Klinsmann and the Elephant in the Room

The U.S. men’s national team might have topped the “Group of Death” at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, but by most accounts, Jurgen Klinsmann’s men largely failed to impress despite amassing seven points from three games in a group containing Honduras, Haiti and Panama.

“I said from the beginning that this will be very, very tough,” coach Klinsmann told U.S. Soccer in an interview published Tuesday. “Overall, I would say the group stage had high quality, good games. There are things we have to improve going in the quarterfinals now, but the group stage was very tense and it will get even more tense in the quarterfinal.”

The U.S. will play either El Salvador, Cuba or Guatemala, which it hammered 4-0 five days before the Gold Cup began, in Saturday’s quarterfinal, depending on how the final round of games in Group C pans out on Wednesday.

When asked whether being in such a tough group is good preparation for the tournament’s second phase, Klinsmann replied, “There’s no real preparation for the Gold Cup, so it’s difficult to be in a flow, it’s difficult to be playing in a way that you’re going to see a lot of automatic things, in the way of passing flow and fine-tuning elements. You won’t get them in the group phase because you don’t have the time to train those things. Now being together for more than two weeks, hopefully we can get more and more into that phase where we combine better, we’re shifting better and doing certain things better that only come with time." 

Conspicuous by their absence from the Klinsmann interview were the words “defense” and “defending.”

Just about everyone who covers soccer in the U.S. has noted how poorly the team defended in its first three games at the Gold Cup. As Soccer America’s own Paul Kennedy noted, the U.S. was collectively outshot by its first-round opponents by a margin of 50-20.

ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle says that Klinsmann is taking the long view when it comes to defense. Asked specifically about the central pairing of John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado, who started the first game against Honduras and the third game against Panama together, the German noted how the duo is basically learning on the job: "What we do is we read the potential of the players, and then we hope to help them really reach that potential one day. But they need to carry it on. They need to understand to go through difficult moments and clean things up. It's not going to be perfect ... This will be very, very tough competition. But they're going to learn a tremendous amount."

He added: "The only way for younger players to mature and get better and get stronger is to grow into these games, and have that experience. I think both Ventura and also John, they grew with every minute [against Panama]. There were some situations that were shaky in the first half and they cleaned it up. They were absolutely on top of things."

On both accounts, Klinsmann is absolutely right: the only way for younger players to get better is to play them, and Brooks and Ventura both improved markedly in the second half against Panama, as did the U.S. team overall.

Of course, one good half does not a tournament make.

Over the course of the two games where they’ve played together, Brooks has been, at best, passable, but Alvarado has been a liability. In particular, the Club America center-back’s one-on-one defending and positional awareness have been not good enough. He was guilty of over-committing on both goals conceded by the U.S. in the group stage, and those were not the only instances where he dove in and the team was made to pay for it.

To be fair, Alvarado is only 22 and has plenty of time to grow into the role, as Klinsmann says, but choosing him ahead of the more experienced Omar Gonzalez, or indeed, Matt Besler (who didn’t even make the squad) -- especially in a confederation championship where the coach has gone with experience at just about every other position -- is puzzling. As Carlisle says, at the moment, the U.S. is lacking leadership at the back. Gonzalez and Besler bring that.

But Alvarado is by no means the only U.S. defender who’s made mistakes. Right-back Timothy Chandler, who also played the first and third games, has been arguably worse. The 25-year-old is another player who at times shows real promise, but so far, the Gold Cup has not been memorable for him. Often, the Eintracht Frankfurt defender decides to bomb forward at the wrong times, leaving his defense exposed to counter-attacks. He’s also prone to mental lapses causing him to give the ball away cheaply and in dangerous positions, setting up yet more opportunities for opponents to counter.

As we’ve seen so far in this tournament -- and indeed, before this tournament -- Klinsmann’s U.S. is not exactly set-up to absorb counter-attacks easily. With a pair of attack-minded backs on either side, and Michael Bradley usually pushing forward, that the leaves defensive midfielder (Kyle Beckerman or Mix Diskerud) in charge of helping out in defense when one or more of those players goes forward. The problem is, in the event of a quick counter, Beckerman is too slow, and Diskerud doesn’t like to play deep enough, which often leaves the remaining back three with two-on-threes or worse, three-on-three situations with a lot of space in front of the attackers. We saw this over and over again against Honduras and Haiti.

