USA-Panama: Three storylines to follow

The aftermath of the USA’s 3-2 loss to Chile Jan. 28 has been just as intriguing, and in some cases as controversial, as the game itself.

Another round of criticisms from head coach Jurgen Klinsmann regarding his players and the league in which most of them play, MLS, has provoked strong reaction among fans, reporters and TV pundits. Klinsmann’s deployment of a 3-5-2 formation for the first half against Chile sparked heated debate of the system’s worthiness and which personnel, if any, it might suit going forward.

A tough slate of five games -- four in Europe and a home date with Mexico -- leads up to the Gold Cup tournament that starts in mid-June. Here are three storylines to ponder for the USA’s match with nettlesome Concacaf foe Panama Sunday at StubHub Center (ESPN, UniMas, Univision Deportes, 4 p.m. ET).

1. A good start is not necessarily a good thing.

The USA faces a young Panamanian squad that includes six members of the nation’s U-20 team that has qualified for the world championships, but its recent track record against supposedly moderate or less-than-full-strength foes despite scoring early isn’t encouraging.

In October against Colombia in London, the USA took an early lead and lost by the odd goal (2-1). In November, the Americans were drubbed by Ireland, 4-1, in Dublin after equalizing late in the first half. Last week, Chile fielded only one player who took the field last summer at the World Cup in Brazil yet ran away with the match in the second half despite twice falling behind.

The lower intensity level of friendlies coupled with liberal substitution can be blamed in part for the Americans’ inability to contend with the second 45 minutes, yet the team’s play has been riddled by individual errors and disjointed play. Back-to-back ties at home against Ecuador and Honduras raised concerns sharply exacerbated by three straight defeats. Regardless of personnel or system, the Americans need a boost of confidence that only a solid 90 minutes can provide.

2. Jermaine Jones and the 3-5-2.

He doesn’t much like playing centerback and the collapse in Rancagua whipped up plenty of support for his outlook. At this point, it’s not clear whether the formation will return against Panama but if the experiment with Jermaine Jones in the back line is to continue, can it be an advantage?

Jones sees the game acutely, covers a lot of ground, has good speed, is ruthless and rugged in the tackle, and can hit a variety of passes over different distances. So why not keep him at central mid and not expose him to dangerous balls in the air, like the one Chile looped over his head to score its first goal?

There are two trains of thought to contemplate. One is that a vastly experienced player like Jones can adapt to the back line given enough time and game situations. The counterpoint is that this old dog, while still full of bite, can’t unlearn the midfield tricks he’s utilized for more than a decade. And is the U.S. midfield of sufficient depth to compensate for his absence?

Only Klinsmann knows if this is a ploy to generate greater focus and increased motivation for the other centerbacks, and the effect throughout the team has been unsettling. Pairing Jones and Kyle Beckerman in the middle has worked well for the U.S., but games like Chile -- with Beckerman training for Real Salt Lake and Jones at centerback -- have left the Americans sorely exposed in a critical area. If you can't secure the center, forget it. Does Mix Diskerud keep a starting role? Is this Lee Nguyen's party? Is Perry Kitchen ready for prime time?

3. Is belief eroding?

Fans and journalists and pundits often focus on the comments and behavior of a head coach in public, and automatically assume that persona is what the players see as well. Not necessarily.

Most coaches tailor their behavior to the conditions. Press conferences and postgame interviews reveal the public side, training-field tirades and locker-room discussions can be quite different. Yet by accounts from players of how Klinsmann addresses them in private, there doesn’t seem to be a wild measure of variance. So how he’s perceived by outsiders matters all but naught, assuming the players stay on board rather than jump ship.

Two years ago, bitter comments uttered privately by players appeared to signal an imminent revolt, yet somehow the team then powered through the most impressive run in its history. One can assume that the frustration, visceral though it was, shrouded some successful work by Klinsmann the players were able to generate once they regained their focus. A team in shambles doesn’t transform into a juggernaut strictly by force of will. They and the coach must have been doing something right amidst all that angst. American Horror Story: Honduras did not portend a complete collapse.

