Klinsmann's men go for points

Less margin for error is the simple reason a few members of the U.S. Soccer staff fear the semifinal phase of World Cup qualifying the national team is about to enter more so than the final, definitive Hexagonal.

With six matches instead of 10, each game’s importance is magnified, as is the cost of a stinker. The math should be the only troubling aspect of this semifinal round, since the two games against Antigua & Barbuda can be taken as gimmees and the Americans have never lost a qualifier against either Jamaica or Guatemala.

Naturally, that last item prompts pondering the possibility that at some point one of those nations will beat the USA in a real match, and given the weird bounces and bizarre officiating that can crop up in Concacaf events, if style points have to be sacrificed for standings points, that’s the way to play.

Those points extracted out of Kingston, Guatemala City and Mazatenango over the past two dozen years didn’t come easily. So while some fans may regard the semifinal round as a walk-through to the Hexagonal as Coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players continue to refine their relationships, they should remember what transpired three months ago, when the U.S under-23s failed to advance out of group play in the Concacaf qualifying tournament. And all of those games were played at home.

The points are all that matters, yet in the first competitive interval of the Klinsmann era, these subplots are to be monitored:

Center-back shuffle. The short-term issue is who will be paired in central defense with captain Carlos Bocanegra; the longer-term question is who might replace the captain adequately so the USA doesn’t need to rely on a 35-year old, as he will be in 2014.

Clarence Goodson has shown the best of three players to partner Bocanegra in the past few games, though a savvier, speedier alternative in Michael Parkhurst could be incorporated. Geoff Cameron is a hybrid of the two – Goodson’s size and Parkhurst’s ball skills – yet he doesn’t yet look as confident under pressure as either of those two, which isn’t surprising, given he’s still mastering the nuances of converting from midfield.

Further down the road are the fates of Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez, who are already falling behind the rest of the field.

Left backs limping. Another omission in addition to Ream, Eric Lichaj, may resurface at the left-back slot if injuries dog Fabian Johnson, who suffered a calf strain warming up for the Canada game and was scratched. Edgar Castillo, who may be able to suffice during the semifinal phase as an emergency backup, suffered an injury in Thursday's training and like Johnson is doubtful for Friday's game.

The emergence of Johnson at left back, where he played for German club Hoffenheim during the second half of the Bundesliga season, gives Klinsmann an automatic starter in a position that was a headache for predecessor Bob Bradley. His solid defensive work is complemented by eagerness to get forward and engage in combination play. He can also cross with either foot, a factor that should boost the U.S. attack as he gets more time in the team.

While promising to imbue a more fluid, skillful style of play, Klinsmann has also stressed the importance of a strong foundation in the back. Breakdowns, both collectively and individually, have hampered the team in its recent games.

Midfield matters. Johnson’s value extends beyond his comfort on the ball and defensive acumen; his overlapping abilities and range enhance the abilities of Jose Torres, who started the play that led to the first U.S. goal against Scotland by winning a tackle near the sideline and releasing the ball.

Backed by Johnson and supported centrally by whichever teammate is available, Torres can find spaces and seams to supply balls into the attacking third. Torres at left mid is the antithesis of a romping, slashing Brek Shea, and switching one for the other significantly alters the midfield.

Yet the midfield is crowded with candidates, with Klinsmann dependent on the two-way attributes of Michael Bradley and whomever partners him in the middle. Jermaine Jones can contribute offensively – he assisted on two goals and scored once against Scotland – yet he’s also reckless. His muscle and experience are desired commodities but a player easily goaded into cautions can be detrimental. The minutes and opportunities for Maurice Edu are hard to ascertain.

Big guns. The much-ballyhooed debut of the Clint Dempsey-Landon Donovan duo didn’t dazzle in the 0-0 tie with Canada, and having both of them available is both a pleasure and a poser for Klinsmann. They are both creators and finishers and if on their game can handle the bulk of the playmaking given enough midfield support.