Another problem with the USA’s team defending has been its high-pressing game. True, high-pressing can lead to turnovers, which is great and creates chances to counter, but it also leaves an attack-minded team like this one particularly exposed at the back. The U.S. lost a lot of balls in midfield against Honduras and Haiti, and the defense would often step up and try to win it back immediately instead of retreating into an organized shape to absorb pressure. The combination of high-pressing and a high-line, especially in the wrong areas, can leave a team badly exposed, because all it takes is one man to get beat or be caught out of position to open up a very dangerous counterattacking situation for the opponent. 

Pep Guardiola’s teams often use high-pressing to win the ball back and it works for them, because his teams actually save energy in possession, able to retain 75-80 percent of the ball in every game they play. While many national teams would love to play like Bayern Munich or Barcelona, this U.S. team is not good enough on the ball to play that kind of a high-pressing game.

That being said, a lot of the USA’s poor play in the group stage came down to individual errors. The defense right now really needs leadership and experience. With that in mind, Klinsmann made a smart move bringing veteran DaMarcus Beasley into the squad for the knockout round. He can ably martial the left-side of defense while moving Fabian Johnson, who has been the USA’s best back-line player, over to the right, likely in place of Chandler. That should help.

While it might have been even better if Alvarado exited in place of Besler, too, it appears that the Club America defender is one of the coach’s favorites, which means we will likely see him alongside either Gonzalez or Tim Ream in the quarterfinal. If Alvarado can recover the form he showed in the 2-0 win against Mexico in April, then he will have vindicated himself. After all, his mistakes are correctable: more patience and better concentration would go a long way to ameliorating most of his problems—more or less like the rest of the team.  

28 comments about "Klinsmann and the Elephant in the Room".
  1. Stuart d. Warner, July 15, 2015 at 8:26 p.m.

    Alvarado has been very poor. Chandler has been a disaster, however. I've never understood what Klinsmann sees in him. I'd like to see Evans at right back--he can be beaten by pace, but he's smart and is rarely out of position--Beasley at left back, Bodoya at right mid, Johnson at left mid--two mids with pace who can get back on defense but are willing to take players on--and Dempsey and Zardes on top. In central defense . . . can we draft players from other countries? More seriously, while FIFA doesn't recognize it and never will, CONCACAF is getting much better.

  2. Chris Sapien , July 15, 2015 at 9 p.m.

    Mostly well stated Stu, except Bedoya cuts-in so often he rarely creates service from the goal line and becomes too one dimensional. Evans would combine with him better than Chandler of course, but eventually he is going to need to show more attack versatility IMO. I like him, I just don't see him as a long term wide mid player cause right now he mostly gets by on work-rate and some creative moments.

  3. Adam Tondowsky, July 15, 2015 at 9:07 p.m.

    To be fair to the U.S, not a single team has looked very good at this tournament so far. Some like the U.S in the second half against Panama have looked good for segments, but nobody has played consistently well.

    Even Cuba beat Guatemala!

  4. Vince Leone, July 15, 2015 at 9:29 p.m.

    Several times in the Gold Cup, Brooks has carried the ball out of the back and deep into the attacking half under pressure and started an attack. I don't think I have ever seen Omar Gonzalez do that for club or country. What I have seen Omar do while playing for the USMNT is make at least one serious mental error per game. I don't know why Ross thinks he brings "leadership at the back." Omar is slow of foot and mind.

  5. Vince Leone, July 15, 2015 at 9:34 p.m.

    Ross points out the dangers of a pressing offense. Fair enough, but would you really rather go back to the counter-attacking style employed by every USMNT before JK? If we are ever going to change that style, we have to actually try to do it.

  6. Adam Tondowsky, July 15, 2015 at 9:51 p.m.

    At this point in the tournament, I predict Trinidad and Tobago will win this edition of the Gold Cup.

