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.