First of all, let’s sum up the last few months for the men’s national team and its subset, the under-23s.
Put aside the Brazil game, though it must be said that trying out a new central defender pairing (Ventura Alvarado, Michael Orozco) and assigning defensive midfield duties to a primarily attacking type (Alejandro Bedoya) against the greatest soccer nation isn’t bold or brave, it’s downright crazy. Yes, Brazil probably beats the USA anyway but how do such bizarre decisions build spirit and confidence, especially in the wake of a fourth-place Gold Cup finish?
Why Coach Jurgen Klinsmann believed such decisions would help prepare the USA for a daunting test against its bitterest rival is no longer relevant, since he instead chose Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron -- to face Mexico. Extensive changes to the squad for the next game yielded a listless display that contrasted sharply with the committed, purposeful play of Costa Rica.
The 2-1 defeat of Peru is greatly outweighed by other recent results, a gauntlet of failure against Concacaf foes. Klinsmann’s best available team fell to Mexico and a younger group could barely muster a serious threat in losing to Costa Rica. The under-23s were outclassed in their Qlympic qualifying semifinal by Honduras. In the latter stages of the Gold Cup, the Americans were beaten by Jamaica (in the semifinals) and fell to Panama on penalty kicks (third-place game).
So the greatest feat attained in the last few months is the under-23s twice defeating Canada: once in group play, and then again Tuesday in a playoff to reach another playoff, which will be against Colombia in March. Olympic hopes are thus still alive but just about everything else points to programs that are losing ground to regional rivals not named Mexico.
This is not progress. This is stagnation at best and regression at worse. Too many experienced players such as Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore are under-performing, and more and more, the younger candidates like DeAndre Yedlin are revealing their inexperience.
Both Klinsmann and U-23 head coach Andi Herzog are dependent on the players available to them and their performance at the club level. Herzog, an Austrian international in his playing days, played in the German Bundesliga, but there’s little he can do about the plight of Jerome Kiesewetter, who at 22 has played only two first-team games for VfB Stuttgart. Unfortunately, in the U-23 pool players like defender Matt Miazga, who deservedly starts regularly for the Red Bulls, are the exception.
For the first few years of his regime, Klinsmann’s churning through players and systems and formations made sense. His search for players who could adopt his philosophies and implement his ideas of play would take time. But more than four years is a lot of time. What has happened in the past isn’t as important as what the future direction is, and all directly head seems murky and shadowed.
One can point to Klinsmann’s decisions regarding individual players and agree or disagree with them, but continued success cannot be attained at the national team level without certain basics, such as a solid back line. It’s all well and good to tinker with roles and personnel, but since the World Cup, Klinsmann has failed to establish a back-line solidity that is essential no matter what attacking style is implemented.
Possession game, counterattack, combination play, flank dominance, etc., all require a strong foundation, a bedrock of stability and support. For the Mexico game, Klinsmann reverted to the same back four he used for much of the World Cup, but the U.S. couldn’t contain Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar on the flanks, nor contain Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera in midfield, and seldom crossed the midfield line confidently after halftime.
The alarm bells rang loudly enough after the Gold Cup yet Klinsmann chose to ignore them. So seldom have players such like Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan been selected by Klinsmann it’s puzzling as to how he expects to integrate a more skillful, more polished style of play while ignoring their abilities. Both of them struggled through lean times with the national team, but both are in their primes and possess traits all too rare in most American players. If they fail in a friendly, they fail, but isn’t that what friendlies are for? Does it really mean anything to beat Germany and the Netherlands in friendlies if that success can’t be carried over to competitive Concacaf games?
The purported emphasis on finding and fielding more Hispanic players has produced consistent calls for, wait for it, defenders Michael Orozco and Ventura Alvarado, and occasionally left back Greg Garza. None of them have held down a regular place.
One can argue that Bedoya – who plays in France for Nantes – is a better option, and Michael Bradley is indispensable, but with all the moving and shifting and trying things out, can Joe Corona really be that far behind everyone else? And why did an emphasis on youth not accelerate the phasing out of Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, both 33 this year, immediately after the World Cup?
Wittingly or not, Klinsmann has achieved what often occurs with a national team: the coach has molded a team in his own image. As a player, Klinsmann made up in grit and determination the gracefulness and elegance he lacked. He was remarkable, no question. He rang up goals regularly for Germany (47) and won the World Cup and European Championship, and excelled at club level for Stuttgart, Bayern Munich, Monaco, Inter Milan, Sampdoria, and Tottenham. (Part of Klinsmann’s dilemma is that few of his players have turned out for clubs such as those in their careers, but the same can be said about Costa Rica, not to mention Panama and Jamaica.)
Yet American players have never lacked for grit and spirit and intensity. Klinsmann played with a polish honed by decades of intense training and tough competition, and perhaps his scouring of available players has persuaded him that’s the best that he, and the USA, can do. If so, that would represent a major change in emphasis and a return to the past and raise questions as to why Klinsmann is needed to perpetuate a traditional, already entrenched style.
His latest buzzword is “proactive,” which can mean just about anything except “passive.” A team can be direct and batter away at teams while being proactive, or it can move cohesively and smoothly as a unit both in attack and defense, and dictate tempo and flow in a proactive manner.
Now he’s embroiled in a “he said, he said,” with Fabian Johnson, who is not a player Klinmsann can afford to exclude long-term. He is woefully short of players he can count on to do a good job most of the time, with his back line constantly in flux and Dempsey not the go-guy he’s been in the past.
Good results in the World Cup qualifiers next month are essential yet even if attained, they won’t mean much unless solid evidence of Klinsmann’s purpose and vision are also on display.