Unless there’s another fusillade of anonymous bombshells, all outsiders can go on is the team’s performance. If Klinsmann’s methods -- which include stinging public barbs aimed at lifestyle choices as well as performance -- trigger a run of good results, his methods must be deemed as productive. If poor play and bad scores persist and answers can’t be found, the lid will blow off soon enough.

18 comments about " USA-Panama: Three storylines to follow".
  1. Mark Torguson, February 6, 2015 at 3:17 p.m.

    Good article. I think we all are bit worn out of Klinsi telling what is wrong with American soccer and its players. Get to work Klinsi, they are just friendlies now, but come Gold Cup, no excuses, we want to be the best in the region.

  2. Bob Taco, February 6, 2015 at 3:58 p.m.

    Does Klinsman have a true understanding of our soccer culture? Does he value MLS? And does he truly nurture American born and grown talent? Really important questions and musts for our national soccer leader to embrace and answer.

  3. Asa Christiana, February 6, 2015 at 4:05 p.m.

    Our players are just not technically at the same level as the top European and South American competition. That's why our players generally can't cut it in the big leagues (with a few notable exceptions). We went on a wonderful run in 2013-14 based on fitness, courage, work rate, and amazing team spirit, but it will always be hard to produce consistent results with lesser-skilled players. Patience is the key. It's going to take another decade at least to get to the top level on a consistent basis. It will help a lot that MLS is getting so much better, but it just takes time.

  4. cisco martinez, February 6, 2015 at 4:14 p.m.

    Nothing wrong with Klinsmann trying a new formation such as a 3-5-2 however, playing Jones out of position and not having two holding defensive midfielder covering for Shea and Yedlin by the defensive midfielder is a major concern. Playing a 3-5-2 defensively must look like a 5-2-1-2 and on transition should look like 3-2-3-2, however against Chile we only played one defensive midfielder and Jones was not covering for his defense, all of these tactics need to be addressed.

  5. Dan Phillips, February 6, 2015 at 4:55 p.m.

    If Klinsmann loses this game, he should be fired. And I hope he is gone along with his big mouth. Bob Bradley was better (and I never thought I would say that. But sadly that is true).! Plilip Lamm's book was right, JK has no clue to coaching!

  6. James Froehlich, February 6, 2015 at 5:20 p.m.

    Great measured article, Ridge. Analysis of JJ issue was excellent. Regarding JK: he was brought in to change the culture of US soccer from the fans up to the USMNT. He was not brought in to be a cheerleader for the way we have historically done things. He was brought in to change the attitude of our players and introduce them to a higher level of professionalism. JK 's problem isn't ultimately with the players, it's with fans who have no idea what professionalism in soccer looks like. Coddle the players, don't experiment, win every game, and give everyone a participation trophy!!!

  7. beautiful game, February 6, 2015 at 5:49 p.m.

    When the youth system starts producing players that have solid technical skills, awareness, vision, and efficacy, etc., this topic would have no legs.

  8. Dan Phillips, February 6, 2015 at 6:36 p.m.

    When the whining , complaining JK is fired and we bring in a REAL coach that knows tactics, that is when the US soccer program will take off. Till then good luck with the whiner Klinsmann.

  9. Luigi Cockfight , February 6, 2015 at 8:35 p.m.

    Asa did we go to the final 8 under the American Arena? We have American born attitude and players,our culture is different and accepting that is what Bradley and Arena did so well. Why change,we have been successful our way. We will continue to evolve and improve with a coach who knows OUR ways.

  10. Zoe Willet, February 6, 2015 at 11:02 p.m.

    This is by far the best recent article I have read on this subject. It is so tiresome to read whining and complaining articles- and comments (especially by those who erroneously feel that their wisdom rates more than one comment). Bravo Ridge, and bravo James F. for the most cogent comment.

