Following the putrid performance his United States men’s national team put on in their 2-0 friendly loss to Ukraine on Wednesday, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was quick to attempt to undercut any conclusions that might be drawn. Instead, he tried to couch the unambiguous loss as an aberration of sorts, as a rare bad day along an upward trajectory.
"It would be totally wrong now to criticize what went wrong," he said, pointing to the lack of familiarity the grab bag of Americans he had fielded had with one another, and their respective issues finding playing time for their club teams. "It was clear to us that playing a completely new backline, playing players that come out of the club system, who are in a difficult situation not having the same confidence they usually have, there’s a lot of work to be done.
"You see individuals a lot in these type of matches, so it’s understandable that collectively, it’s not clicking," he continued. "It would be a miracle if we had played well."
A miracle? An act of divine intervention that could have ensured a cohesive showing by the Americans? Not quite.
Taking the German’s words at face value – and he is entitled to some credibility for his body of work — would be to overlook several acute realizations. For one, he doesn’t deserve a bye for all the ugliness on display as Ukraine’s polished performance plainly overmatched the Americans. For it was Klinsmann who chose to call in a squad almost entirely consisting of European-based players on the bubble for a spot in the World Cup squad. He argued that it didn’t make any logistical sense to bring his Major League Soccer players all the way to the east of Europe for such a short camp, but then he was free in his choice of opponents and venues as well.
With just two months and change remaining until he is to draw up his 30-man preliminary roster and convene his World Cup camp, he could have chosen to go with a proper A-team in a more convenient locale and try to put the finishing touches on his side. That’s how almost every other national team manager opted to utilize his last chance to assemble his entire team. But not Klinsmann. He’s still experimenting.
And he won’t be best pleased with what he saw in his Petri dish. Which brings us to the second point. In all of a dreary first half and the latter part of the second, the problems were systemic. The proactive mindset Klinsmann insists on was not there. The full-field pressure was ineffective, the high defensive line a liability and the distribution out of the back lacking.
Both goals were desperately sloppy, as central defenders Oguchi Onyewu and John Brooks were either badly mispositioned or simply went AWOL. "With the two goals, there’s a series of mistakes that happened there," Klinsmann conceded. But again, he asked for leniency. "We had a back line that had never really played together before," Klinsmann agreed.
Some of the culpability for that has to fall on Klinsmann. Deep into this World Cup cycle, with the countdown clock to the big tournament ticking below 100 on Tuesday, he continues to call in new players or reintroduce ones he had previously discarded. His refusal to settle and focus on a group of regulars has not helped an increasingly apparent lack of depth. Klinsmann fielded 48 different players in 2013. He has already called up 51 in 2014, for just two camps and games.
But the simple and stark truth is that there aren’t as many Americans worthy of the international level as was widely believed. That’s the real lesson of Wednesday’s loss. Many, this columnist included, have anointed this the deepest, and perhaps best, American side of all time. But when several regulars are unavailable, the drop-off is steep.
With the MLSers and Liga MX players unavailable, save for the Seattle Sounders’ Clint Dempsey, the team lacked any sort of structure in midfield and defense. That wasn’t surprising in the back, given that the entire starting line hails from those two North American leagues at the moment. But without Michael Bradley, Graham Zusi and Landon Donovan, the midfield was just as disjointed.
Certainly, few teams can totally absorb the absence of seven starters. But the vastness of the gap with the replacements is troubling nonetheless. Whatever Klinsmann says, their performance was inexcusable, because with the exception of Brooks, they were all very experienced national teamers – between them, the seven replacements had more than 200 caps.
Onyewu and Brooks in the middle, Geoff Cameron and Edgar Castillo at fullback, Sacha Kljestan in central midfield, Alejandro Bedoya and Fabian Johnson on the flanks: they were all far off the pace. Faced with world class wingers like Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, veteran midfielders like Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Ruslan Rotan, the Americans couldn’t keep up. Ukraine is a strong team, but it isn’t World Cup-bound. This game ought not have been so one-sided, especially when you consider the anxiety the opposition must have had to endure, relating to the political crisis crippling their home country.
For the USA, the end goal is the World Cup. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Klinsmann won’t have many alternatives to his starters down in Brazil during the long slog of the world’s hardest tournament.
Overcoming this issue at such short notice, now that would be a miracle.