USMNT introduces 3-5-2 formation as Jurgen Klinsmann continues to experiment

RANCAGUA, Chile —

The path to 3-5-2 started when United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann assessed his options for the January camp and selected his roster.

As Klinsmann evaluated the players at his disposal, he contemplated the shape of his team. He named a roster light on fullbacks and heavy with central defenders. He thought about the ways he could generate width, open up space for Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey and place Michael Bradley into a position to orchestrate the proceedings in midfield. And he wondered whether the increasingly common formation might offer a way to accomplish those objectives.

“It’s also a little bit based what we have in this camp,” Klinsmann said after using the 3-5-2 setup in the first half of the Americans’ 3-2 defeat in Chile on Wednesday night. “What players do we have? What are we hopefully going see down the road with the senior group? That kind of guides you into a certain system that you think, OK, with these players, we might be better off in a 3-5-2 than in a 4-4-2. Often, it is just looking at your roster and saying what is the best solution now?”

Klinsmann and his technical staff focused considerable energy on lifting the fitness levels with two and sometimes three training sessions per day, but they also reserved time to work on implementing the new shape.

Installing this formation requires ample attention from everyone involved. The wide players need to cover more ground from the back to the front and spread the field toward the touchline. The central defenders must figure out when to hold their ground and when to slide out wide. The midfielders must measure their own movements to provide cover when necessary, step into good areas to keep the ball and supplement the efforts going forward. The forwards must pick out when and where to drop off and how to use the space afforded.

The past couple of weeks offered enough encouragement to prompt Klinsmann to deploy it from the start against Chile. This engagement — particularly with Chile boss Jorge Sampaoli choosing his preferred 3-4-3 setup once again — provided an inviting opportunity to measure the progress.

“We’ve been in camp for a new weeks now and we’ve worked on it every day,” U.S. winger Brek Shea said. “I got used to it. At first, it was different. Having to get all the way up and all the way back is obviously different. But, at times, when we keep the ball and move it fast, I rather enjoy it.”

Those moments occurred from time to time in the first half when the Americans obtained possession, proceeded toward goal quickly and used the wide areas well.

“To be honest, I kind of enjoyed it going forward,” Altidore said. “You got a chance to run at the defenders more. I remember there was a play where Clint passed to me and I was able to run in behind and get a foul. We didn’t have those moments as much we would probably like to in this game. But I thought maybe it’s something to build on. Maybe not. If we go back to the original, I’m fine as well. You have to be open to trying new things.”

The introduction of new concepts always leads to adjustments and hiccups along the way. There were plenty of those instances in the first half as the Americans navigated through the tricky process of coping with an aggressive Chile side willing to concede space behind the wingbacks and press high up the field to win the ball.

Most of those alterations will come in the defensive half based on this evidence, though they were not necessarily fatal enough to rule out a return to this particular setup with additional tinkering. Jermaine Jones created some of the instability with his penchant to roam out of his berth in the middle of the back three. Shea said he found himself pinned back more often than he preferred after his goal. Other issues stemmed from instant decisions made in unfamiliar situations.

Klinsmann opted for a more comfortable approach after the break and switched to a 4-4-2 formation for the second half. The experiment ended after 45 minutes on this night, but Klinsmann did not rule out a return to the formation at some point in the future given the potential benefits.

“With the 3-5-2, we have the chance to bring Clint a little bit further behind and have him feeding the two strikers,” Klinsmann said. “We have an opening for Jermaine in the center of the back three and for Michael to be the conductor in midfield. There are all kind of ideas that are floating around. We can keep on working with different ways of doing it. The key issue is they need to build their systems, they need build their stamina, they need to build their foundation for hopefully a very good club season and a foundation for the international level. This is the biggest challenge for us.”