Let’s not be foolish enough to pretend that we learned much from Friday’s national team pushover four nights ago in St. Louis – the easiest entryway possible for Jurgen Klinsmann’s bunch into the World Cup qualifying process.
It was certainly a big victory for soccer in “The Lou,” where a packed house helped cement a baby blanket-level of US comfort. It certainly provided that much-needed “something to feel good about” for Klinsmann’s team in transition, not to mention three valuable points. Still, the victory over St. Vincent and the Grenadines amounted to little more than a highly organized, public practice session, the high school varsity team warming up for the big game by pushing the JV squad around.
We can, the other hand, pick out a couple of small signs of hope for a qualifying process that’s about to much tougher.
Tuesday’s away match at Trinidad and Tobago will be unrecognizable from anything that happened in St. Louis. This is the T&T team that put four goals, then three goals past Mexico in a pair of high-scoring summer dandies. Much of the T&T roster comes from Europe’s middleweight leagues or from Major League Soccer, a far cry from the mostly part-time bunch from St. Vincent. The Soca Warriors started their own qualifying bid last week with a rock-solid result, a 2-1 win at Guatemala. In Port of Spain, the United States is a modest 2-1-1 over the last 15 years.
So what might we extract from Friday? What were these signs of something better ahead – something unseen in a calendar year of justified fan and media discontent?
Start with Klinsmann putting something on the field Friday that looked a little more sensible. His alignment was a straight 4-4-2 where most players were manning their best spots. The one exception was Gyasi Zardes deployed once again as an outside midfielder; matches over 2015 have shown that Zardes is adequate in the role against the lessers, but apt to tactical exposure against the betters.
Otherwise, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler looks like the best central defensive combo at the moment. “Playing your best pair” might sound ridiculously obvious, but Klinsmann can sometimes out-smart himself; his choices at center back have been a major culprit.
Tim Ream was stationed at left back Friday. It’s probably not his best position, but it represented a pragmatic choice, someone who spent ample time there at Bolton, before moving to Fulham.
In the bigger picture, perhaps it represented an evolution in Klinsmann’s thinking. Four years ago, as semifinal round qualifying began in similar circumstances (at home in Tampa against a heavy underdog, Antigua and Barbuda), Klinsmann assigned the left back task to Jose Torres, a creative midfielder.
The manager’s thinking made some sense; against a team sure to “park the bus,” as we like to say these days, Torres would suffice defensively while helping to apply maximum attacking umph. But ongoing cohesion and growth of defensive unit suffers when you continually piece together a rear guard, something we saw again and again during the experimental phase of the last 16 months. Better perhaps to build the best defense possible, never mind one match that could be controlled with pretty much anybody in the player pool stationed at left back.
Klinsmann, looking just a little more on edge last week in St. Louis, not quite as loosey-goosey as usual, sounds like a manager leaning closer to pragmatism. “I don’t think that we’ll see big changes, because you only have a small window of 10 days to handle these two World Cup Qualifiers,” he said in a U.S. Soccer Q&A over the weekend. “You’re not really throwing a lot of things over board from the first game to the second game. I think we have a very good group together; a group that’s ready for the fight and has already done a good job against St. Vincent and now continues at least a little bit of this consistency into the second game.”
Another sign of being more sensible: Fabian Johnson was brought immediately back into the team after that, well, whatever it was from a month ago. Johnson asked to come out late against Mexico, something athletes are generally taught, to inform the manager if they are hurt or simply out of gas. It’s up to the manager from there to make the call. Only Klinsmann took the opportunity to call out his player, publicly admonishing Johnson while adding that he had a “stern word” with the versatile defender-midfielder.
In the past, we’ve seen signs that perhaps Klinsmann holds a grudge, most notably with Landon Donovan, although in fairness that was always a tricky relationship. Either way, Johnson came right back into the team.
Klinsmann also capped Matt Miazga, which was important. Polish interests were lurking around the Red Bulls’ highly regarded rookie center back, and it was no small threat. He grew up in the United States, but still has a touch of a Polish accent, the byproduct of rearing in a home where both parents emigrated from the old world.
A day before, Klinsmann had played coy about capping Miazga, denying that it was important. It seemed like an odd response, especially considering how other talented carriers of dual citizenship, Serbian international Neven Subotic and Italian international Giuseppe Rossi most notably, have gotten away from the U.S program.
Coy or not, at the stroke of 60 minutes on Friday, there was Miazga prepping to enter, along with Darlington Nagbe.
Nagbe is the other reason for hope of improvement going forward. There’s hardly evidence at this point that Nagbe can be a game-changer at international level. But the Timbers skillful attacker does, at least, represent something in painfully short supply in Klinsmann’s current player pool: midfielders supremely comfortable on the ball, blessed with a skill set that tilts toward the dynamic.
As Clint Dempsey’s role diminishes, Klinsmann will have the opportunity to introduce a more creative presence into the midfield. That was difficult with Dempsey, whose “ ‘tweener status” and freelancing ways often meant, more or less, building the attack around him.
If Nagbe can perform as central, attacking conduit, he immediately provides the United States with better overall possession through the higher two-thirds, not only due to his own craftiness and ability to protect the ball but because Michael Bradley can become more of a connector, the role he typically performs best.
There are still indications that Klinsmann will talk occasional nonsense, if we’re speaking frankly. As in, when he stands before a room full of reporters and says progress is being made on cultivating the higher pressing, more dynamic style he wants the program to pursue.
Anybody noticed any of that?
But if Klinsmann can adjust some of his own quirky ways – experimenting with more of a structure and purpose, not just willy-nilly gambits to see what sticks, for instance – then he can talk all the nonsense he wants. It might get frustrating or head-spinning, but at least we won’t worry about the whole darn thing unraveling. There are signs that such an unraveling thing might be less likely to happen now; we’ll know a bit more after Tuesday’s match in Port of Spain.