By Ridge Mahoney
Perhaps the most vital component of successful soccer teams isn’t mentioned as often as talent, skill, determination and cohesion.
It comes by different names -- consistency, reliability, stability -- and it’s often been lacking since head coach Jurgen Klinsmann took over the U.S. team after the 2011 Gold Cup. Klinsmann’s incessant juggling of formations and personnel and tactics has taken much blame for the Americans’ difficulties with putting together a good 90 minutes and/or following one solid game with another.
In Klinsmann’s defense, he’s been searching for that magic ingredient within his players as well as the squad as a whole. Sometimes fans and journalists don’t read enough into a coach’s simple statement of, “You know what you’re going to get,” when asked of why so-and-so is in the team.
Using players in unfamiliar positions is one way -- not necessarily the best way -- for Klinsmann to test his players’ mettle along with their talents. And like many coaches, Klinsmann will use a player in a strange spot to get him on the field and test his mettle. Experience breeds confidence and with that comes consistency.
Michael Bradley seldom has a bad game. At times in his long national-team career, he’s not been good enough to handle his responsibilities or an opponent on a given day, but his baseline is a solid one. The same can be said for Clint Dempsey, whose unique blend of grit and touch and unorthodoxy draws him in and out of the forefront as the game unfolds.
Less skilled but no less consistent is Brad Evans, who isn’t part of the Centenario squad but could well be recalled further down the road if other players fizzle or falter this June. For both Seattle and the national team, he’s been a utility knife and while his ceiling of ability isn’t as high as that of Bradley or Dempsey or a dozen other U.S. players, he brings a savvy and spirit essential in competitive sport. When he’s on field, regardless of position, his coaches know what they’re going to get. Same with Chris Wondolowski, who according to Klinsmann edged out the much younger -- and less reliable -- Jordan Morris.
Have Omar Gonzalez and Brek Shea, to cite two examples, been excluded from the Centenario squad in part because they’ve not been as consistent as Matt Besler and Edgar Castillo, respectively? Shea wasn’t even named to preliminary 40-man roster and thus wasn’t an option to replace Timmy Chandler, who was knocked off the 23-man final squad because of injuries and replaced by Castillo.
Over the course of a long qualifying campaign, a coach can take a few gambles on iffy players as they hit patches of good form. For a tournament consisting of tough group games and then, maybe, do-or-die knockout matches, you need proven commodities.
One might say Christian Pulisic, 17, isn't a proven commodity. However, he's certainly proven a lot to a lot of people while playing for Borussia Dortmund, and he's already scored a U.S. goal while earning his third cap.
For the first time in his tenure, Klinsmann appears to have reliable options in most positions. He’s apparently decided on a backline of, left to right, Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, and DeAndre Yedlin. A reliable, cohesive back line won’t by itself propel the USA into the FIFA rankings top 10, but it’s a good start.
Observers ooh and ahh when Yedlin races forward. Consistent playing time for Sunderland has sharpened his positioning and decision-making. Further improvement, particularly with crossing, is needed if he’s to become the new Steve Cherundolo, yet he’s certainly cut down on the bad errors that have tainted otherwise solid performances. No longer is he a defensive hole prone to be exploited.
How Jermaine Jones (age 34) and Dempsey (33) hold up is one of the team’s question marks, and among Klinsmann’s most crucial decisions leading up to the next World Cup is grooming players to take their places. Alejandro Bedoya and Bradley are younger (both born in 1987) and capable of reliable, consistent displays that are so essential to success. If they maintain a good level, Klinsmann can unleash attacking options like Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic to battle for playing time.
Klinsmann been criticized for deploying Bradley as an attacking midfielder when he’s flourished in a more defensive role for Toronto FC, but TFC has the league’s most electrifying attacker in Sebastian Giovinco, whose range and energy and bravado far exceed anything a U.S.counterpart has to offer.
Put Giovinco in a U.S. midfield backed by Bradley and perhaps Jones and the entire team changes dramatically. Klinsmann could have tested Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen or Sacha Kljestan in the No. 10 role and shuffled his midfield accordingly, but chose not to.
At the Centenario might we see Nagbe roaming the midfield in a role similar to that of Giovinco, and if so, how does that change the U.S. formation, and dare we say it’s style and identity?
He’s yet to earn regular starts but such status seems only a matter of time for Bobby Wood, who is another player to reach that level of reliability. Regardless of circumstance or opposition, he’s been able to stretch defenses, combine with teammates and shoot for goal. The hamstring injury suffered by Jozy Altidore that has forced him out of the Centenario is an ideal opportunity for Klinsmann to further test Wood and Gyasi Zardes to see if they can attain a level of consistency that is productive at the international level.
Switching between the wing and up top throughout his career is one explanation given for wild swings in the performances of Zardes -- he was invisible in the second pre-Centenario friendly against Ecuador, then scored twice in the 4-0 rout of Bolivia -- but he may also simply be one of those players who never attains the level of consistent performance that merits regular selection. He's been better in that regard for the Galaxy, so in the next year or so perhaps he scales that obstacle for the USA as well. If he doesn't, other players will take his place.
The Copa America Centenario could provide a severe test of individual players as well as Klinsmann’s choices of personnel, formations, and tactics, though it's impossible to judge the motivation of most South American teams for a tournament played on U.S. soil. The Concacaf nations know this tournament is a great showcase of their caliber; the Conmebol representatives are not so inclined.
As host, Chile won the real Copa America -- its first -- last year and nothing that happens in the next three weeks will change that. It plays its Centenario opener Monday against Argentina, which lost the Copa America final to Chile in Santiago but gained some payback by prevailing in a South American World Cup qualifier two months ago.
The game Monday can't match the last two meetings for importance. It is the first of three group games in a tournament unlike any other. How much effort and intensity those teams bring to their subsequent group games will shape how the knockout rounds unfold, and the same will be the case in all four groups.
If Paraguay fails to win its first two games against Costa Rica and Colombia, how much will it have in the tank when it faces the U.S. June 11? The USA and Colombia kick off the tournament Friday with temperatures expected around 100 degrees. The next round of Group A games is Tuesday and for the U.S. the opposition is Costa Rica in a match both nations see as essential to reaching the quarterfinals.
Klinsmann might change his starting XI for each of the group games, but the chances to advance improve greatly if a base of players performs solidly across the board, and the special ones unleash their attributes.