  7. Santiago 1314, July 15, 2015 at 11:17 p.m.

    a Vince,... I missed this Thread the other day...Correcto Mundo sobre Brooks, He has the Qualities and attitude to be like a Beckenbauer...His Dribbling and Passing out of the Back, led to the Goal vs Panama...Bien Dicho !!!... USA must High Press as a Unit...We are not Culturally set up to Lay Back and Take it..

  8. Stuart d. Warner, July 15, 2015 at 11:32 p.m.

    Chris--I mostly agree about Bodoya, however, he did make a beautiful pass to Bradley for the goal against Panama, and made a great run only to be pulled down at the top of the box without a call. What I also like about him is that he's calm under pressure.

    And I agree with the comments about Brooks. He reminded me a bit of Johnston for the women's team, able to split the opponents forwards and reach their midfielders.

  9. Ric Fonseca, July 15, 2015 at 11:45 p.m.

    Hey there commenting "coaches" did anyone see tonight's game Mex vs TnT? Talk about crappy defenses, and yet here y'all are being the arm-chair coaches. And yet, Fadner wants to compare the USMNT to Peps's teams? Hey, didn't Pep have his guys playing together way a hell of a LOT longer than Klinsmann has had the current team members, and therefore everyone of his (Pep's) players knows one another - even blind folded? As for predicting that TnT will win the Gold Cup, well, Adam I've some beachfront property readily available and cheap, in Arizona! Yes, our defense sucks, and do the teams that have been eliminated, and those that have advanced into the next round! Yes, JK has been trying to make a good chicken salad, but has some chicken s*** to do it with, and that includes Bradley, Beckerman, and several of others mentioned in this piece. So let's see just how the team performs next, and btw, wasn't some of these kind of comments made against the WNT??? Go figure, but US, si se puede, carajo!!!

  10. Adam Tondowsky, July 16, 2015 at 2:19 a.m.

    1.I always predicted the U.S Women's national team would win the World Cup.

    2.As for Trinidad and Tobago, I didn't say I thought they would win the Gold Cup, I said AT THIS Point based on their present play they would win the Gold Cup.

    I realize that is a fine distinction, but what I meant is that Trinidad and Tobago seems to be the most consistent team in the tournament at this point and seems, in general to be playing the best, despite giving up four goals against Mexico.

    I would expect that either Mexico or, more likely, the U.S will improve their play and ultimately win, but if they don't, and if T&T keeps their present quality of play at the level it is at, then yes, I honestly believe they will win the tournament.

  11. Bob Ashpole, July 16, 2015 at 2:50 a.m.

    I am looking for two things. Results and improved play. This year especially, growth is more important to me than results. The one thing that has improved over the last 4-5 years, that must continue to improve in order to progress, is the ability of our back line to not only maintain possession of the ball but also get the ball forward to players in good position. What I don't want to see is the US playing a counterattacking style in CONCACAF competitions. Comparing the play of any international team to club teams like Barcelona and Bayern Munich is absurd. Comparing shots taken is absurd too. Carli Lloyd aside, teams don't win matches by kicking balls 20 yards over the crossbar from 35 yards away. Shots on frame is a more reliable indication of attacking effectiveness. I never liked the idea of playing to avoid losing. Okay it works for group stages, but the knockout stage requires teams to win.

  12. Bob Ashpole, July 16, 2015 at 2:57 a.m.

    Forgot one point. I don't know for sure, but my impression is that Klinsmann is trying to get the team to play higher up the pitch. If so, I am all for it, because that is also something needed to improve our play. It leads to quick transitions and maximizes the ability to control the match. This is an important part of total soccer and the modern game.

  13. Kent James, July 16, 2015 at 7:37 a.m.

    Stuart, I like your line-up. Ross makes an astute point about pressing up the field, but I'm with Vince; if we want to play a more aggressive, offensive style, we have to actually do it and see how it goes. I understand what JK sees in Brooks, but it is less clear to me what he sees in Alvarado. Adam is right about nobody looking that good right now, so it is not time to panic. Maybe the boys have learned from the women; play well enough to win the first round, but get better as the tournament goes on.

