There’s an interesting, subtle change at work within the U.S. National Team’s way of doing things. And we didn’t even need to see the disappointing result (3-2 loss on two more late goals … grrrr!) play out today in Denmark to spot that changing reality.
For a decade or more, as U.S. pathfinder types pounded out the routes into European soccer, United States National Team matches played in the Old World looked significantly different than games hosted in the United States.
The top U.S. men were generally attached to European clubs. We’ve all talked about how that might be changing and what it means for Major League Soccer. Well, Wednesday in Denmark we started spotting what it might mean going forward for important United States National Team choices.
In terms of personnel summoned and subsequently deployed, the games played stateside had been more experimental in nature. Again, that’s because more of the “A team” was based in Europe. So the matches here had more of an MLS connection, which meant it was more about the “B team,” more about initial assessments and kicking the tires on new players, more about tinkering with training and such.
Meanwhile, the friendlies in Europe were more about getting down to actual business. With lineups that looked more like the United States A-team, this is where the managers – Bruce Arena, then Bob Bradley and now Jurgen Klinsmann – endeavored to put the pieces together. These matches were about smoothing out rough edges, about applying the finishing touches to any tactical tweaks, about carefully measuring out roles and combinations for the men we would see when the “you-know-what” got real.
Now, has it flip-flopped?
Going forward, will the games abroad take on the experimental aspects? And will the games here be more about “getting down to business?”
It does seem to be in evolution. The flip-flop may not have happened 100 percent; we may be at “flip” if we aren’t completely at “flip-flop.” At the very least, we’d say the disparate approaches are no longer so cut and dried.
The United States finished its recent January camp – you know, the camp formally, mostly booked for MLS men labeled under “national team potential” or “national team reserves” – with a friendly against Panama. The lineup that day arguably looked more like the “real” national team than the lineup ran out Wednesday in Europe.
Obviously, this wasn’t true all over the field. Would anyone really argue that Miguel Ibarra (the starter vs. Panama) will start in a meaningful match over Fabian Johnson (who started the same position, left midfield, vs. Denmark)? Of course not. But overall, Wednesday’s roster and starting assignments against Denmark looked like more of a mish-mash than what we saw coming out of the January camp.
Look no further than the central pairing in defense. Last month as the United States closed January camp against Panama, Jermaine Jones and Matt Besler were the starters. We can all debate whether the Jones gambit will ultimately pay dividends, and we can all wonder when Besler will rediscover his previous stability. But either way, a pairing of Jones-Besler looks substantially more like the “A-team” choice over what we saw at NRGi Park in rainy, cold Aarhus. Wednesday’s combo was John Brooks and Michael Orozco.
Which twosome do you suppose is more likely to line up in this summer’s Gold Cup, a tournament Klinsmann desperately wants to win for its 2015 Confederations Cup implications?
The entire back line was pretty much a mess all Wednesday night, and especially late in the loss. (Which ignited all manner of social media indignation because it was the maligned Nicklas Bendtner doing so much of the damage!). We should never read too much into friendlies, although the bigger trends – late game goals! – certainly deserve ongoing conversation.
Ahead of that rickety back line, Michael Bradley’s central partner on Wednesday was Alejandro Bedoya, who looked a little unsure of when to get forward and when to sit back. He was probably less effective and less comfortable than Mix Diskerud, who manned the spot alongside Bradley against Panama.
Why would all this matter? Because going forward, Klinsmann (and whoever takes over from there) already has a lot to consider in scheduling. If the games here become more “final test run” while the games abroad become more “test out the new equipment,” it will alter the balance of how the yearly calendar is constructed.
A few other things to talk about from Wednesday: Bradley wore the captain’s armband. In some ways, that’s about as surprising as corner flags at the corner. But here’s the real kick in the head: this is the first time he has captained his country. It took 94 caps! How is that possible?
There are a couple of reasons. One was Landon Donovan, although his extended estrangement from the national team should have made the transition a no-brainer. Even then, there was Tim Howard, and anyone who has spent time around the longtime U.S. No. 1, well-liked by teammates and a true professional in every sense, can understand that one.
Clint Dempsey’s time with the armband was more difficult to understand. Best guess: it was the coaches’ way of getting him to engage more with the larger operation around him, to take a guy who is focused tightly on his own game (not the worst thing) and ask him to broaden his circle of concern, to lift everyone’s contributions rather than just his own.
Either way, Bradley has long felt like the captain. He’s tough, focused, cerebral and so obviously aware of the bigger project going on around him. He has long been the team’s midfield brain and by many accounts the most important man in a U.S. shirt, all things considered. In a lot of ways, he was de facto captain anyway. Now he is the captain.
Bradley was busy Wednesday, running things from his most comfortable spot, further back in the formation than he played in Brazil. And he was busier still trying to sort out the messiness behind him. Tim Chandler has been solid for Eintracht Frankfurt but he was probably the worst U.S. man Wednesday. In fact, the entire right side was an eyesore; ahead of Chandler, Gyasi Zardes tried hard and tilted reliably inside to help mitigate Denmark’s numerical edge in the middle. But his touch and awareness simply aren’t there at international level.
The late goals? Well, just cut and paste all the previous concerns from the last several months. What else is there to say here except this: Klinsmann cannot pin this one on lack of fitness, unless he wants to conclude that months and months spent with European clubs simply cannot prepare players for one international match.
Finally this: Altidore’s work rate paid off, first in a goal-from-nothing finish and then when setting up Aron Johannsson (off Bradley’s Pirlo-esque ball from midfield). Anyone who continues to argue that Altidore’s move back into MLS was somehow a mistake needs a good talking to.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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