This is a guest post by Jacques Pelham. You can find more of his soccer writing at the Football Garden.
Predictably, there are still many outstanding questions regarding Juergen Klinsmann and the US national team after Klinsmann’s second and third games as US coach. On Tuesday, the US demonstrated sustained effort for 90 minutes and crafted occasional quality sequences against a Belgium team that effectively pressed the US without the ball and featured dangerous attacking talents. The US conceded an unlucky goal and arguably should have at least tied the game after a questionable offside call to disallow a goal.
Collectively, the US team’s performance was decent but lacked the spark of progress and superior quality demonstrated during the first half of the Costa Rica game. Belgium was in obvious control of many parts of the game but the US was able to put together several offensive sequences and spells of defensive pressure that allowed the US to take the protagonist role. Unfortunately, the US had neither the individual skill nor the collective tactical awareness to dictate the game for prolonged periods.
At times, the individual mistakes and collective misunderstandings against Belgium were unpleasant reminders of the stasis and mediocrity of the Bradley era. Altidore and Edu gave up possession and passed to Belgian players when under little pressure. Shea and Rogers offered no change in speed/direction and looked lost when they weren’t running head down towards goal. Bocanegra and Goodson panicked when balls were in the air and often preferred the perceived safety of playing long passes in the general direction of forward players as opposed to playing a 10-15 yard pass to a loosely marked midfielder.
Clint Dempsey was deployed as a central midfielder in a role responsible for retaining possession and dictating the tempo of the US buildup with the ball and pressuring the opposition defenders and midfielders without the ball. Dempsey’s performance against Belgium was a fascinating demonstration of the potential held by the US and what must be overcome in order to realize it.
Dempsey’s game is unique, volatile, and frustrating. Against Belgium he showed moments of inspiring brilliance and moments of head scratching ignorance of his surroundings leading to loss of possession in dangerous areas. Without the ball, he showed little intent to pressure or force the Belgian players into mistakes. Yet, despite these deficiencies he created the US’s best chance of the game almost out of nothing after a deceptive juke and dribble into the Belgian penalty box. Had his shot been better placed and led to a goal, every analysis of the game (including this one) would likely have been viewed through the lens of an exceptional goal to tie the game and secure a result after a gritty comeback performance on European soil.
This volatility from both Dempsey and the US team in general is the most important thread Klinsmann must address in order to develop the US team into a more dominant and more consistent outfit under the possession-based system he is seeking to implement.
Reflecting on the Belgium and Costa Rica games and looking forward to the October friendlies, the analysis of Klinsmann and his staff must seek to distill what must be changed to direct the US on a trajectory to become dominant no matter the opposition. Arguably, the shape/system has been a success and provided a platform for the superior stretches of play throughout Klinmann’s first three games in charge. It is the elusive matter of player selection that will define Klinsmann’s ability to shape the US into something better and more robust.
Is it acceptable/effective to select experienced players with incomplete skill sets and little tactical malleability? Or, is the system Klinsmann seeks to implement better served by selecting players with less pedigree but with skill sets better suited to succeed in a possession based system?
Are young players Brek Shea and Timmy Chandler (Both 21 years old) better suited to succeed in Klinsmann’s system than Michael Nanchoff (22) and Kofi Sarkodie (20), who both contributed greatly to Akron University playing the best possession soccer of any amateur or professional team in the United States during the last college season?
Who can complement Jose Torres in central midfield? Are Donovan and Dempsey, who have both made their careers for club and country on the wing, better suited to playing central midfield as opposed to Anthony Ampaipitakwong or any of the promising central midfielders Brian identified in his recent College Prospects post? Is Stuart Holden better than any of these players?
How far can the US go with holding midfielders that can’t pass under pressure and don’t demand the ball to dictate the tempo of the game at every opportunity? 3four3 has identified several young quality holding midfielders in college and just breaking into MLS that would likely be in the national team pool if US Soccer’s selection process was more similar to developed soccer nations. As a reminder, Sergio Busquets and his Spanish national team understudy Javi Martinez were both 22 when Spain won the WorldCup.
Finally, what will it take for Klinsmann to replace Jozy Altidore as first team Striker?Agudelo has consistently looked more dangerous, energetic and consistent than Altidore. Altidore’s first touch is not going to get better and his change of pace is non-existent. Combine these issues with lack of playing awareness and laziness without the ball and its hard to see how anyone can watch him play and come to the conclusion that he has the tools to be an effective possession based attacking player. Is it enough that he’s scored a few goals for his new club despite looking woefully out of depth whenever he plays for the national team?
Can Klinsmann sift through the noise and hype to select players of true quality that understand the commitment, awareness, and professionalism required to dominate opponents?
Klinsmann must ask these questions and the answers he provides will reflect deeply on whether he can undertake what is necessary to adapt and evolve the US team into something that reflects the unlimited soccer potential that exists in the United States.
There are promising signs that progress is underway and the next opportunity to evaluate will take place during international friendly games vs. Honduras and a yet to be named opponent in October.