Whether the alignment is designated as a 4-4-1-1 or 4-3-3, getting Dempsey into a hole behind the forward(s) is probably his best spot, but working out the other positions has been tricky. Klinsmann can use a pair of central players behind Dempsey as the attacking mid with Donovan on one of the wings, which would keep Torres in the mix on the left in a 4-2-3-1. Torres and Donovan are very different players, so by using them on opposite flanks while allowing some freedom to roam, Klinsmann can confound both opponents and observers.

While many fans and pundits have speculated about which is the best formation to play, Klinsmann has stressed maximizing the abilities of players and finding the alignment that best fits their strengths and his tactics. While he’s used all four of his forwards on his 23-man roster the past three games he’s rarely put more than one on the field at the same time.  

He could opt for the size and power of Jozy Altidore, or might prefer the guile and pace of Herculez Gomez.

In the opener Friday against Antigua and Barbuda, there will be pressure to attack early and score often. Four days later, Klinsmann gets his first test in a hostile Central American venue against opponents who have ample experience against American players at the club and international levels.

Six points would be great, four points are essential. The math starts here.

11 comments about "Klinsmann's men go for points".
  1. Bill Anderson, June 8, 2012 at 8:54 a.m.


  2. Walt Pericciuoli, June 8, 2012 at 10:59 a.m.

    I believe we will have a difficult time qualifying out of Conacaf for the WC 2014. Mexico are clear favorites.Who are the #2,3 and 4???In our current state of deterioration over the past few years, I don't think we can consider ourselves automatic in the top 4.Our team tends to overlook the "minnows". Every game will be a test and we should have an all in approach.

  3. Luis Arreola, June 8, 2012 at 11:34 a.m.

    Ridge, sacrifice style vs guatemala and Jamaica?? How low have we come?? Why don't we learn to play an attacking style so we might have a chance at W.C, 2014?? Why does getting these points the boring way matter if we will get humiliated in W.C. 2014?? Ridge, it's you're mentality that hurts soccer in USA and the reason it's not as popular as it should now be.

  4. Stephen Fixx, June 8, 2012 at 11:47 a.m.

    I'm with Luis, Points are not all that matters. I don't dream about a "hollow cup" on the shelf, but showing the world that the USA can play the game with a winning style that draws fans to our beautiful game. Did the Netherlands win Africa 2010 after abandoning their style? Did they lose fans that day?

  5. David Sirias, June 8, 2012 at 2:14 p.m.

    Klinsmann's biggest problem is not the defense or the midfield or #9 striker. All those pieces and spare parts are in place. Guys will age, lose speed, get hurt, lose form, but for rhe first time ever we have depth in the cycle--. The younger guys (except Bradley) just need experience.
    Klinsmann's biggest problem is Dempsey/Donovan. Bookmark this. They will be competing for the same spot one year from now--second striker. Why? because Klinsmann does not play with a true #10--something that dovovan could do at his age in 2014, but won't be asked to. If you are expecting dempsey and donovan to play wide or be pinched in wide forwards in Klinsmann's 433 you are looking at a world of hurt because they would occupy the same space and get in the way of Klinsmann #8s. Neither will be fast enough to be expected to stay wide and be Klinsmann;s speed forward and keep the defense honest--the spot Klinsmann is saving for Shae or Gatt etc. ( And don't tell me how Donovan is this great winger for Everton. He does two things there -- either stays wide to stretch the field, but never for the purpose of taking on a defender 1 v 1, which he would have to do for the USMNT or he pinches in to the middle to space vacated by everton forwards who either are dropped deep or stay high.) That's not Klinsmann's game. USA fans and sports writers demonstrate naivete by clamoring for more 30+ years dempsey and donovan in WC 2014. What we actually need is for Dempsey and Domovan to learn to work with Bradley and whoever partners with him as Klinsmann's box to box twin #8s. Holden/ Torres/Diskarud/Corona/whoever. That will be the heart of the team. They will be occupying the middle in the Klinsmann system in front of Klinsmann;s dedicated #6. If Ridge thinks it's the other way around, the young guns having to work with the 30 somethings, he's got it arse backwards.

