Commentary

Unsettled picture puts cloud over U.S. national team's playoff prospects

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

The USA-Mexico match for a place in the 2017 Confederations Cup is eight weeks away, but it is not too early to take a look at some of Jurgen Klinsmann's lineup decisions.

He certainly has enough to make.

Indeed, it is hard to remember a time in the modern era when the national team is heading into a key match with so many question marks. Part of that relates to the timing of the game itself, the first one-off match the USA has played since a World Cup playoff against Canada in Haiti in 1976. The game will be played on Oct. 10, still early in the fall campaign for Klinsmann's European-based players, whose preseasons were disrupted by this summer's Gold Cup.

More fundamentally, USA's disappointing performance at the Gold Cup has raised plenty of concerns about the core Klinsmann has been working with. The youngsters he was counting on to step up did not and too many of the veterans were not at their best or looked past their prime.

Eight weeks out, you could be sure of penciling just three names into the U.S. starting lineup against Mexico -- Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Fabian Johnson -- and the latter two are currently injured.

That leaves plenty of lineup decisions Klinsmann must make. Here are five of them, all of them very tough calls.

1. Does Tim Howard return in goal? Howard says he's ready to return to the national team after taking a year's sabbatical, but will Klinsmann take him back? You can make a case either way. Unlike, say, Landon Donovan, who took a break in 2013, Howard continued playing club ball, starting for Everton, so there is no doubt about his readiness. On the other hand, Klinsmann gave Brad Guzan the starting job in his absence. And except for the semifinal against Jamaica -- a big exception -- Guzan has played well enough to justify finally earning the No. 1 job after nine years as a U.S. backup.


2. Do John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado stay at center back? All things being equal, you would assume Klinsmann will stick with the youngsters, like he stuck with them at the Gold Cup. The only thing that might change Klinsmann's mind is if Brooks (at Hertha Berlin) or Alvarado (Club America) isn't playing well at the club level. There are plenty of alternatives, though. Omar Gonzalez has started the last four USA-Mexico games -- 0-0, 2-0, 2-2 and 2-0 results -- teaming with Matt Besler for the first time when the USA and Mexico played at Azteca Stadium in World Cup qualifying in March 2013. Geoff Cameron, who started when the USA beat Mexico, 1-0, in their 2012 friendly at Azteca, is starting at center back for Stoke City.

3. Does Timmy Chandler remain at right back? Chandler did not have a good Gold Cup and finds himself having to work his way back into the starting lineup at Eintracht Frankfurt after missing much of preseason. If Klinsmann had a better option at right back, he'd have used him. Brad Evans, who started the semifinals of the Gold Cup, is the closest thing to that better option and Klinsmann didn't take him to the World Cup. DeAndre Yedlin was strictly used in midfield at the Gold Cup. For the World Cup 2014 qualifiers against Mexico, Cameron and then Johnson started at right back. It would not be unimaginable if Klinsmann went with his World Cup pairing of Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley on the outside one last time. Whoever Klinsmann puts at right back will have to get the job done as that's the territory where Andres Guardado, Mexico's captain and best player at the Gold Cup, lurks.

4. Where does Jermaine Jones play? If Jones is healthy -- he started his first game for the New England Revolution since May on Saturday -- there is no way Klinsmann does not take him for the playoff game. But where does Jones play? Klinsmann admitted that the experiment with Jones at center back was over. If Bradley holds down one of the two central midfield spots, is there also still room for Jones? Theirs has been an uneasy central midfield partnership when they've been on the field together. One option would be to go with a three-man central midfield, like that employed at the 2014 World Cup, with Kyle Beckerman as the third player, and go with Dempsey alone up front.

5. Does Jozy Altidore get his starting job back? That scenario of a three-man central midfield and lone striker would solve the problem of what to do about Jozy Altidore. It has not been a good year for Jozy. He picked up a red card in the friendly against Switzerland in March. Then he got hurt playing with Toronto FC, which put him out of shape for the Gold Cup, where he was dropped after two starts. He returned to TFC, where he has scored just once, from the penalty spot, in five games, and was red-carded in the 3-1 loss to New England, forcing him to miss a sixth game. Altidore has just one shot, none on target, in his last two starts for TFC, 3-1 and 3-0 losses. Not the kind of performances that will get him back in the national team picture any time soon.

27 comments about "Unsettled picture puts cloud over U.S. national team's playoff prospects".
  1. David Mont, August 17, 2015 at 9:37 p.m.

    "If Klinsmann had a better option at right back, he'd have used him." Anyone is a better option than Chandler. The problem with other options is that they're not German; therefore, not very acceptable to Klinsmann.

