By Ridge Mahoney
If Danny Williams
and/or Perry Kitchen
perform well in the upcoming friendlies against
Cuba and New Zealand, does that significantly alter the thoughts of U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann
has he makes his plans for the Hexagonal?
Strong performances by those players
could create a possible logjam in central midfield, where playmaker Sacha Kljestan
and box-to-box shuttler Darlington Nagbe
have raised their profiles, and Michael Bradley
been a fixture since 2008. Regulars Kyle Beckerman
and Jermaine Jones
are both 34 and destined to be soon phased out, but if healthy next month will be considered for two tough tests in
the first set of Hexagonal games: Mexico at home and Costa Rica away.
The Hexagonal is a 10-game grind, a severe test of depth as well as talent. While the amazing saga of Christian
dominates much of the conversation, he’s just one piece of a very fluid midfield situation.
A five-man midfield -– in a 4-2-3-1 formation or something like it
-– allows Klinsmann more flexibility regarding roles and positions. For the Cuba and New Zealand friendlies, he could install Kljestan as the playmaker, Bradley as the No. 8, and Kitchen or
Williams taking on the more defensive role.
The team’s success in a 4-4-2 formation seems ideal for Kljestan as the playmaker supporting two forwards, but against tough opposition,
does Bradley have the legs and range to handle a heavy defensive burden even if he’s supported by two hard-working flank midfielders? And does Klinsmann trust Kljestan enough to hand him the job
of creating chances and use the ball wisely?
Kljestan is leading MLS in assists and scored twice when the USA beat two Caribbean teams in Seotember by combined scores of 10-0, yet while
many fans and journalists are convinced he can pull the strings in big games, the coaching staff may not be. Clint Dempsey
is not a traditional No. 10 but his ability to create chances as well
as finish them is unique amongst the current crop of regulars, and with him sidelined indefinitely, the spark will have to come from other sources.
Assuming Nagbe is recalled for the
first two Hexagonal games, he may get the chance to show his wares in tough Concacaf conditions. But where would he fit in, if Kljestan is told to run the show and Bradley takes a more defensive role?
In Portland, Diego Valeri
is the playmaker and Diego Chara
the midfield destroyer, with Nagbe the connector between attack and defense.
Nagbe plays a similar role for his
club as did Jose Torres
at Pachuca, and a sizable segment of the American soccer community firmly believed five or six years ago that Torres could be transformed into the playmaker so
desperately needed by the USA. Pachuca hired and fired a few coaches and bought and sold many players while Torres was in the squad; never did he emerge as a realistic option as a No. 10. Klinsmann
didn’t see Torres (now at Tigres) in that role and neither did predecessor Bob Bradley
Klinsmann has mystified many fans and observers by putting players in positions they
don’t regularly play for their clubs, if at all. Nagbe is a bigger, stronger player than Torres, blessed with very good feet and vision, and he’s new to the national team: 10 caps since
his debut in November of last year. Both the attacking and defensive sides of his game need work but if he improves sufficiently Klinsmann will have to find a role for him, if not as the playmaker,
perhaps in a more defensive position as that played by Williams and Kitchen.
Nagbe might move into a different role than he plays for Portland. Or in a three-man central midfield as
outlined previously, Nagbe and Bradley can share the duties of supporting Kljestan as the playmaker. That alignment affects the decisions of who plays on the flanks and how many forwards are
Of the current roster Fabian Johnson
is the most experienced options out wide, with Pulisic and Paul Arriola
the younger guys coming through the
ranks. Recalling Tim Chandler
gives Klinsmann an alternative to Johnson at left back (and DeAndre Yedlin
at right back). The Cuba and New Zealand friendlies are suitable testing grounds,
at least as far as the issues of shape and coordination are concerned, to see what Chandler can offer and how Johnson can contribute in midfield, where he normally plays for Borussia Monchengladbach.
(He scored Gladbach’s goal in a 1-1 tie with Leipzig Sept. 21 and has scored 14 goals in 158 Bundesliga matches.)
Speaking of scoring, seldom since Landon Donovan
Klinsmann been able to select two forwards in sharp form. If the coach believes a pairing of Bobby Wood
and Jozy Altidore
is a long-term solution, he must choose a two-forward formation
or workable variation to get them on the field together.
He’s occasionally played Wood out wide but Wood is much more a forward than a wide player, and there’s no ambiguity
about Altidore’s game, so finding ways and means to support that pair is among the most pressing issues for Klinsmann to address. The solutions start in midfield.