  6. Gregory Kowalski, June 8, 2012 at 5:35 p.m.

    When is Brad Davis going to get the chance he deserves to be on the national team?

  7. Scott O'Connor, June 8, 2012 at 5:59 p.m.

    Anyone who can still change their national allegiance needs a cap in this game... This may be the last time we get a throwaway game to do that... Joe Corona? Terrence Boyd? I guess Fabian Johnson already changed once so he's locked into the US but if that's not correct, send him limping out there in the 93rd minute so he can't Chandler-Rossi-Subotic us.

  8. Scott O'Connor, June 8, 2012 at 6:07 p.m.

    An hour before game time and I'm thinking that when I watch the recording of the game later I'm going to see a lot of shots of a perplexed looking Klinsmann. I think he is not truly prepared for what he's going to see in CONCACAF qualifying. Perhaps there is just too much of a talent gap for A&B to make it too tough but I think the US is going to have to show it can generate offense from inside it's half with 10 defenders in the way. I think we're going to have to win ugly in this qualifier (although Jamaica does like to open things up a bit so those could be good open games). I hope I'm wrong and the class we saw against the obviously weak Scottish side will also assert itself again tonight. If that is the case, the "we were just tired and trying not to get hurt" defense of the Canada performance becomes more probable. A crappy showing tonight could be a message however even a dismantling still leaves the true test for next week in Guatemala.

  9. soccer know it all, June 9, 2012 at 5:03 a.m.

    Jk cant coach defence, his overall strategy is to tell his wingbacks to press forward up the pitch. It’s the reason I believe he has stayed with the older guys (Boca, Gouch,Edu,Dolo) in the back area and let them coach themselves. but this game put JK’s ingame tactical awareness and adjustments to the test on defence, and he failed bigtime! Torres should not be playing out of position at leftback when Cameron could use the minutes, all torres did was get injured trying to slide tackle a (A&B) winger at fullspeed coming down the leftflank. Then he moves the heart of our defence (BOCA) wide left, inserts Gouch! who has cost us 4-5 goals in the last two weeks with his big mistakes in the back; of course this leads to a breakdown and the A&B goal.

    The other thing JK is gonna have to learn is how to put players and formations on the field against the wide variety of countries the USMNT plays in CONCACAF.. Canada, A &B, parked the bus in the back and dared the US to score. Mexico can carve us up with there speedy, skillful, triangle-give n go/ interplay. the other’s; guat, hon, el sal, pan, crc.. etc are slower less skillful versions of mexico but still can impose there will on USMT at home; So I think it’s baptism by fire for JK in WC qualifying, as his 4-3-3 uptempo, possession, attacking style plan for the USMNT is going to get bogged down in latin america. What will JK’s pregame strategies, ingame tactics, and halftime speeches be then?

  10. Hal Hilger, June 9, 2012 at 11:26 a.m.

    Klinsmann was an excellent player for the German National Team, but being an excellent player does not guarantee that his coaching level is up to par. The question is why did FC Bayern Muenchen let him go?, and as I understand he coached another team in Europe as well. The game between the US and Antigua-Barbuda was a total disaster exposing the weakness of the team and the inability of the coach to correct those.
    They might not qualify for the World Cup, but if they do, will be elimited in the first round at the World Cup Games.

  11. cisco martinez, June 13, 2012 at 2:41 p.m.

    USA needs the same mentality as Bruce Arena did in the 2002 World Cup! USA should play a 3-5-2, Bocanegra, Goodsen, Cherundolo, Donovan, Feilhaber,Bradley, Jones, Torres, Dempsey and Altidore. This is attacking soccer that will get results, playing a 4-5-1 against Barbados or guatemala may get us to the World Cup, but against teams such as Brazil will not work. USA needs Klinsmann needs to say the same thing Ballack said against England's dismal performance against France, "I'm not impressed."

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