  2. Santiago 1314 replied, August 20, 2015 at 11:09 a.m.

    One Game; MUST WIN vs Mexico... Our Best Right Back is the current Left Back... Fabian Johnson; so what to do at Left Back.???...RIGHT NOW.!!! .. GK-4-1-3-1-1...Howard // Beasley-Brooks-Cameron-Fabian // Jones // Bedoya-Bradley-Yedlin // Dempsey // Zardes...It ain't Pretty, But this Line-up Bleeds RED, WHITE and BLUE... It gonna be a War, with 100, 000 Mexicans Raining down Batteries and Beer(or Worse)... Riots IN and OUTSIDE The Rose Bowl...We can't send in the faint of Heart like; Fielhaber, Zusi, Gonzalez and ESPECIALLY Jozy

  3. Andrew Kear replied, August 20, 2015 at 5:33 p.m.

    Klinsmann's belief that mediocre German players can represent the USMNT seems not to be creditable. A good American player will always be better than a mediocre player from any nation. It is not surprising to then find out these German Americans players Klinsmann has been using are now bench warmers on their respective club teams. The reason the US was slaughtered at the Gold Cup was due to Klinsmann using second-level German players over good American players. Good German players are much better than their American counterparts, but mediocre German players aren't really better than anyone.

    I can name a half dozen MLS players better than Brooks.

  4. ckg beautiful game, August 17, 2015 at 10:26 p.m.

    Are you kidding me? This group is tired, the gold cup roster was so lack luster it was pitiful. We have been given false choices that it's this group or bust. We lack creativity and speed. Feilhaber #10 role, MB holding mid, Beckerman retirement home, Jones outside mid until he gets a yellow then immediate substition. Cameron and Besler center backs nuff said

  5. Lynn Miller replied, August 17, 2015 at 10:29 p.m.

    Amen ckg, amen...start Zusi, Yedlin, Feilhaber, Gonzalez, Besler and whomever shines from the u19...they would be better than those who played the GC.

    It's time for tough choices....MAKE THEM!

  6. Lynn Miller, August 17, 2015 at 10:27 p.m.

    Where do I start.....this article seriously suggests that our CB duo from the Gold Cup fiasco are our best options?! I guess the respectable showing of Gonzalez/Besler in Brazil meant nothing...

    Michael Bradley played as poorly at the GC as he did well in the WC. Beckerman?...was he even on the pitch at the GC? He was that non-existent...and should NOT play against Mexico, he was horrible. How you can't even mention Zusi is beyond me. He was our most productive crosser at the WC and should be an automatic, especially with how well he play at the GC.

    Dempsey? He spent more time on the floor crying than Diego Costa does...my daughter who plays goalie could have scored the goals Dempsey did...Let Beasley retire in honor, don't drag him through another cameo to tarnish his reputation...

    And the ONLY starter who should be a lock in my mind besides Gonzalez/Besler is Yedlin. But Klinsmann botched how he used him, too...

    Let's see some of that German ruthlessness, and make the tough decision!

  7. Clear the Ball replied, August 18, 2015 at 4:54 p.m.

    Lynn Miller: Agree with most of what you say with the exception of Zusi. He's been terrible for the past 12 months. Honestly, his crosses have been really poor. I'm guessing your a KC fan. I feel like Beckerman's been better than you say for the same reason, but I can admit that they both should be out.

  8. ckg beautiful game, August 17, 2015 at 10:28 p.m.

    1 other change Klinsmann out, any true American in

  9. Santiago 1314 replied, August 20, 2015 at 11:19 a.m.

    I have been Advocating Vermes or Kinnear. ..We need Former US National Team player to work with US Mentality...

  10. ckg beautiful game, August 17, 2015 at 10:38 p.m.

    Do Dwyer is married to an American / Canadian, he looks a little bit German why not bring him In. He runs his ass off
    Every game. He is relentless, we also could use his club coach Peter Vermes as the furors replacement

  11. An Animus, August 17, 2015 at 11:36 p.m.

    Feilhaber, Feilhaber, Feilhaber...EVERYONE in the footballing world is trying to figure out what he did to offend you, Jurgen, but he is as good or better than EVERYONE mentioned in this article and needs to be a part of any serious US squad. PLEASE REMOVE THE HORSE BLINDERS.

  12. Bob Ashpole, August 18, 2015 at 1:06 a.m.

    Excellent article, Mr. Kennedy.

  13. ROBERT BOND, August 18, 2015 at 8:47 a.m.

    o no, not Jozy! try Zelalem......

  14. Dan Phillips, August 18, 2015 at 12:01 p.m.

    Please, please, please, no more Jozy (lazy) Altidore!!! Just let it go with this guy already, for god's sake. He is a waste and a liability. Aron Johansson is better, and he plays in a top flight league right now (Bundesliga). Play him and some youngster and forget Jozy once and for all. (he should be called Altnoscore!).

  15. Vince Leone, August 18, 2015 at 12:44 p.m.

    Gonzalez is too friggin slow, especially against Mexico. If either Brooks or Alvarado are deemed unworthy, I'd take a long look at Tim Ream (and maybe Besler) before Gonzalez.

