The United States men’s national team is still starting Jozy Altidore at striker because, well, they don’t have anyone better. The four-year search for centerbacks is still plaguing Jurgen Klinsmann’s team, too, and left back is the same black hole that it has been for the better part of two decades. And yet, none of those create the same problems for the US that the absence of a good defensive midfielder does.
It’s not a coincidence that the US’s best stretch of play under Jurgen Klinsmann came with Kyle Beckerman in the team and playing well. His ability to shield the back line, not to mention keep possession and even distribute quickly to spring the counterattack, brought strength and control to the team. But his time as part of the national team’s spine was short. He’s tailed off since last year’s World Cup, often finding himself behind in the action and chasing the play, which is the worst thing for a defensive midfielder.
Beckerman was the product of Klinsmann’s long search for a defensive midfielder. Danny Williams and Alfredo Morales were given chances to win the job before Beckerman did it, outplaying the other two by a wide margin. Neither Williams nor Morales looked up for the challenge, and they still don’t now. The conversion of Mix Diskerud to a deep-lying player hasn’t gone well enough to even make him an option for the job, and the same is true of Joe Corona.
The man who has looked best suited to the job is Geoff Cameron — problematic considering he’s also looked like the best option in the center of defense — has never quite made it into Klinsmann’s good graces and doesn’t play the position for his club. Of course, the man who would be best in the spot doesn’t solve anything for the US. Michael Bradley would be stupendous in a deep role, but he’s the US’s best option in nearly a half-dozen spots, and Klinsmann thinks he’s more influential closer to goal. The result is another search for the next Beckerman, an unremarkable player, but one the US hasn’t been able to replace.
Without a defensive midfielder, the US’s already shoddy back line has been hung out to dry. Teams are running at them with pace time and time again, easily interchanging and playing into space. The worst thing you can ask of a back line is to defend facing its own goal, but that’s what the US are doing time and time again. They’re constantly retreating, chasing, trying to put out fires caused by a midfield that can’t stop the counterattack, slow the opposition or even force teams to play in parts of the field that don’t endanger the goal.
Even a good defense would be exposed in such situations, and the US certainly doesn’t have a good defense. That is how they’ve managed to give up three goals or more five times this season. And that doesn’t even account for the ability to control tempo, spring the counterattack or recycle the ball. That all requires the work of an entire midfield, but is keyed and led by a defensive midfielder.
The position has long been one of the most overlooked in the sport, in large part because there’s little sexy about it. It’s not where you find goalscorers or even assist men, while not being a defender often leaves them out of the praise heaped upon an excellent back line. But the role is often the linchpin of a team, and also exceedingly difficult to do well. The job requires the ability to read the game like a centerback, cutting out attacks before they become dangerous, and the tackling skills of one as well. It also requires the mobility of a fullback, able to drift wide and cover wide, retreat and play all over the field. And doing it well also takes a midfielder’s passing skills, because giveaways from deep in the midfield are disastrous, while the feel of when to push tempo, when to play at a slower pace and how to switch the point of play are all crucial.
Defensive midfielders have to be the best of a defender and the best of a midfielder — tactically and technically astute. Unfortunately, it is in those areas that the US player has long struggled. There are a dozen Americans who have the range, strength and tackling to play in the center of the pitch at the highest level, but combining that with the reading of the game and skill to pass from such a key place has been a struggle. Maurice Edu is the ultimate example, good enough for the lower levels, but never quite adjusting to the pace, complexities and skill needed to excel internationally. Ricardo Clark falls into the same category, as do so many other Americans who were supposed to fill the role of defensive midfielder over the last decade-plus.
Unfortunately, the US doesn’t have much on the horizon. Wil Trapp is probably the best hope, technical and smart, but the 22-year-old is in only his second full season with the Columbus Crew, and too often looks like it. Perry Kitchen could fit the role, but he’s fairly limited and doesn’t look up to snuff. After that, there isn’t much. Kelyn Acosta doesn’t even play the position regularly for his club and Marky Delgado, who started at defensive midfield for the US at the U-20 World Cup, generally plays on the wing for Toronto FC.
The US struggles to keep goals out. They struggle to limit the opposition’s chances. It’s a problem that has been pinned on the back line, but that defense is hardly being put in good positions, and they actually have some decent players there. Cameron, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, John Brooks and Tim Ream are capable talents, to some degree, while Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers provide a lot of hope for the future. That crop far outstrips the current and future prospects of the US defensive midfielders, which is composed of proven inadequacies like Williams and Morales or the one great hope, Trapp.
Klinsmann can assemble a workable defense. The pieces are there and should only get better. But that defense won’t hold up to the bombardment that the midfield subjects it to. The only way to change that is to either pray for Trapp or make a major adjustment. Maybe that means dropping Bradley deep, giving the team the circulator it needs to dictate play the way Klinsmann wants. Or maybe that means moving Cameron, currently the team’s best centerback, into the midfield.
In lieu of that, expectations are going to need a readjustment. That could be on the part of the fans, who will have to accept a team that’s a sieve defensively, or it could be on Klinsmann’s part, who will have to drop nine behind the ball and protect the defensive with numbers, proactivity be damned.
The United States’ ability to be what Klinsmann wants — exciting, proactive and versatile with a potent attack — depends on a defensive midfielder. The Beckerman era is over and, as bizarre as this sounds, it means the US have taken a shot to the gut. Now they need another defensive midfielder to be the team’s watchman. For the midfield’s sake, especially for the defense’s sake and, maybe more than anyone, for Klinsmann’s sake.
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