More than a Hexagonal berth is on the line for USA in Caribbean tests

By Ridge Mahoney
Caribbean opposition has occasionally been troublesome for the USA in its World Cup qualifying campaigns, and since head coach Jurgen Klinsmann doesn’t take advancement for granted until it happens, he’s summoned a few veterans who aren’t likely to be on the team in 2018.

If the inclusions of Kyle Beckerman and Chris Wondolowski seem out of place, keep in mind that Klinsmann highly values experience in any competitive match. The squad is a bit thin down the middle -- no Clint Dempsey or John Brooks, no Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley is suspended for St. Vincent & The Grenadines match -- and there could be extensive changes to the roster if the U.S. clinches a Hexagonal spot on Friday.

(For the time being, we will set aside the issue of finishing second in the semifinal group rather than first, and thus perhaps avoiding a daunting double-dip of Mexico at home and Costa Rica away when the Hexagonal commences in November.)

Those fans and observers clamoring for a renovation of the team into something more dynamic, more proactive, more assertive may get their wish in the next two months. In effect, Klinsmann has four games to prepare for the Hexagonal: Friday’s match and the final semifinal-round game against Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday, and October friendlies against Cuba and New Zealand.

In the first two games, he can test players in matches that count. In the friendlies, he can take more chances and give a few players their shot at changing the team’s persona and forging a different identity heading into the Hexagonal.

Or he can stick to more or less the status quo, perhaps refining and enhancing several elements, but not veering away from what the team has been. Red Bulls fans rejoiced at the news Sacha Kljestan had been added to the team, but he got in as an injury replacement for Brooks.

Still, Klinsmann could have stuck with his original roster, as the roster is already well-stocked at centerback. The return of Omar Gonzalez, excluded for the Copa America Centenario despite a strong Clausura season for champion Pachuca, had already provided cover for Brooks.

But Jones' withdrawal from camp allows Kljestan to be given the opportunity to convince Klinsmann that his excellent form in MLS can translate to the national team. And if age is an issue, Kljestan turns 31 next week; he’s younger than Wondolowski (33) and Beckerman (34).

Myriad questions about Klinsmann’s long-term plans persist and there are several that might be answered in the next four games.

THE LACK OF CLINT. A solid showing in the Centenario proved that Dempsey still has something left in the tank at the international level, and now his long-term health is utterly up in the air as doctors investigate his cardiac arrhythmia.

Klinsmann has several options, none of them well-tested, to fill the Dempsey role of second forward. He must go forward with the mindset that Dempsey isn’t an option. Klinsmann can always re-integrate Dempsey if he’s available.

At this point, nobody matches Dempsey’s blend of unorthodox movement, creative instincts and sharp finishing, and so until a candidate emerges Klinsmann is probably best served by getting his best attackers on the field and finding the best system to accommodate them.

He can use Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore together up top and let them sort out the partnership, perhaps supported by a line of three midfielders buttressed by Beckerman as a lone holding mid.

With Dempsey sidelined and games against moderate opposition on the horizon, the timing is deal for the bustling, scrappy Wood to feed on the layoffs and knockdowns Altidore can supply. Altidore’s ouchy hamstrings seem healthy yet Klinsmann needs to maximize Wood’s playing time in case Altidore is sidelined again. If he does go down and Dempsey doesn’t return soon, the pressure on Wood and Jordan Morriswill be intense.

Fans are also anxious to see more of Christian Pulisic and Rubio Rubin, whose last cap – his third – occurred in March of last year. They are well short of cracking the starting lineup this year, but the Hexagonal is a long slog during which alternatives are crucial.

FORMATION QUESTIONS, AS USUAL. The U.S. played well in a 4-4-2 formation during the Centenario, but with Beckerman in the squad he could be used to shield the back line as a lone holding mid supporting a line of three midfielders. Playing without Dempsey also increases the need for increased space provided by incisive play on the flanks from outside backs DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson as well as the midfielders.

