Flat result raises more US questions

For a game that was supposed to help answer some remaining questions about the US Men’s national team before World Cup qualifying, Sunday’s friendly against Canada in Toronto wound up raising more questions.

The Americans were downright flat, uninspired, sloppy and above all, tired at BMO Field. They looked like a team that showed up to take part in a casual training session. They were facing an opponent that wanted to finally beat a team they hadn’t beaten since 1985.

Sunday’s scoreless draw dropped the USA to 1-1-1 in three friendlies that are part of Jurgen Klinsmann’s imaginary tournament, hardly the sort of record he would have been hoping for when he hatched this plan to put his team through the conditions they will see in two years in the 2014 World Cup. After Sunday’s stinker, Klinsmann and his team will thank their lucky stars this tournament is just imaginary, and the World Cup is still two years away.

A look at the starting lineup before Sunday’s match suggested the United States might be due for another offensive explosion, what with Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan playing in the same starting lineup for the first time since the 2011 Gold Cup Final. Instead of leading the attack, Dempsey and Donovan served as dueling anchors, providing far less than expected and often times ending passing sequences with wayward touches and poor distribution.

You could give Dempsey a bit of a pass because Sunday was his first start in a month, but Donovan’s lackluster effort raised new questions about just what he can be counted on to deliver. As the team moves into World Cup qualifying, he very well could have simply been a victim of fatigue brought on by the loaded schedule of friendlies.

Dempsey and Donovan were hardly alone in having disappointing nights. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones were a far cry from the dominant duo that squeezed the life out of Canada a year earlier in the Gold Cup. Instead, they seemed to struggle with the packed midfield and intense pressure Canada applied in the middle of the park. And Jose Torres? He was left to fend for himself without Dempsey and Donovan at their best, and with Bradley and Jones scrambling. The result was a nondescript effort from the Pachuca midfielder, the kind of game that, coupled with his stinker against Brazil, raises fresh concerns about whether he is ready for a starting role.

If Sunday’s disappointing night looked familiar, it should have. The Canadian U-23 national team used a 4-3-3 formation with a compact central midfield to stifle and frustrate the US Under-23 national team in Olympic qualifying. Sunday’s match played out in much the same fashion, only Canada’s set-piece execution wasn’t as good as their U-23 counterparts and the USA’s defending was clearly better than their younger team’s defending.

Jurgen Klinsmann might want to raise his hand and take the blame for Sunday night. Along with seeing his team fall victim to the same strategy, it was Klinsmann’s decision to pack the team’s schedule with three friendlies in a nine-day span, capped with a road game against a team also gearing up for qualifying. His starting nucleus played heavy minutes over the past week and it showed; most glaringly in midfield, where Canada outworked their American counterparts. Hopefully for Klinsmann’s sake, this slump will not jeopardize qualification for the 2014 World Cup.

No, it’s clear that Klinsmann looked at this year’s qualifying stage, and saw a group the USA should be able to cruise through even with the wear and tear of a self-inflicted stretch of fatigue-inducing matches. He invented a five-game “tournament” because the actual tournament the United States is competing in just wasn’t enough of a test.

Just how wise a strategy was this? If, as expected, the United States advances out of a group that includes Guatemala, Jamaica and Antigua & Barbuda, then the memory of Sunday’s draw with Canada won’t last long. But, if the USA has any trouble advancing out of that group, there will be serious questions asked about Klinsmann’s scheduling decisions.

For the moment, Sunday’s draw will leave Klinsmann with some difficult decisions to make when selecting the lineup he puts on the field in qualifying. It probably won’t matter much who he selects to take on heavy underdogs Antigua & Barbuda, but Klinsmann must surely know that his team will need to play well to leave Guatemala City with all three points when the sides meet in nine days.

That means needing Dempsey and Donovan to be clicking in the attack, and it means Bradley and Jones working well to connect the defense and the attack. It will also mean needing Jozy Altidore on the field, and also the energy of Herculez Gomez, who has done well with the chances he has been given.

As bad as the Canada game was for the US, it did provide a few positives. Clarence Goodson put together another strong showing in central defense, building on the solid day he enjoyed in the team’s upset of Italy. His poise, confidence on the ball and ability in the air make him a safe alternative to Oguchi Onyewu, who still has some question marks surrounding his form.

Edgar Castillo also answered some questions about his viability as a fullback option. He stepped in late for Fabian Johnson, who suffered a minor injury in pre-game warm-ups, and held his own. He made some good defensive plays, and provided a good threat getting forward (though not as effective a threat as Johnson). He had a few miscues that stood out, but compared to some previously awful showings with the national team, Castillo at least showed some of the good form that helped him have such a strong season with Club Tijuana.

Few would have pegged Goodson and Castillo to be the bright spots the United States would pull away from a match against Canada, but that’s just the kind of night it was.

The US players can now officially turn their attention to World Cup qualifying, a real tournament, and cease with the charade of an imaginary tournament. We may not find out for some time just what sort of valuable lessons the team learned from Klinsmann’s creative scheduling, but we will soon find out if the team is better or worse off for having gone through it.