The US Men’s National Team scored a 3-2 win today in foggy Slovenia with goals from Edson Buddle, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore. A positive way to cap off their two-match trip to Europe which saw them lose to France 1-0 in Paris Friday.
Today’s result was probably an accurate reflection of the match, although one could certainly make the argument that Slovenia deserved a point after hitting the woodwork twice in the second half. But that line of thought would lead one to ignore the long stretches of possession and pressure the US held in the first half. That said, this is still not a US side capable of playing with Europe or South America’s biggest nations.
Many had thought that former coach Bob Bradley’s inexperience in the game outside of the US had hindered this side. Bob Bradley’s MLS-bred tactics were believed to be no longer compatible with a largely European based national team, led by Fulham’s Clint Dempsey, Chievo’s Michael Bradley, Sporting’s Oguchi Onyewu, and so on and so forth.
Enter Jurgen Klinsmann. The former World Cup winner, manager of the German National Team and Bayern Munich was charged with adapting the way the US play to fit the style of their many Europlayers.
This charge is one-half of the problem. Although the majority of the national team is European based, the side doesn’t have the technical ability (bar Dempsey, LA Galaxy’s Landon Donovan, and Bolton Wanderers’ Stuart Holden) to operate with a possession style of game (no matter how much this blogger would like to think it does).
Klinsmann has regularly opted for a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation, in which a target striker is left alone up top to be flanked (in theory) by wide attacking players and a creator playing slightly deeper into the midfield. The result of Klinsmann’s insistence on operating with a single striker is five goals in seven games. That stat is slightly misleading considering three of those goals came in today’s Match against Slovenia, in which Klinsmann reverted to a 4-4-2. So two goals in six games is a more accurate gauge of Klinsmann’s 4-3-3 experiment.
What this tells us is that the US do not have the supporting attackers to successfully support a lone striker. Or they don’t have a lone striker capable of operating on his own. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Altidore has progressed leaps and bounds since his transfer to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar in the summer, looking like becoming the out and out striker the US have been desperately waiting for. But at 22 years old and just in the infancy of rehabbing his career from the bewilderment of his development at Villrreal and Hull City, he can hardly be expected to carry the brunt of the US’ attack.
Although Dempsey has turned into one of the Premier League’s best attacking midfielders, he’s Klinsmann’s only proven option in support at the moment. Donovan has been recovering from injury and focusing on his MLS playoff run for the past two months, Holden looks set to miss another four months with a knee injury after already losing the previous eight with another knee injury, and at 21 years old, FC Dallas’ Brek Shea may look like the star of the future, but his present is still rather inconsistent.
However, what may be Klinsmann’s biggest dilemma to this point is his midfield. His 2-4-1 record has been largely ignored amongst analysts and insiders because he’s still undergoing player evaluations. With no major tournaments to qualify for until next summer when World Cup qualifying starts, commend Klinsmann for taking his time to see what his best 11 is and in what formation. The biggest problem with his evaluations is that his midfielders are all the same.
Michael Bradley, who was an automatic selection under his father, seemed left out under Klinsmann (although just moving from Monchengladbach to Chievo, some believe Klinsmann wanted Bradley, a known quality, to settle in Italy before joining up with the Nats). With Bradley on the outside for the past few months, this allowed Rangers’ Maurice Edu, Schalke’s Jermaine Jones, Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman, and Hoffenheim’s Danny Williams to fight over the three midfield places in Klinsmann’s 4-3-3.
Each name on that list is a defensive midfielder by trade. Sure, Edu has progressed some while in Glasgow to be a threat going forward, Beckerman is the closest thing the MLS has to Xabi Alonso, and Williams can play anywhere on the pitch, but none of them are creators. In fact, even Michael Bradley has spent more time anchoring this US side’s midfield than driving it forward.
The biggest problem Klinsmann faces in evolving this US team is that he has no spark in midfield. He experimented today with moving Dempsey to a central role to aid this with some success. But the fact is this side sorely misses the impact of Holden, a player who may never be the same after a year out with knee injuries. Pachuca’s Jose Francisco Torres was an early favorite of Klinsmann’s, but a foot injury has left him on the sidelines for the past two months.
So if Holden never recovers and Torres never progresses past just the gobs of potential he has at present, where will the US get their spark? Those are two pretty far out questions to be asking some six months from the start of qualification, but they aren’t unreasonable. Players recovering from knee injuries have a history of being completely unpredictable as far as when or if their form will ever return. And the amount of young players with gobs of potential must outweigh proven playmakers 100:1.
It’s not difficult to see that injuries have ravaged this US team. Those injuries have limited player evaluations and slowed this team’s adjustment to Klinsmann’s game to a snail’s pace. It would be foolish to write off Klinsmann’s attempts at this early stage, but it seems strange so few creators have found their way into Klinsmann’s midfield.