By Ridge Mahoney
So what’s he gonna do?
Times like this try the souls of soccer managers, and without the team captain and three other regulars, it’s time for Jurgen Klinsmann to show his stuff. Michael Bradley is hobbling on a sprained left ankle, and suspensions have sidelined Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and Jozy Altidore heading into the eighth-round Hexagonal qualifier Tuesday against Mexico in Columbus.
Since taking over the national team more than two years ago, Klinsmann has altered its style of play and infused competition for spots. Both characteristics will be closely scrutinized in a match by which the USA could clinch a spot in the 2014 World Cup against its bitterest rival.
“I think it’s encouraging to see that with an exception here and there, at left back particularly, the national team is probably two-deep at each position,” said former U.S. coach Steve Sampson before the loss in Costa Rica. “The one player we don’t have a ready replacement for is Michael Bradley, and that concerns me. We don’t have anyone who can do all the things that he brings to the national team.”
Cameron replaced Bradley on short notice for the 3-1 loss in Costa Rica Friday when Bradley rolled his ankle near the end of pre-game warmups, then the Stoke City player picked up a caution that rules him out of the Mexico game. The suspension of Cameron affects the back line as well, as he could have been an alternative to Besler, who is also suspended for a second caution that will go down as one of the most absurd in the long, tattered tradition of Concacaf officiating.
Defender Clarence Goodson has played alongside Omar Gonzalez twice this year: in the snowy March defeat of Costa Rica and 4-2 loss to Belgium in late May. He skipped San Jose's game with Philadelphia Sunday night and is one of four players called up by Klinsmann in the wake of the Costa Rica defeat.
None of them are forwards, so the coach felt no need to replace Altidore directly. None of the four players called up by Klinsmann in the wake of the Costa Rica defeat are forwards, so he felt no need to replace Altidore directly. The forward ranks are already somewhat thin, with Herculez Gomez, Terrence Boyd and Chris Wondolowskinot selected, and Aron Johannsson yet to start in his two appearances.
So the onus probably falls to Eddie Johnson, who could be deployed up top with Clint Dempseyor Landon Donovan in the hole behind him. Johnson has also played a wide role for Seattle as well as the USA, and how he interchanges with Dempsey and Donovan will likely dictate the rhythm of the U.S. attack.
There will be periods of cat-and-mouse play, so the threat of a ball played over the top for Johnson to run down would plant some wariness in the minds of Mexico’s defenders. Against Costa Rica, Dempsey played at forward with Donovan behind him, and their similarities helped Costa Rica to contain them reasonably well for most of the match. Johnson is limited compared to those two, but his size and strength and speed carve open space for teammates to exploit.
By calling up three midfielders, including two who play their club ball in Mexico, Klinsmann has given himself myriad options. Brad Davis has a gifted left foot and can toggle between going wide and tucking inside; Jose Torres is also left-footed and adept at linking the back and front lines;Joe Coronais another skilled player with experience on the flank as well as in the center. Yet it’s quite possible none of them will start.
Klinsmann’s admiration of Kyle Beckerman is well-known and his solid play the past two months for the U.S. in the Gold Cup as well as for Real Salt Lake stamps him as perhaps the favorite to take Bradley’s central slot. One might ask the question of Beckerman didn’t get the start in Costa Rica, yet Cameron played extensively -- in different positions -- during the earlier Hexagonal games, and playing even a wounded Mexico at home is an easier task than being thrown into a qualifier on the road.
Plus, Beckerman’s solid play was an important component of the 1-0 USA win at Azteca last year, and though it was a friendly, the game did present Beckerman an opportunity to match up with some of the same players who could take the field Tuesday. In this game, attacking acumen won’t be as important as controlling the middle and moving the ball, both of which he does very well.
Could Klinsmann opt for a true attacking presence in the middle alongside Jones: Donovan, one of the three midfield callups, or Alejandro Bedoya or Mix Diskerud? Doubtful, but possible. Going against the grain has been a Klinsmann trait since he began his coaching career with the German national team in 2004.
“I know he’s not a traditionalist, for sure, so that’s one of the things that always makes me worry about him,” laughs former U.S. international defender Marcelo Balboa, who will be in Columbus to work the Univision broadcast. ‘The good think is, he’s got some good options.”
After mulling a few options, Balboa picked Beckerman – “he’s playing some of his best soccer right now for Real Salt Lake” -- as the probable choice to partner Jones, but also stressed the inclusion of Johnson because of his versatility.
“He can get in behind whether he plays out wide or up top,” says Balboa. “He and Clint play together now in Seattle so I think [Klinsmann] will want to use that to his advantage. So what’s he gonna do? That’s a good question.”