My greatest surprise at the 23 players chosen by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann for Gold Cup group play was the surprise evoked from so many segments of the soccer community.
Picking a team to actually win the competition in question? The very idea! What about the grooming of Julian Green, the blossoming of Bobby Wood, the anointing of Gedion Zelalem? We’re going again with Chris Wondolowski and Brad Davis? Where is the vision, the wisdom, the forbearance of Herr Guru, Jurgen Klinsmann?
Fitness eventually knocked Davis off the roster, and Klinsmann replaced him with left back Greg Garza. The switch enabled Klinsmann to start two entirely different back lines in a 2-1 defeat of Honduras and 1-0 vanquishing of Haiti in the first two games. He went back to the original quartet for the group finale against Panama, and in the 1-1 tie played Monday night centerback John Brooks incurred a second caution. He is suspended for a quarterfinal Saturday against an opponent to be determined.
Klinsmann has made three changes for the knockout phase and a cynical view is that perhaps a dozen replacements would be more appropriate. Not many players have significantly enhanced their status in the three group games. So far, it’s been the usual suspects.
JOZY OUT, GORDON IN. Apparently, Klinsmann has decided that the “building up” of Jozy Altidore will be done by TFC head coach Greg Vanney. A pair of lackluster performances by Altidore, who is recovering from a hamstring injury, has moved him off the squad in favor of Galaxy forward Alan Gordon. He joins Aron Johannsson and Chris Wondolowski as forward options along with Gyasi Zardes, who started at forward with Wondolowski in the final group game against Panama, and Clint Dempsey. Zardes set up Dempsey’s winner against Haiti after replacing Altidore at halftime.
“Jozy never really got into this tournament and never really picked up the rhythm,” Klinsmann in announcing the changes. “He’s just simply not in the shape right now to help us.”
Gordon, who has scored goals consistently -- mostly off the bench -- since being traded to the Galaxy from San Jose late year -- is a target forward who has rewarded Klinsmann’s faith before. He assisted on Eddie Johnson’s late winner in a 2012 qualifier against Antigua & Barbuda.
“He’s fully fit, he’s so full of energy, he scores goals with the Galaxy, and he fits in right away,” said Klinsmann. “He’s a pure giver to the group, and he might be a player that can make a difference at any second when you bring him in.”
Dempsey has scored three of the USA’s four Gold Cup goals and he set up the other against Panama by prodding a ball while falling on his backside that went to Alejandro Bedoya, whose precise cross arrowed for Michael Bradley to bang into the net as he slid. The stature of those three players seems secure. DeAndre Yedlin’s stints as a wide midfielder have been encouraging and his blistering pace is a tremendous asset but Bedoya’s touch, guile, and experience place him well ahead of him and Graham Zusi, who resolutely puts in the work yet so far this year has lacked a creative edge.
MIX STILL IN THE MIX. If any player appears to have suffered short term by moving to MLS, it’s Mix Diskerud, who started off poorly -- as did many players -- against Haiti in the holding midfield role, then improved somewhat as the USA gained enough traction to get the win. Diskerud’s performances for New York City FC have hovered around average and he could be relegated to spot duty once Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo are incorporated into the mix. However, there’s also the chance he’ll do most of the running for those aged veterans and learn immensely playing alongside them.
Though the U.S. is well-stocked with central midfielders, there hasn’t been a lot of cohesion in that part of the field during the Gold Cup. Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones shared the two-way duties during the World Cup in support of Bradley as an attacking foil, but neither Beckerman nor Diskerud have looked secure and confident in this tournament. Some of this is due to a tweaking of formations and roles, but in any case, Klinsmann needs to find alternatives to Beckerman, who just starting to show signs of his age (33).
The replacement of Alfredo Morales with Joe Corona for the elimination phase isn’t much of a surprise. Morales labored through a benign first half in the group finale against Panama while playing out wide. Corona, who has moved from Tijuana to Veracruz in Mexico, has experience on the flank under Klinsmann -- he started on the 2013 Gold Cup championship team -- and is also comfortable sliding inside.
“He knows Concacaf inside out,” said Klinsmann.” Joe Corona is very experienced in playing against the teams from the Caribbean and Central America. He’s a player that can also help us, here and there, to hold the ball better, to take care of the ball. With his great technique, with his one-touch passing, he makes things very easy and simple. I think it’s a great opportunity to have Joe back, even if it hurts a little bit for Alfredo, but that’s just part of the game.”
BACKLINE IN FLUX. The suspension of Brooks and struggles of Tim Chandler at right back pose both short-term and long-term questions for Klinsmann. Alvarado’s central partner for the first and third games, Ventura Alvarado, has also run hot and cold in the Gold Cup. For the quarterfinal, to be played Saturday against an opponent to be named, Klinsmann could mix-and-match by using Alvarado with either Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream or go back to Gonzalez and Ream, his pairing for the Haiti game, and hope they worked out the kinks of playing together.
Ream hadn’t played a competitive game for the national team since 2011 before facing Haiti and as the left central defender, offers Klinsmann a good left-footed option as he’s used before with Matt Besler. Ream has also played left back and can slide into that slot when Fabian Johnson or whoever plays there pushes forward, and he can play the medium-distance balls into the left channel Klinsmann uses often to relieve pressure and push the front line further up the field. On paper, he’s a good fit with Gonzalez, whose aerial dominance is especially important on set plays.Johnson is one of the team’s best players no matter where he lines up and a rather so-so showing from Garza against Haiti doesn’t alter the picture at left back. Johnson is the starter unless he is needed elsewhere. (Right back in place of Chandler?) Garza played 64 games for Tijuana before moving this summer to Atlas, which has a new head coach, Gustavo Matosas, so Garza’s club status might not be sorted out for a while.
Like Alvarado, who also plays in Mexico, Garza is playing during his summer break and is a bit short of the game fitness and sharpness necessary to sparkle in a competition against tricky opposition. By swapping veteran DaMarcus Beasley for Garza, Klinsmann has injected speed and experience and opened the door to using Johnson somewhere other than left back. Beasley’s energy and positive attitude are just as valuable to a team whose level of play hasn’t mirrored its results.
“Having DaMarcus come into the team is huge, because of his character, his giving nature, the spirit he brings, but also the high quality he brings,” said Klinsmann. “He brings a lot of experience into this group, and he’s hungry. He’s still as hungry as day one in his career. That speaks for us having him back in the group and now it gives us a couple of different options on how to put pieces together.