  11. Edgar Aldana, February 7, 2015 at 12:05 a.m.

    I don't understand some of you people that continue to say " he just doesn't understand our American player" BS! If you're a professional player no matter where you're from, your going to play the way you need to win. I'm sick of the use of this lame excuse, the real reason is US players don't have the skill or the game intelligence on the field yet, we're better but still lack let's be honest here. You people that get on here and want JK fired because his team lost some friendlies need to go read some books on the sport. JK has done well and no we don't need to go backwards with British style game that American caoches who grew up only knowing a kick and chase game. If JK doesn't workout I hope they look at someone in South America to replace him someone who can bring something other then basic soccer.

  12. Tim Gibson, February 7, 2015 at 9:33 a.m.

    Well Said Edgar! I agree wholeheartedly. I think our fans also need to look more closely at our teams individual skills & confidence on the ball. Quite simply, when 1 of our guys goes 1:1 Vs a single defencemen & can't beat them OR has trouble consistantly connecting or making the right decisions when passing - can't be blamed on the coach. Our pipeline of talent feeding the MNT simply needs to get better. USA once relied on our superior speed & fitness levels, well....eveyone else caught up & in many cases passed us. Now we need more players with advanced skills coming into the program & not needing to improve & further develop their skills upon getting there.
    GO USA!

  13. Bob Taco, February 7, 2015 at 12:19 p.m.

    So Edgar, we should bring in a coach from South America who can bring something other than basic soccer. How about somebody like Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley or Dominic Kinnear or tab ramos or Caleb Porter. Someone familiar with American soccer, American culture, and American player development. Someone who respects our American soccer league. Wait a minute Edgar how about an American.

  14. Edgar Aldana, February 7, 2015 at 6 p.m.

    Bob You're exactly the type of person I'm referring to. Those mentioned coaches with the exception of Tab Ramos who has played in Europe and comes from a Latin background don't really have it sorry, I know your going to argue my point but that's ok. Tell me again why a soccer player who is suppose to be a professional American player is anymore different then a professional from China, Romania or Bolivia any place on this globe? It's about having and developing the skills needed on the field to win and that's where we truly lack. We have a ways to go in this country when it comes to the game even though we have made progress and making excuses for our short coming just doesn't get it. Bob and Bruce were decent but played a style of ball that will never ever get us to a final, we need a little pedigree and we don't have that yet.

  15. Bob Taco, February 7, 2015 at 7:17 p.m.

    Style , and can you define Klinsmann style? And also tell me how his results differ from previous world cups? Style over substance right. Playing success doesn't guarantee coaching success unless you are a foreigner coaching in the states is your opinion. Your ramblings Echo of a foreign born soccer oooooo sorry foooootball elitist.

  16. Edgar Aldana, February 7, 2015 at 11:31 p.m.

    Bob, I don't agree with every decision they JK has made but he's not doing bad either while giving others a chance that Bruce and Bob wouldn't have. Not only that but he's trying to creat a soccer culture from the bottom up. I'm not an elistest and yes I wasn't born in the states but I've lived and played/coache here. so, because I don't agree with you I'm an elistest, great come back Bob. lol

  17. Luigi Cockfight , February 8, 2015 at 6:45 a.m.

    Edgar we have a thriving soccer culture here. Our coaching schools are a model world wide, our professional leagues are growing. And they are modeled after other American sports which is our culture. But I always forget because you have an accent we should be submissive and accepting of your ideas so I apologize for earlier comments Klinsman has worked out terrifically for us. And I think we should give immediate Carte Blance to all foreign coaches. lol

  18. Edgar Aldana, February 8, 2015 at 3:06 p.m.

    Lungi, I was born elsewhere, I don't have an accent I have lived here since I was five years old, I am U.S. vet I did all my schooling here in the states, so, here is my point that you seem to take offense to, for all the best programs you claim we have we've accomplished very little on the men's side at the world stage. I wish we could count on American everything but we're not there yet. Don't let patratisum get in the way of reality. Too much pay to play in this country and a lot of real talent is overlooked, we still look up at British style ball too much and yes for some reason their accent impresses the soccer culture here. I've played the game all of my life with players from all over the globe and can tell you that our players still lack a bit of the game.

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