  14. Chance Hall, July 16, 2015 at 9:09 a.m.

    Lot's of good comments on players, strategy, and tactics here. I agree that Klinsmann needs to tinker with the lineup. However that also makes it hard for the players to get use to each other's playing style. They also need to actually spend more time playing the aggressive style, pressing higher up the field. I've never been a fan of sitting back and inviting the other team to come and play in front of your goal. Too many bad things can happen that way. It's just a matter of time. And it takes a lot more energy and stamina to play defense 70 or 80 percent of the game. Make them shoot from 30 plus yards away instead of right outside the box. Comparing any national team to club teams (Barcelona, Real Madrid, etc.) makes absolutely no sense. I also hope they are taking notes about what worked for the women's team. Press high, control the middle, win the ball back immediately in the middle when you lose it. And go forward and attack as a team! Don't just send the ball long and let one lone forward battle three defenders and a goal keeper. Good luck to the US men's team, I'm out...

  15. Tim Gibson, July 16, 2015 at 10:05 a.m.

    All I can say is>>>>GO USA! Yea, we've under-achieved so far & my goodness is the press going out of their way to hate on every aspect of our game. Having more practice time together has always been an issue with this team - nothing new here. What's new is how long it's taking this group (especially the back line) to gel. Some new faces, playing mostly off-season in stifling heat are decent excuses & likely play into why the overall quality of this tournaments play isn't very impressive by all nations in attendance. Take it for what it's worth, we're in good shape still to go deep. AND, as stated above, regardless of what the Media's powers that be say or feel CONCACAF is no longer severly lacking in quality.That's a good thing - especially for MLS.

  16. Santiago 1314, July 16, 2015 at 11:19 a.m.

    @Sidney,..& Ric...I will compare Mexico to Barca, as I did while Posting on the other Thread last night...***Santiago 1314 commented on: July 15, 2015 at 9:22 p.m...Vale, Vince... Estoy mirando Mexico contra Trinidad... Me gusta su sistema de 3-5-2... Pero falta Rapidez.. They are Playing a "Poor Man's" Tiki-Taka...TOO SLOW in Moving the ball...I am also surprised at the Slowness of their Technical Speed with the ball(feet are not moving quick enough)...USA, We will "EAT THEM ALIVE"...OUCH.!!! Gio Down.!!! ... Bienvenidos al Futbol en Los Estados Unidos... 9:50p.m....OMG...Trinidad.!?!?!? ..WTF*#@$%... That 2nd Goal was the Epitome of CON CAca CrApF Soccer... What a JOKE!!!... Check the Bank Account of that Trinidad Player who made that Give Away Pass...Bet his Last Name is Warner...That's why El Chapo got out of Jail...Had to write a Big Check !!! ..9:52 p.m...Holy Shitake Mushroom... 2-2 ... Must be because Ochoa cut off his Sampson Hair"/// 7/16/15..It just got More Bizzare from There...

  17. Santiago 1314, July 16, 2015 at 11:43 a.m.

    Also Ric,..No me gusta, “Si, Se Puede” para Los Estados Unidos…That’s a “Mexico” Loser Chant that really doesn’t fit our USA Mentality…For them It’s like the Little Train that Could…”I  think I can, I think I can…I think I can”….But in the end the Mexicans know THEY CAN’T Beat the Gringos anymore… Because, We are the USA and we KNOW WE CAN.!!!.. WE BELIEVE THAT WE CAN WIN.!!!! ... or as Yoda would say; "DO !!! DON'T TRY."

  18. K Michael, July 16, 2015 at 11:54 a.m.

    Tough to solve Klinsmann's dilemma. on the one hand, high-press, precision passing and possession (say that three times fast:)) is the direction US Soccer is, and should be, heading, but the players necessary to execute this effectively, in meaningful numbers, haven't yet had their first shave! Besides Dempsey, who on our senior roster, has world-class, ball-on-their-barefeet-since-age 4 first touch? Diskerud, Bradley, F Johnson, Bedoya maybe but definitely not consistently. Klinsmann should stick to this play through the lines mentality so that the younger squads hit the ground running over the 2022/2026 cycles. As it is said, "build it and they will come." Just not for awhile.

