As we jump into the 3-2 loss to Chile in Rancagua on Wednesday, let’s first hear from the man who masterminded the U.S. effort.
“The key moment was on the fitness side,” said USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a zealous advocate of intense physical preparation. “We’ve only trained for two weeks. Our worry was that after minute 60-65 that players make mistakes because they get tired legs. You lose the focus, you lose the vision because you’re not fresh anymore, and this kind of changed the game.”
Fair enough, but careless, sloppy play riddled the U.S. long before the hour mark. The main culprit was Jermaine Jones, ostensibly the keystone of a three-man back line, who brought his best impression of a bull in the china shop. He charged into impressive challenges and abysmal giveaways. He found wide men Brek Shea and DeAndre Yedlin with well-weighted passes, he overplayed situations all over the field.
Understandable that in the first game of the year against a good opponent Jones would tend to do too much, but only he knows why he felt the need to do everything except check the goal nets. His inability to contest the cross from Mark Gonzalez that flew over his head for Roberto Gutierrez to head home the first Chilean goal reinforces a sense that he’s much too unreliable in the air to play as a defender. (One could argue that Matt Besler, chasing on the far side of Gutierrez, should have attacked the ball, but he was behind the play by a more than a yard.)
Much focus fell upon Jones as a central character, literally, in Klinsmann’s decision to deploy the Americans in a 3-5-2 formation. Three and a half years before the next World Cup is a good time to experiment, but mitigating that fact are these two counterpoints: 1) there’s a Gold Cup to be won in June, and 2) there’s still considerable speculation as to which formation and which roles best fit certain prominent players.
Shea’s new club team, Orlando City SC, plans to test him out at left back. In this game, as has usually been the case in the past, his best moments occurred going forward. He ran onto a great ball from Besler, stationed on the left side of the back line, to smash a shot inside the far post in the sixth minute.
Shea's crossing, though, wasn’t much, and Chilean players repeatedly beat him on the dribble or by running onto balls played behind him. He and Yedlin dropped deeper early in the second half as the USA switched to a 4-4-2, and though critics pointed to the fact Chile scored twice against that formation, Klinsmann’s assertion that the primary factor was fatigue made sense. Yet for long stretches the U.S. looked disjointed and out of sync.
“It’s a new system we just started,” said Shea, who had played all of 56 minutes for the national team in 2014, of the 3-5-2. “There are a lot of positives with that we need to work on, but first half we were ahead twice in that system. Obviously, they had a lot of good chances, they scored a goal, but I think we learned a lot and we can use it in the future.”
Chile normally lines up with a three-man back line and though only one of its players in Rancagua played at the 2014 World Cup, Coach Jorge Sampaoli knew how to attack a familiar deployment. Only three rounds of games have been played in the Chilean Clausura, yet the ease by which Chile’s players connected passes and moved as a unit was in sharp contrast to the American display.
“I saw a lot of things that are encouraging and positive,” insisted Klinsmann. “DeAndre was going forward and connecting well. I thought Michael Bradley had overall a very strong performance. Brek Shea coming through the flanks, he’s intimidating, he can go at people, he has pace, and he has the physical presence and is going to score, so I think it’s great.”
A Chile "B" team backed by a small but noisy crowd would be expected to outplay an MLS team in preseason and that’s just about what the USA fielded: nine of the 11 starters are employees of MLS. Jozy Altidore, Mix Diskerud and Shea joined up in January. Yedlin made his first appearance since going in the opposite direction, to Tottenham Hotspur.
Also in glaring contrast were the performances of the two first-time starters: forward Bobby Wood (five previous appearances as a sub) and defender Steve Birnbaum (making his senior debut).
Wood’s influence on the game was negligible and he operated as if a glass bubble separated him from Altidore and Clint Dempsey. He was replaced at halftime by Lee Nguyen in the first move of several by which Klinsmann altered the front line. Nguyen brought his usual energy to the fray without much influencing the flow.
Birnbaum nearly scored an own goal when a cross bounced off his thigh to keeper Nick Rimando, and got burned a few times, but given the circumstances and environment he did fairly well. He’s one of several MLS defenders -- along with Matt Hedges of FC Dallas, who is also on the January squad -- seeking a spot in the national team pool.
Gyasi Zardes replaced an ineffective Dempsey in the 68th minute to make his debut, a little more than two years after signing a Homegrown contract with the Galaxy. That’s a remarkable progression and at 23, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound forward is well-equipped physically for the international game. He ran onto a ball to hit a shot under pressure that Chilean keeper Johnny Herrera handled easily. He’s an obvious candidate for grooming as an alternative to Altidore, who took his goal nicely and for long stretches labored without much support.
Wil Trapp took over for Diskerud in the 60th minute. He stepped strongly into a few tackles and didn’t have much opportunity to show the passing acumen he’s displayed for the Crew and also showed during training sessions. Like Zardes, he’s come into the national team with two years of MLS experience and thus is a relevant point of reference as the MLS influence on the squad grows.
The Chilean league has started, MLS opening day is more than a month away, and the Americans couldn’t close the gap regardless of formation or tactics.
“After an hour we looked like the winning team,” said Klinsmann. “We had more chances. We could have scored maybe a third goal, and then the game changed because we couldn’t keep the speed up anymore. We saw a very good and energetic Chilean side. Before you talk about consistency you have to have the foundation fitness-wise for an international level, which we don’t have at the moment.”