By Ridge Mahoney
Watching the U.S. national team is like a brand new reality show, “The Answer,” has been dreamed up for 2013.
Not as cutthroat as the “The Apprentice” and less self-serving than “American Idol,” the program is not seen regularly but rather varies depending on the time of year. Only a few editions were viewed during the first five months of 2013 but the frequency, and intensity of competition, has recently accelerated.
To get “The Answer,” one first needs to know the question, of which there are several of importance and imminence for the national team. If, as another show claims, “America’s Got Talent,” why is it so hard to fill certain positions on the soccer field?
In a 4-3 defeat of Germany last weekend, a solid 90-minute performance by Sounders veteran Brad Evans identified him as “The Answer” at right back, even though a predecessor, Geoff Cameron, had supposedly won that contest in March by helping blank Costa Rica and Mexico in the second and third rounds of the Hexagonal.
In a Colorado snowstorm and then the imposing Estadio Azteca, Cameron -- who unlike Evans actually plays right back for his club team more often than not -- looked more than capable of being “The Answer.” But that was then, and a rough outing against Belgium five days before the Germany game consigned Cameron to the bench against Germany, and thus did Evans win the last edition of “The Answer.”
A sobering factor like logic can derail just about any train of thought regarding how fans and journalists react to the tinkering of Jurgen Klinsmann. Such is certainly the case with this right back conundrum caused by the march of time and injuries that have beset Steve Cherundolo, the incumbent for the past decade and at 34, a question mark for Brazil 2014.
Evans is a rugged and versatile player who normally plays midfield but has played in the back as well as up top for Seattle. Cameron, a midfielder in college and early in his pro career, was converted to a centerback by Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear, and has played in the middle as well as the outside for Klinsmann. Lacking a true specialist for this position at this time, Klinsmann has gone for versatility.
Since Cameron shone in two competitive matches (Costa Rica and Mexico) and often plays right back for an English Premier League team, albeit a lesser light such as Stoke City, logic would place him ahead of Evans. Klinsmann has cited versatility as one of his key criteria in selecting players, and several listed on the current roster could pop up at more than one position.
It’s more than likely Klinsmann treated the Belgium and Germany games as training exercises, knowing he’ll need a lot more than 11 players to get through three Hexagonal matches in 12 days. A player “dropped” is not necessarily stuck on the bench forever, and the process continues to find “The Answer” on the left side as well.
Against Germany, the addition of several players who were unavailable for the Belgium game opened up possibilities for Klinsmann. The coach deployed Fabian Johnson at left mid in front of DaMarcus Beasley, who in the March matches emerged as “The Answer” at left back. Johnson has played mostly in the back for Klinsmann but finished the Bundesliga season for Hoffenheim in midfield. This attempt to become “The Answer” at left mid ended at halftime when a tweaked hamstring forced him out of the lineup but he’s expected back on the show, perhaps as soon as Friday when Hexagonal play resumes against Jamaica.
Yet is Beasley “The Answer” long-term left back? Maybe, though as of six months ago he barely registered on the national-team radar screen at all, much less at left back. A good showing against Germany offset some rough moments against Belgium, which took every opportunity to knock him off the ball one-v-one.
Ideally, Klinsmann can extract solid performances out of the outside back positions for the next three games but in the short term, with Timmy Chandler sidelined and Johnson iffy because of his hamstring, his choices are limited. Michael Parkhurst can play on either side but hasn’t played for the U.S. yet in 2013.
Beasley is fast and experienced and tenacious, and also severely stretched physically while guarding the back post on crosses or standing up a beefy forward. Evans isn’t tremendously skilled or physically imposing but he’s smart, tough, and utterly committed to everything he does on the field.
That speed is not only an asset but a necessity due to his occasionally suspect positioning, though he certainly has a better sense of how to play that position than Edgar Castillo, whose performances for Club Tijuana have reportedly drawn the interest of Brazilian clubs. At the national team level he seems better suited to left mid than left back, which about a dozen years ago was the consensus feeling about Beasley. Times do change.
How unstable is the U.S. situation at left mid? So much so that a forward, Eddie Johnson, has been more influential in that position than a left-footed MLS All-Star, Brad Davis. Eddie Johnson can’t really be “The Answer” in midfield, can he?
Has Klinsmann found “The Answer” at center back? Omar Gonzalez has been a constant since the start of the year, although the ball-watching tendencies that often plagued him early in his career with the Galaxy resurfaced in the Belgium and Germany games. Clarence Goodson was replaced by Matt Besler for the Germany game, so many observers assumed that “The Answer” to the centerback question is a pairing of Gonzalez and Besler.
Still, one can expect to see Goodson and maybe Cameron in those slots as well during the Hexagonal. Injuries and suspensions often take a heavy toll at centerback, and Klinsmann -- who has named a vast array of players, including former captain Carlos Bocanegra on his preliminary Gold Cup roster -- can’t afford to get caught short of reliable options as the Hexagonal unfolds.
Fans and journalists hailed Jozy Altidore’s game against Germany that included a superb volleyed goal and excellent assist to Clint Dempsey. He has seldom looked like “The Answer” up top for the past couple of years for the national team and still has to fend off the challenges of Herculez Gomez and Eddie Johnson, but so trend-conscious is this show that different contestants, and winners, could emerge Friday night when it moves to Kingston.