For all of the discussion about the age and makeup of Jurgen Klinsmann’s Copa America squad, and the tactical changes he made in the second half against Ecuador indicate what the future may be like for this team. After the 1-0 win against Ecuador, this also may indicate that the future is closer to the present than previously thought, and that is a welcome sign.
In the first half, Klinsmann went to a more negative and reactive lineup with a midfield of Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. Predictably, the US had trouble maintaining possession and doing much going forward when they did have the ball, although defensively they were quite sound. When Bradley became the deepest midfielder as the second half started, combined with Darlington Nagbe and Bobby Wood being introduced, the tenor of the team changed dramatically, and for the better. They had a rare vibrancy in attack while not sacrificing much in the way of defense.
Now, Jurgen Klinsmann has to make a decision on how to organize his midfield. Michael Bradley is clearly comfortable in the deepest position, and also thrived in his first short cameo in that role for the US. Playing Nagbe centrally also allowed for his creativity and work-rate in midfield, which complements Bradley quite well. However, Ecuador did not do much with their possession last night and it’s doubtful that Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay will use the same approach when the results mean more. But the signs from a Bradley-Nagbe partnership are worth exploring more Saturday night in Kansas City against Bolivia, which is not something that could have been said watching the first half.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s teams have always looked better with a dedicated defensive midfielder in the XI, and last night’s events don’t change that much. But sacrificing some of that for attacking quality while not giving up much at the other end of the pitch is a risk work taking, especially since Bradley and Nagbe are tireless workers who both have good enough defensive instincts to make the system function without a dedicated destroyer to mop up mistakes.
One of the biggest criticisms of Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT is that the midfields have often been unbalanced and lacking in quality going forward. Part of that has to do with the midfielders he can select from, but he does prioritize plenty of defensive acumen and puts his best player, Michael Bradley, in positions where he’s not entirely primed to succeed. The 45 minutes with him as the #6 and with Nagbe et al ahead of him might have been the best 45 minutes he’s played in a US shirt for some time likely because he’s playing in a role that best suits his talents and makes his teammates better. While this system may be too open against the likes of Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, etc. in games where the quality on the pitch is more even, this is certainly a system worth using more. Part of the surprise is Klinsmann making this switch in the first place, as he’s shown no indications of doing so in the past.
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Klinsmann may well go back to the old midfield triad against Bolivia and then Colombia, but even if he doesn’t start with Bradley as the deepest midfielder, he certainly proved last night that he can play that role as well for the National Team as he does for Toronto FC. What is possibly the biggest question emerging from Frisco will be whether Klinsmann uses this again and if so, when.
Gleaning all that much from friendlies is still dangerous, and this was clearly a pre-tournament friendly and both teams certainly knew it. But a small, unexpected, yet positive tactical wrinkle might prove to be the difference in how deep the US goes in the Copa America, and this change won’t require all that much of a dramatic change in squad composition or even tactical systems.
Under Klinsmann, the US has not shown much tactical evolution. Last night might be a nascent sign of one beginning to emerge, and that’s a welcome sign in advance of a major tournament.
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