  16. R2 Dad, August 18, 2015 at 12:57 p.m.

    Up until Brazil we knew how were were going to play. Target man up front and a midfield to support that. Jozy was a beast and I've loved his contributions over the past 5 years but sadly the gig is up for him now. The question becomes, do we just plug in a replacement target and keep playing that way, even though the top teams can more easily defend it? Johannsson, Gil, Green, Zelalem, Hyndman--these are smaller/lighter/technical players that can play a role in this transition to a quicker more possession-based game, a style that must be the future of the USMNT. But at some point JK has to commit to that. Does that happen after the Hex? What is the road map? Are US fans going to have patience with a lot of sterile possession and turnovers until our finishing/finishers become more proficient? I want to see Zelalem/Zardes combinations (or some other pairings) that will excite US fans, but that kind of play is not MB as attacking mid with long balls over the top and crosses into the box. This is a big change and I don't know if US fans are ready to embrace this. Ironically, the Warriors just beat LeBron playing small ball and Americans went nuts for Steph. Can it work for the USMNT as well?

  17. Santiago 1314 replied, August 20, 2015 at 10:29 a.m.

    US teams (Men, Women, u20) Have looked Best in 4-1-3-1-1 ... I don't think Tiki-Taka Fits the American Mentality... Hi-Press Counter-Attack, with a Flakey Lo-Forward and an Athletic Hi-Forward have produced the Best Results to date...

  18. Daniel Clifton, August 19, 2015 at 9:57 a.m.

    I have not been able to understand the decision to not call up Feilhaber for years. Early in his career and during the 2010 WC he always played well. The GC group had absolutely no chemistry whatsoever. Klinsmann as some tough decisions to make. If Cameron is playing CB for Stoke, he should be seriously considered for one of the CB positions.

  19. Kent James replied, August 20, 2015 at 9:43 a.m.

    Agree on both counts.

  20. beautiful game, August 19, 2015 at 10:23 a.m.

    I agree that KC coach Vermes could be the answer. He's a no-nonsense guy with an open mind. Jozy is totally off form with his club. Looks slow and indecisive. He needs time off to regroup, especially mentally. His move from Holland to the EPL was a disaster and it lingers on. Time to bring a bunch of new faces.

  21. Andrew Kear, August 20, 2015 at 5:48 a.m.

    Every time Klinsmann is coaching the U.S. will be at a tactical disadvantage.

  22. Kent James, August 20, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.

    I'm not sure what JK sees in Alvarado; I didn't notice him in many of the games he played (not necessarily a bad thing for a defender), but he when I did, it was usually because he was making a mistake. Brooks certainly has potential, but I'd like to see him paired with Besler or Cameron, or maybe Ream (all of whom are better with the ball). I'm with the "anyone but Chandler" crowd (I'd go with Beasley or Evans in that spot). I also have not missed Jones (though he does provide 'bite', and maybe we need some of that?). Although I initially thought Jozy was lazy and slow, he gradually won my respect. But since the WC, he's not performed well, and the playoff game is not the time to give him another chance. I am more confident with Howard in goal, but sometimes you gotta dance with the one that brung ya', so I think Guzan deserves to start.

  23. Santiago 1314 replied, August 20, 2015 at 11:16 a.m.

    Alvardo seems like more of an Outside Back for USA...I think that Howard has the "Thicker Skin" and more of the Warrior Mentality, that it's going to be needed against 100, 000 Mexicans

  24. Mark Landefeld, August 21, 2015 at 4:02 p.m.

    Why is this play-off taking place so soon? Confed Cup is in 2017 and 3 confederations will not determine their representative until next year or later. Given the change in form of national squads as veteran players age, the scheduling of this match seems way too early.

    What's CONCACAF's advantage in playing this match now?

  25. Andrew Kear, August 21, 2015 at 5:53 p.m.

    How far will Klinsmann bring down US soccer. Is Klinsmann going to use the same defense that failed at the Gold Cup when the U.S. plays Mexico this October. Just use the LA Galaxy or Red Bull defense. It is certainly better than what was displayed at the Gold Cup.

  26. Andrew Kear, August 21, 2015 at 9:01 p.m.

    Remember, the US washed out of the Gold Cup without Jozy's full services. Even at 60% Jozy is better than what Klinsmann put out there.

  27. James Madison, August 25, 2015 at 6:32 p.m.

    We will learn two things from seeing who is called up for the Mexico match: (1) how limited our national team pool is; e.g., if Timmy Chandler is the best we've got at right back or if Jones and Beazley are the best wingbacks we have, there 'tain't that much there---the development effort needs WORK; and (2) if JK continues to make questaionable choices among his limited resources, e.g., is he is still enamored of Jozy, we need a new MNT coach.

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