SAN ANTONIO, TX — For all of Jurgen Klinsmann’s unpredictable ways, those player selection standards that tend to weave all over the road, his quirky tactical choices, etc., we do know about one thing for certain about the U.S. head coach:
He badly wants to win the upcoming Gold Cup. The dangling carrot is the Confederations Cup spot in 2017.
And to do that, Klinsmann needs to find the best version of his current team. All this larger business of improving the talent pool by removing comfort zones is great and all; we can continue to debate that one later. But for now it’s time to start settling on some choices.
Friendlies are all about experimentation, of course. (Well, and in the case of the nearly annual match against Mexico, about making a whole bunch of money … but let’s not get bogged down here.) So it’s fine that Klinsmann has been experimenting, especially during a new World Cup cycle.
The problem is this: determining results would be easier with more of a basic structure in the way the team plays, a bit more of an ingrained and predictable framework. All of that would provide for better reference points.
SEE ALSO — Listen to Brian Dunseth, Kartik Krishnaiyer and Kris Heneage previewing the USA-Mexico game live on World Soccer Talk Radio from 5-6pm ET Wednesday.
See, experimenting is fine, but experimentation attached to a set of fixed variables seems to make better sense. That way, players could be selected based on strengths and weaknesses and combinations as they relate to the selected framework; it would look more like experimentation with fixed targets, a little less like a bunch of willy-nilly experimentation for experimentation’s sake. We’ve talked about that before, about how it is time to see the bigger plan coming together. Thing is, a few months later and not much has changed.
But here we are regardless. It’s U.S.-Mexico on a temporary grass field inside San Antonio’s Alamodome in south Texas. Here are some of the choices Klinsmann still has ahead:
1. Is Brek Shea an outside back or a midfielder?
Shea’s position switch remains a work in progress in Orlando. He’s certainly good enough when pushing into the attack, but whether his defensive tendencies and instincts can be trained sufficiently within the next two months, that’s another matter.
It may be about DeAndre Yedlin’s readiness. Yedlin has been called in for this one, just days after debuting for Spurs. (It was a big moment for the young man, but in all honesty, we’re all probably making too much of it. Spurs have injury problems there and, well, let’s just tap the brakes a bit and understand that Yedlin busting into Tottenham’s starting lineup is hardly imminent.)
If Yedlin cannot deal defensively with Mexico’s second unit, then he probably can’t get there by June. In that case, Klinsmann could use someone better on defense, understanding that Shea can push up the other side.
If Yedlin looks able to start at right back, it makes more sense for Shea to push into a midfield spot. Otherwise, we’re talking about a back line with two very suspect, highly untested types on the outside.
2. Is the team better with a true, holding midfielder?
Kyle Beckerman is back with the squad, which means Klinsmann is at least pondering that question.
Michael Bradley’s best matches with the national team see him working as a connector, maneuvering smartly between a screener and a creator, still able to provide defensive cover but with license to supply some attacking push, too.
It seems more likely that Klinsmann will continue to pound his round peg into a square hole, asking Bradley once again to play higher up the field, as a creator closer to the forward or forwards. But maybe good sense will prevail and Bradley will be used as that connector once again, or as one-half of a double hinge, the way he and Alejandro Bedoya operated against Denmark.
3. Where is Julian Green’s head?
Things have gone all pear shaped this year for the young forward, whose loan spell at Hamburg can fairly be classified somewhere between “useless exercise” and “complete disaster.”
Green has not been seen with Hamburg’s first team since November and isn’t even playing much for the reserves. So, none of that bodes well, especially as Klinsmann has indicated that players languishing on benches are less likely to be part of the national team. Of course, with Klinsmann, these are always more guidelines than rules. He generally seems to play hunches and then backs into the explanations, etc.
Either way, the choice here might be down to this: Is Juan Agudelo ready to contribute again? He is playing well for New England, having scored a dandy goal a week back. (Watch it here.)
Maybe Green has more eventual upside. But at present, Agudelo appears to be more “Julian Green” than Julian Green is right now, if that makes sense.
Bottom line: Klinsmann needs to assess whether Green can contribute come June.
4. What is this team’s top center back combo?
Klinsmann has used six different center backs in four matches this year. (He’s also used two completely different approaches to the rear guard – or have we forgotten about the three-man back line experiment that lasted exactly 45 minutes into 2015?)
The upshot is this: Klinsmann is probably no closer to understanding what his back line should look like in June Gold Cup matches than he was on the first day of January camp nearly four months back. Michael Orozco and John Brooks started the last two U.S. matches (the loss in Denmark on two late goals and the draw in Switzerland on a late goal). But does anybody really think Orozco and Brooks are strong enough to deal with Mexico’s best once things get serious in late round Gold Cup matches?
The math here gets especially tricky because Jermaine Jones, who is just back with New England and isn’t in this U.S. camp, will be Klinsmann’s starting center back in the Gold Cup. Let’s just get our arms around that one because Klinsmann is somehow inexorably attached to the fact that Jones needs to be in the lineup. So unless Jones convinces Klinsmann to let him remain in midfield (and the former Schalke man has said he still wants a spot in the U.S. midfield), then I suppose what we are really talking about is finding Jones’ ideal partner.
That’s probably not Omar Gonzalez. Gonzalez has certainly grown since the days when he was physically imposing but not vocal enough as a leader. But he remains at his best when stationed alongside someone more commanding, someone with the wits and the will to take charge. Jones really cannot be that guy, not when he’s still learning the position on the fly.
So, Besler? Most likely. Jones and Besler was the preferred combo for the 2-0 win over Panama back in February, which is the only U.S. win in in the last six months.
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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