Options could lead to makeover of U.S. midfield

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 has 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 Pulisic 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 deployed.

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 retired has 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.
10 comments about "Options could lead to makeover of U.S. midfield".
  1. Mark Konty, October 6, 2016 at 5:39 p.m.

    How can you write an article about the future of the US midfield and leave out Pusilic?

  2. beautiful game replied, October 6, 2016 at 6:29 p.m.

    MK, I see Pulisic in an attacking MF position as was Platini et al. His instinctive attributes and technical abilities are awesome.

  3. Kent James replied, October 6, 2016 at 11 p.m.

    He mentioned him (3rd paragraph from the top, and third from the bottom). I think he didn't discuss him much because there has already been a lot of discussion about how good he is. He might be able to play centrally (in the playmaker role IW mentions), since I think he has the ball skills, but boy he's been impressive on the flank.

  4. Kent James, October 6, 2016 at 11:13 p.m.

    I think if we go 4:2:3:1, you try MB and Nagbe as the 2 defensive mids, Altidore as the lone forward, and Pulisic, Klestjan and F. Johnson as the 3 mids in front of MB & DN. Gives us a lot of bodies to clog the middle, but Altidore might get stranded up top.

    I think we may be better in the traditional 4:4:2, using Wood and Altidore as the 2, MB as DM, Klestjan as OM, and Pulisic and Johnson out wide (unless Nagbe can play wide, then FB could move back to defense.

    Defensively, we have many good options at CB, and Yedlin is getting better at RB. I like FJ on the left, but I do think he's a better midfielder (but may be needed more in the back).

    I think Cameron and Wood should be on the field (Cameron is our best defender going forward, and he's solid in defense, and he can play outside back, CB, or even DM, and I think the latter may be his best spot). Wood just brings intensity and skill.

    Not a Klestjan fan, but since he's done so well in MLS, as well as the last 2 USMNT games, he deserves to play. I'd like to see Nagbe get some serious playing time, since I think he has a lot of potential.

  5. Ridge Mahoney replied, October 7, 2016 at 1:48 a.m.

    Right now, I think Pulisic is best out wide, where he can find more space and one-v-one situations to take people on and find a shot, cross, or pass. That's where he plays for Dortmund and he's doing great so no need to mess with it.
    He'll get a shot centrally some day. Count on it.

  6. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, October 7, 2016 at 10:54 a.m.

    I like the 4-4-2 configuration you listed with Johnson in midfield. I think Nagbe is better centrally but I think MB and SK should get those spots at this point.

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, October 9, 2016 at 4:04 a.m.

    Good point Mr. Mahoney. Much better that he cuts inside into space rather than starts all his movements from the center of the defense. He will also probably get the ball more often on the outside than he would inside.

  8. Sean Murray, October 7, 2016 at 11:37 a.m.

    Bradley needs to go. He is overrated and turns over way to many passes often trying for longer balls. Klinsmann has changed him a bit with emphasis on possession but you still see when under any type of pressure he tends to turn the ball over.

    The new mids in the models above are focused on possession, Bradley does not fit.

  9. beautiful game, October 7, 2016 at 11:44 a.m.

    Isolating Jozy is not in the best team interests. With Wood, Jozy can be more effective as long as the ball providers do their job.

  10. Bob Ashpole, October 9, 2016 at 4:25 a.m.

    2 years ago I wrote off Jozy as a one trick pony figuring he would never learn to combine with a strike partner or play with his back to goal. Two years later and I see that I was wrong. He has improved. His positioning is better and his ball skills too. He can play as a target forward now. He can play with a partner now, at least against the lesser CONCACAF teams. He isn't as good as McBride was, but he could be. And of course Jozy is a center backs worst nightmare when he is running at the goal. He as big, strong, and fearless as anyone. I hope he does well on November 11th.

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