Jürgen Klinsmann has tried to meld the US into a more stylish, free-flowing side playing a 4-3-3 with an emphasis on possession. While the United States has continued to perform well on the attacking end, defensive frailties that were not evident for a decade prior to the 2010 World Cup are now being regularly exposed. Sunday’s 4-3 friendly victory over a German “B” team was a great show for the fans celebrating the 100th anniversary of the US Soccer Federation, but it left many questions entering a critical two week period in World Cup Qualifying. This week the United States has conceded seven goals in friendlies on American soil to Belgium and Germany.
The US manager who radically transformed Germany’s national program in the lead-up to the 2006 World Cup has emphasized fitness and club form over reputation, meaning he has selected a wide variety of players including those from Major League Soccer during his tenure. Unlike his predecessor, Bob Bradley whose selection was largely composed of European based players, many not getting regular time at their respective clubs, Klinsmann has deepened the player pool and given opportunities to many younger players. He has also dropped players that Bradley selected despite not featuring at European clubs.
However, despite yet another milestone friendly win, this time a 4-3 win over Germany in Washington DC, questions persist about Klinsmann’s ability to qualify the United States for its seventh consecutive World Cup, and his competitive record is inferior to that of Bradley’s at the same point in the previous World Cup cycle. Moreover, the US has defensively been weaker during Klinsmann’s tenure than perhaps any point since before the 1994 World Cup. Part of it is a lack of personnel, but much of it has to do with formation and a desire to play in a more stylish manner.
The desire to play free-flowing attacking football throughout the US system led to the US manager taking a direct role in the appointment of youth coaches as well as encouraging teams in the domestic leagues to use the 4-3-3 system. This change has been, at least from a results point of view, a failure as the United States is enduring its roughest patch at the youth level since the early 1980s.
In recent matches, Klinsmann has taken the need to create attacking impetus to a new level placing two midfielders, DaMarcus Beasley (who earned his 100th US cap this week) and Brad Evans as fullbacks. While Beasley and Evans aren’t directly to blame, the United States continues to leak goals at the back. The central defense continues to be poor and the communication between keeper Tim Howard and his backline needs to be questioned. Considering Brad Guzan kept two cleans sheets in recent qualifiers and had an outstanding season at Aston Villa, Klinsmann needs to consider a permanent goalkeeper change.
Howard, protected by arguably the best backline in the Premier League, had a solid but unspectacular season at Everton. However, Howard is mistake prone and his ability to organize and communicate well with the US backline has been repeatedly brought into question.
The United States side managed by Klinsmann is very much a work in progress. While the manager has defeated Italy and Mexico in away friendlies, and drew with Russia in Moscow, his side has also struggled twice to beat Antigua in World Cup qualifying and has lost to Jamaica and Honduras also in qualifying.
The upcoming World Cup qualifiers will ultimately tell us a great deal about Klinsmann’s managerial capacity and pragmatism. He has been more rigid in his tactical setup than Bradley, whose in-game adjustments often changed the trajectory of matches. The US under Klinsmann has a set way of playing soccer and tactical/formation changes in-game are rare if ever implemented.
With three World Cup qualifiers in the next two weeks for the United States, an opportunity to assess Klinsmann’s progress with the team will be afforded to us.