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Copa America

Trying to better understand this inconsistent USMNT squad

Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports Images

Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports Images

No matter what the Russian royal family tried to do to kill Rasputin, they failed almost every time. In many ways, Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as US National Team manager is similar: when he’s closest to being fired, his teams turn in their best performances. Under as much pressure as he’s ever faced as US Head Coach, from supporters and now Sunil Gulati, his team responded with one of its most resounding wins in a tournament setting.

While this Costa Rica team will not be mistaken for the team that made the quarterfinals of the World Cup two years ago, they came in with plenty of pedigree and potential firepower, though none of that showed in Chicago. Oscar Ramirez set up his team to attack and they did, giving the US fits at times, but their indiscipline defensively, mainly on the counter, allowed the US to punish mistakes and take advantages of openings even though their play was fairly choppy. The ease with which the US went through midfield on the counter harkens back to the days of Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley when the US was a feared counter-attacking side that was lethal in the right circumstances.

Klinsmann, under pressure and under scrutiny, brought out the same XI that looked rather toothless against Colombia on Friday, but against a far worse defensive team and with a subtle but effective mid-match tactical switch, the US looked quite a bit like how Alexi Lalas described the 2014 team at the World Cup, “a better version of ourselves”. Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin brought about the necessary width, Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey worked off of each other well, and Jermaine Jones had one of his best games in a US shirt since the World Cup at both ends of the pitch. There have not been many games in recent US history when Michael Bradley had a relatively quiet game as he did while his team looked as good as they did.

SEE MORE: Schedule of Copa America games on US TV and live streaming

After two wildly different performances and results to open this tournament, what is the reality of this current iteration of the US National Team? The answer, as always, can be found somewhere in the middle of the extremes. They looked lost against a tactically and technically superior Colombia team on Friday, yet tore apart a tactically inferior team with the same lineup, though deployed slightly differently, three days later. Chemistry along the back four and midfield continues to develop, and Klinsmann seems to be righting of one of the major wrongs of his tenure, at least in the short term: continuity. While that’s likely impossible to continue against Paraguay because of the schedule and travel demands, should the US get the result they need in Philadelphia, there is no reason to believe they won’t play this lineup again in the quarterfinals. This 4-3-3 cum 4-4-2 certainly has faults, but seems to be one of the stronger and consistent groups the US has had in recent memory.

Klinsmann’s reality as US manager also lies somewhere in the margins of the extreme as well. While he has shown to be tactically inferior in certain matches, and his responsibilities as technical director do run up against his managerial duties in many instances, his ability to spot talent and recruit them has become important. Bobby Wood’s first half tonight is the embodiment of Klinsmann’s tenure: frustrating when played out of position, but the skill and technical ability are there if deployed right. He may not see the fruits of his work as manager, but he’s attempting to lay down a foundation now, even if his methods are quirky and the results haven’t matched the legwork in many instances.

Certainly, the US won’t be winning 4-0 that often, let alone the rest of the tournament. But, the patience of the manager, a few brilliant individual performances and a change of scenery allowed a team of the precipice of disaster to back away and assuage fears, even if many of the underlying issues for this team are still ever-present.

No matter how many ways the Tsar’s inner circle tried to kill Rasputin, they couldn’t do it. Jurgen Klinsmann is becoming a soccer version of Rasputin. And for the time being, that quality takes the US from utter despair to relief and reflection in a matter of a brilliant 90 minutes in Chicago.

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  1. Juan

    June 8, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Really. Lost to number 3 on a set piece and the only ball hitting hand called in copa, at least four similar have since not been given. The US is sitting exactly where expected. Any points from Paraguay will make it a good copa. The biggest challenge is managing the transition to new young team before World Cup 2018. We now have a young decent attack,mostly playing in Europe . Our midfield needs to reload with youth. The back line is coming into its own. I have to say the team is on track given where our player pool currently exist .

    • C.

      June 8, 2016 at 1:30 pm

      @ Juan – I could not agree more with you. The back four have finally found a solid base, with Yedlin and Brooks coming of age, and FJ finally being deployed by JK in the role we all knew he needed to be going forward: Left Back. Bobby Wood shows real potential, so long as he and Dempsey have time to develop an understanding of each other. Which-by the way- makes me so happy to know that Altidore is likely kicked to the curb! Wingers are sound, although not spectacular, with the contributions of Zardes and Bedoya. The only piece that is missing in my mind is a true play maker in the middle of the field to complement Bradley. No matter what people say, Bradley is truly a defense-minded midfielder with exceptional ability to pass out of the backfield. Although Jermaine Jones is a stud, he will not have enough gas in the tank for WC 2018 I’m afraid. Nagbe has the skills to take a ball from the defense, and run the full court like a pointguard in basketball, he just needs to be given sufficient time to gel with the team during a real match. For some reason, JK does not like to firm anyone up to quickly. Pulisic will likely (and rightly) be on-boarded slowly as a super-sub.

      Once Nagbe (or another candidate yet to be identified) earns full playing rights, look out world.

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