Usually in football when your recent form is two draws and two losses, questions start to be asked of the manager in question. But with the current US National Team, surprisingly that’s not the case. In a sport that is usually so trigger happy, Jurgen Klinsmann has skated while his team has suffered. Now this isn’t the same sort of situation that Mexico faced during the 2013 Hex, but the seeds of past problems are beginning to sow their roots again. How can Klinsmann and this US National Team avoid the same Second Cycle Syndrome that stymied Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley? First, problems must be acknowledged.
Alexi Lalas’ quote about the 2014 World Cup team summarized the group as a “better version of ourselves”. What he meant was the team played the same style it had popularized over the years, but a more technical version of it. Now, Klinsmann wants the US to play an expansive style and build from the back, rather than soak up and counter all the time. He has tried to implement that style while also maintaining some of the things that have worked in the past and sort of what worked in the World Cup. However, the problems that were papered over in Brazil are now showing themselves in London and Dublin.
Tactically, the team is set up naively. There is too much emphasis on the fullbacks to get width which leaves them exposed on the counter, while also not offering them support from wingers because the 4-1-3-2 formation that Klinsmann favors is far too narrow. The formation also puts immense pressure on the No. 6, in recent examples Kyle Beckerman, to clean up the many fires caused by the many faults of the formation while also putting unnecessary pressure on the center backs (one of whom doesn’t play CB for his club), and also the goalkeeper, which is why Tim Howard had to be so heroic against Belgium. That wasn’t necessarily a good Belgium team he was keeping out – he was more putting out the fires caused by his own team’s mistakes.
Klinsmann also sees players in roles where they do not belong. Michael Bradley isn’t, never has been, and never will be No. 10. He is a ball-carrier in midfield – a man to link up defense and attack and one who can do so brilliantly. He isn’t a pure No. 10 either because that negates his offensive instincts. But he is too good defensively to leave alone in a role that stymies his defensive instincts. When he was the tip of the diamond in a 4-4-2, the formation was unbalanced and lacked a defensive spine since Bradley’s defensive marshalling role was cut out.
This new experiment of Jermaine Jones at centerback is also wrong. He cannot play that role because he roams as he would do in midfield, which leaves his center back partner and full back woefully exposed on counter-attacks. Geoff Cameron is a serviceable right-back, but his lack of playing time at center back limits what he can do in that position on short notice. Relying too much on an out of form Jozy Altidore when the formation dictates that he doesn’t not have much cover behind hm is another insane decision that makes no sense, and still doesn’t. The USMNT should not be reliant on Altidore changing clubs in order to find his form again so that the team can find its form again. Even further down the line when players like Alfredo Morales, Mix Diskerud and others are examined, their roles aren’t quite right as well, and it seems like they are being shoehorned into roles that they don’t fit in for the purposes of a system that doesn’t work.
Klinsmann also does not want to admit to mistakes. Even his Mexican counterpart Miguel Herrera did as much after Mexico’s loss to Belarus by admitting his team underestimated them. He refuses to admit that call-ups such as Bobby Wood, Miguel Ibarra, Jordan Morris, and even Chris Wondolowski don’t make sense, or that he got his tactics wrong both against a superior Colombia outfit and an inferior (albeit not by much) Irish one. Sure his hand was forced due to injuries and MLS playoff commitments, but that doesn’t mean he can’t work around them. A manager without a decent plan B is a failing one. He has finally brought in players like Greg Garza that deserved calls long ago, but his ignorance of other players cries of failings that normally would go beyond him, but since he is the technical director that falls at his feet as well.
The USMNT cannot go on and assume life in CONCACAF will go as it did during 2013 – that was an anomaly. Mexico is already looking revived and refreshed, and with Carlos Vela in fine form they might well be the best team in the region. Costa Rica is better than anyone ever thought before, and with a new manager might be able to throw some new things at both of the power centers. Honduras, Jamaica, Trinidad, and even Canada cannot be underestimated either. If the US dallies on the assumption that they can coast back to a World Cup, they are gravely mistaken.
This is not the time to panic. These problems can be fixed by expanding the player pool, which is why the upcoming January camp is so important, while also seeing Klinsmann look at himself as a manager and decide what path the US should go down in the future. At the moment, he is stuck between the past and a Bavarian future, and he hasn’t fully made up his mind on which road is better yet, so the result is a watery mess of both that has failed everyone.
Sure there is a generation gap in talent and that has something to do with the problems, but a good manager can fix those and make his team better for it. This cycle is too important to US Soccer as a whole to mess around for too long, because when the Hex comes around the US will be exposed and torn asunder.
The early symptoms of Second Cycle Syndrome are beginning to appear. They can be cured, only if the manager is willing to cure them himself.