  19. K Michael, July 16, 2015 at 12:39 p.m.

    Anecdotal story relating to my previous comment. I recently observed two scrimmage games at a high-level summer camp at a local university. One scrimmage was a college ID game with 7,8 local/regional college scouts/coaches. The other field had a scrimmage with kids aged mostly 11,12. I am by no means suggesting the young-uns would have a snowball's chance in hell of beating the older 16/17 year old group, but their touch, dribbling, spacing, creativity WAS virtually indistinguishable from the older kids. In fact, by the second halves, most of the scouts had inched over and were keenly watching the younger group. They say Growth is exponential, not linear (see National debt, crabgrass, bacteria, et al) so I am quite confident that US-based youth soccer talent is right at critical mass and we will see a dramatic increase in the level of play at the national and professional level within the next 5-10 years.

  20. # 12, July 16, 2015 at 3:48 p.m.

    @KMichael Was the 11-12yr kids with a club or was that a pick up game?

  21. Santiago 1314, July 16, 2015 at 3:49 p.m.

    @K,...Well said... here is how I put it the other day...*** Santiago 1314 commented on: July 13, 2015 at 10:28 a.m.@Lona,... You all don't get it... U.S.A. is 350 million People + 20 million Illegals, who are Hungry and having Anchor Babies...(No me Pintas como Racist, ni chance de esto)... Shear Numbers are going to Overwhelm the Inferior Structure of US Soccer Pay-for-Play System... All we lack right now is a Messi...And That Is Coming, Due to Increased TV exposure and Better Pro Money, Some "Steph Curry",somewhere UNEXPECTED, is going to Develop, by "Mimicking" what he sees...THINK ABOUT IT. ?!?!??..Cristiano RONALDO comes from a city of 111, 892((2011), on an Island, Out in The Atlantic, 374 Nautical Miles(431) from the Coast of Africa...It's Just a Matter of Time...Until then, JUST WIN BABY, WIN.!!!

  22. David Mont, July 16, 2015 at 5:30 p.m.

    Stuart: To answer your question what Klinsmann sees in Chandler -- it's his nationality. Chandler is German; therefore, he's clearly superior to any US-bred player; therefore, Klinsmann will continue to start him.

  23. David Mont, July 16, 2015 at 5:33 p.m.

    I wonder, when did Chandler ever show any promise as the article says? He's been consistently horrible. The worst, by far, and laziest defender I've seen playing for the national team in at least 20+ years.

  24. Julio Moreira, July 16, 2015 at 5:39 p.m.

    I firmly believe that Omar Gonzalez is one of the best Center Fullbacks that the US has ever had, he's great in the air and a threat for the opposing defense on corners.
    Looking to see if I can get a good offer for Omar to play in Europe, Klinsman and his German mentality is to obtuse to see and exploit to the fullest, players like Bradley, Diskerud and Zusy amongst others.

  25. Zoe Willet, July 17, 2015 at 12:22 a.m.

    I'm happy to see Beasley back, love him!

  26. Raymond Weigand, July 17, 2015 at 11:51 a.m.

    The USA is going to have fun tonight! Soccer on a Friday night - under the lights!

  27. Santiago 1314, July 17, 2015 at 1:24 p.m.

    Raymond... game is Saturday.. 5pm Eastern...According to "SOCCER ON TV".. But yesterday they had it listed at 2pm... So, I'm confused also!?!?!?.. Don't forget Madrid v Roma.. 5am Eastern FOXs1

  28. beautiful game, July 22, 2015 at 2:25 p.m.

    Santiago 1314 opined, "Brooks, he has the Qualities and attitude to be like a Beckenbauer.... U can't be serious amigo or are u delusional with your personal assessments. Matter of factly, u should do MLS TV commentary where such opinions about the quality of MLS players is loosely thrown around in the same breath as world class players.

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