There remain a fair few things to figure out for United States men’s national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann as he readies his team for the World Cup in Brazil next month. That’s his own doing, the upshot of endless experimenting and tinkering in his almost three years in charge.
The formation has seemed uncertain ever since Klinsmann deviated from his long-standing 4-5-1 for a diamond 4-4-2 in the last game, against Mexico, with much success. Competition to start on the wings, in whichever formation, looks wide open. But nothing is quite so ambiguous – to the public and media not privy to Klinsmann’s thoughts anyway – as the makeup of the back line.
Klinsmann has never wavered from a four-man defense, nor from urging his outside backs to push forward aggressively. But then he has used nine different personnel combinations in the back in the 10 games of the final round of World Cup Qualifiers. In the only two full-squad games played since then, back in November, he fielded a 10th and an 11th. As noted in this space before, Klinsmann has also deployed 24 different combinations of full-backs in his 47 games in charge.
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When it comes to the defense, all we know is that we know next to nothing. As such, now that the drama of cutting the team down to the 23-man final roster – and the ouster of you-know-who – is over with, there is no information more vexingly elusive than any which might clear up the many question marks hovering over the hypothetical back line.
Prodding the defenders still in camp and headed for Brazil, barring injury, doesn’t yield a treasure trove of facts, exactly. Fabian Johnson, who has played left wing, left back and right back for this team, said he’d played right back almost exclusively thus far in camp. And Klinsmann has stated several times that he sees Geoff Cameron as a central defender more than a right back, where he plays at his club Stoke City.
But other than that, there exists little information. And there’s an explanation for that. “We’re just now really starting to focus in on team shape,” said central defender Matt Besler, the only man believed to be certain of a starting spot. The first week of camp centered around conditioning and thinning the herd. Now that that’s done, Besler said, “That allows us to focus in on some specific things.”
“Two days ago and yesterday was the first time that we’ve really been able to break away and do some back-four defending stuff, some shape,” he added. “That’s very, very important and I think everyone is really looking forward to working on that stuff going forward.”
When Klinsmann made his cuts on Thursday, the defensive equation was only complicated further. He cut Brad Evans, who had been his incumbent right back. Central defender Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst, who can play anywhere in the back, seemed all-but-certain to make the team as backups. But neither of them made it. Timmy Chandler did, after a 15-month absence from the team, and he can play on either flank. DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks, right and center backs, respectively, also made it. They are considered too raw to be entrusted with starting roles though. Meanwhile, DaMarcus Beasley and Omar Gonzalez are long-time starters – by Klinsmann’s transient standards anyway – at left back and in the middle. So that leaves at least six men for four spots.
Chandler had been out of the picture so long because the travel from Nurnberg, his club team in Germany, weighed heavily on him and undermined his performance and, word has it, his commitment. “Obviously he was, in the early stages of coming back and forth, always a little bit messed up in a certain way,” Klinsmann said of the 24-year-old German-American. “I had serious talks with him. He had to go through a learning curve. He’s a different Timmy now than he was a year and a half ago. Some players go early through that learning curve and some go late but at least he went through it.”
Still, even if the defense has been a revolving door spinning as fast as its hinges will allow, this back line isn’t being built from scratch. “We’re not starting from square one,” said Besler. “Every guy in this camp has been playing with each other over the past year or two. Across the back line, every single player has experience with every one of their team mates – in World Cup qualifiers too.”
For now, the defenders are rotating through the four positions during practice and scrimmages. “It’s important that you are comfortable with not just four guys,” said Besler. “Stuff happens. [Stuff: injuries, suspensions, poor form.] As we get closer, I would assume that we start focusing more on the starting guys.”
There remain three weeks of practice, with three tune-up games with Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria and a scrimmage with Belgium strewn through, to get it right. “We have now a lot of time to train together,” said Chandler. “We train this – how we rotate, our tactics. We’re developing relationships. It’s going now much better. The three games is now important. We have a lot of players in the defense line – we change, we change, but we all stick together the last couple of days.”
“I think we’re getting better and better each time we play together,” added Johnson. “So I think it’s going to be good.”
Behind them all, veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard oversees the forging of the defense with his signature chatter, the unceasing torrent of instructions and observations. “I just try to communicate and talk as much as I can,” he said. “We try to work on spacing and communication, staying connected, staying compact.”
It’s an involved process. “Some of that trust and those things are built off the field as well,” Howard said. “A lot of those things you want to happen on the field are manifested off the field first.”
But he doesn’t worry, pointing out that during all that turnover in qualifying “our defensive record was pretty solid.” Indeed, the USA conceded just eight times in 10 games, the second-fewest in the round. They got six shutouts.
Some time remains to find answers. And while the entire outcome of this World Cup campaign might be staked to that search, nobody in camp seems terribly concerned. For whatever that’s worth.