occasionally been attained. Players need time and game-experience to figure each other out, true, but opponents -- such as Honduras -- have also seen the U.S. enough to know the strengths and weaknesses of the current crop of Americans.
Among the dangers of injecting different influences during the Hexagonal are possible losses of cohesion and control of tempo. But if nothing else, Klinsmann needs alternatives to change not only players but tweak the style of play, and hopefully befuddle opponents.
Since moving from Pachuca to UANL Tigres during the offseason in Mexico, Jose Francisco Torres quickly gained a starting spot and kept it for the undefeated leader of the Torneo Clausura has regained some of his confidence and assertiveness. There are still questions about his ability to hold and shield the ball under pressure at the international level, yet he’s adept at playing the type of passes the Americans generate only sporadically: balls slipped between defenders that can be controlled or hit at goal first-time.
Those are the kind of passes Jozy Altidore feeds on for AZ Alkmaar, where he plays not so much to crash his head into crosses but rather to shield tacklers with his body as he collects the ball on the move. Herculez Gomez has carved out a nice career in Mexico by chasing balls over the top and knifing into the channels to collect passes played into threatening positions. Since coming back to MLS a year ago, Johnson has shown sharp improvement in angling and timing his runs to get balls played between or just behind defenders.
An excellent game for Club Tijuana Wednesday night against defending champion Corinthians in the Libertadores Cup highlighted the rapid progress shown by Joe Corona since he debuted for the U.S. U-23s a year ago. The Xolos often play with a midfield three that floats across the field as play unfolds, and Corona serves as a two-way player who can take the ball forward himself or find outlets in congested situations. He’s also improving as a marker and tackler.
By playing in Mexico and against South American clubs -- he came on as a sub when the Xolos opened the Libertadores Cup by stunning Colombian club Millonarios, 1-0, in Bogota -- Corona is getting invaluable experience at a young age (22) in much the same environment as the U.S. endures in Hexagonal matches.
For the next two qualifiers, Klinsmann’s MLS options are limited. The league just started its regular season and outside of Chris Pontius and Brad Davis, there are very few bonafide candidates. (Davis started and finished the sequence by which the Dynamo beat Santos Laguna, 1-0, Tuesday night in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals first leg.)
Shea has only made two appearances as a sub since he left for Stoke City two months ago. His sharpness will be a question mark.
Torres and Corona may not be the answers on the left side, but they are certainly legitimate options, especially with a game in Mexico City on three days’ rest after hosting Costa Rica.