This wouldn’t be a long-term option unless Klinsmann slotted Bradley or somebody else in the Beckerman role, which he can do in the T&T game. However, if Klinsmann does intend to inject more creativity in the team, Kljestan or Darlington Nagbe or Alejandro Bedoya -- or some combination thereof -- needs to be in the mix consistently.

For the past five Hexagonals, dating back to the 1997 campaign, the USA has been able to scrape through to the World Cup with good goalkeeping, resilient defending, and opportunistic attacking. Given the talent at his disposal, even without Dempsey, Klinsmann can be fairly confident of negotiating the next Hexagonal in the same manner. Only a few times has Klinsmann tinkered with a three-man back line, but he’s experimented with just about every alignment possible while playing four in the back.

If there is a grand plan to invoke dramatic change, this is the Hexagonal in which to do it. Otherwise, next year will be the same as the past five, since Klinsmann replaced Bob Bradley.

YOUNG GUNS. Pulisic (17) is by far the youngest player in the squad. Klinsmann’s willingness to play him in the Centenario against tough opposition should encourage a fleet of younger players to seize any opportunity they receive in the next two months. After all, three years ago Wood (age 23) was with 1860 Munich’s second team. Now he starts Bundesliga games for Hamburg and has scored six goals in 24 U.S. appearances.

Kellyn Acosta (21), Paul Arriola (21), Caleb Stanko (23), Morris (21) and Rubin (20) are the youngest field players selected by Klinsmann. Morris wasn’t picked for the Centenario but is obviously in Klinsmann’s long-term plans at forward. Rubin is being evaluated as yet another option in that position, and the door is open with Aron Johannsson still coming back from a hip injury that sidelined him for nearly a year.

The next four games are perfect forums in which to test Acosta at left back, either as the first-choice replacement for Johnson or as a long-term option. If Acosta shows enough in a U.S. shirt, his versatility -- he plays holding mid for FC Dallas -- and skill on the ball could assist in the team’s transformation.

Stanko, a defensive mid who played in central defense for the U.S. U-20s, is on loan to Swiss league club FC Vaduz, based in Liechtenstein. He’s been with Bundesliga club FC Freiburg for three years and had spent most of his time at Freiburg with the second team in the Regionalliga Sudwest (fourth division). He went on loan after Freiburg II was relegated to the Oberliga last spring.

Arriola has played 53 games -- six during the current Apertura season -- for Tijuana since joining the team three years ago. He scored on his U.S. debut against Puerto Rico in May.

GOAL-ORIENTED. Klinsmann chose Brad Guzan as his No. 1 keeper for Copa Centenario but he announced on Thursday that Guzan (St. Vincent & the Grenadines) and Tim Howard (Trinidad & Tobago) will split the responsibilities in the next two games.

The tensions that simmered between Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel during their days of being platooned by Klinsmann predecessors Steve Sampson and Bruce Arena haven’t resurfaced in the Guzan-Howard dynamic. Going forward, it appears both will play, partly as a concession to the much longer distances Guzan will travel to play U.S. games and the commitment both players are making at their ages to the national team.

4 comments about "More than a Hexagonal berth is on the line for USA in Caribbean tests ".
  1. Bob Ashpole, September 1, 2016 at 7:15 p.m.

    Nice article and good review of the situation.

  2. Wooden Ships replied, September 1, 2016 at 8:22 p.m.

    Sounds accurate.

  3. Chris Sapien , September 1, 2016 at 7:18 p.m.

    Interesting Beckerman is referred to as a "holding mid"? With the amount of balls he inaccurately distributes or under pressure provides to the opponent, I'll call him the "Un-holding Mid", not to mention how he "Holds" us up from going forward most of the time as well. Thanks for your service Kyle, but Klinns needs to move on in this area.

  4. Eric Dibella, September 5, 2016 at 10:54 a.m.

    When is Sebastian Lleget going to get a call? He can play multiple positions, maintain possession and clearly has an attack mind...

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications