These are trying times for the United States men’s national team. The downturn in results after those victories in Germany and the Netherlands in June led to humbling defeats in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the CONCACAF Cup. Those setbacks against Jamaica and Mexico — plus the humbling defeat to Brazil in September — marked the end of a successful period and plunged the future into some doubt.
This is the lowest point for the team under Jurgen Klinsmann’s direction. It is now down to Klinsmann and his players to conclude this dark period and engineer a response when World Cup qualifying starts against St. Vincent & The Grenadines (Nov. 13 in St. Louis) and Trinidad & Tobago (Nov. 17 in T&T) next month.
"You have to go through that," Klinsmann said. "It’s part of life. It’s part of your job. There are not only sunshine days. We had a lot of sunshine in 2012, 2013, 2014. Now it’s raining a little bit. You have to go through that. Maybe you have to go through the mud as well. We’ll do that. That was my message to the players: When you’re on the floor for a moment, then you have to get up and start all over again."
The cushy opening assignment against St. Vincent — a lightly regarded side with a handful of professionals and one meager Gold Cup appearance back in 1996 — offers a platform to arrest the slide immediately, but it is merely the first step. Everyone involved must assess their roles in the recent downturn and devise a way to eradicate those concerns for the long haul.
"We know we have to be better," U.S. defender Geoff Cameron said. "We have to improve as a team collectively. That’s what we can take out of the two games here. You have to have a short memory because we have qualifying right around the corner. We have to get back on track. We have to get our heads back on our shoulders. We have to keep plugging away."
Reclaim the identity
Everything starts with a return to the fundamental tenets. The framework of this side — application, industry and organization — wavered over the past few months. The performances suffered accordingly. Those tenets are the bedrock for this team. They must return in short order to ensure the manageable tasks ahead are dispatched with the requisite care and diligence.
"It’s one of those things where we have to get back on track and get back to doing the little basics," Cameron said. "That’s working hard, getting stuck in, making it difficult for the other team to play and go from there. That’s what the U.S. has always been known about. We’ve always been the hard-working team. We’re always going to outwork the other team. We might not have the quality, but we’re all going to outwork the other team. That’s what we need to get back to doing. We have to show that pride that we have when we put on the jersey and know what it represents to the U.S. national team."
Focus on freshening up the team
The past few months provided a damning account of the impact when those principles dissipate. This group is certainly talented enough to navigate through CONCACAF and secure an eighth consecutive World Cup appearance, but there is not a world-class star to drive the proceedings or a surplus of top-level players capable of meeting the necessary standards if the base obligations slip.
Klinsmann admitted those realities when he experimented with his squad selection in the wake of the Round of 16 exit in Brazil. His tinkering turned up a host of players incapable of forcing their way past the established veterans or stating continued cases for inclusion. Even with the modest returns to date (Ventura Alvarado, Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes probably stand out as the best examples of potential contributors so far), there is a need to search far and wide to complement a familiar and shallow player pool. It is a quest that must continue even if the trusted campaigners retain their spots in the short- and medium-term.
"We have to try new things," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "Every cycle is a rebirth. You have to shake things up. Other players get older. Some of your best players who are top dogs today are going to be old as dirt in 2018 and they won’t be able to perform. There’s that balance between getting a result today versus trying to bleed new guys in. It’s not doom and gloom. I think we’re a good team. And I think, in this region, we’re going to qualify for the World Cup. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be hard as heck. But we’re going to get the balance right."
There is certainly some latitude to integrate and rely upon players capable of coping in CONCACAF. U.S. teams boast a long and storied history of leaning on hardworking and limited players to carry them through CONCACAF (Alan Gordon scored a critical goal at Antigua and Barbuda during the last cycle, for example). Those contributors will inevitably play their part this time, but other fresh faces capable of meeting the more exacting standards in major tournaments must join them along the way.
Where exactly Klinsmann might find those options is another story. The limitations of the U.S. development system constrain the quality and the scale of his options. The search remains an important part of the future nevertheless.
"We’re going to look everywhere for younger players who are hopefully developing and hopefully getting to the point where that transition we’ve been talking about for more than a year really happens," Klinsmann said. "We’ll guide them towards World Cup qualifying and towards Copa America. That’s all I can say from my end."
Identify the core going forward
There is plenty of room for experimentation given the lack of long-term fixtures in the side at the moment. It is always difficult to project through a complete World Cup qualifying cycle, but the lack of identifiable cornerstones capable of surviving the next three years is a problem.
The list starts with captain Michael Bradley and goalkeepers Brad Guzan and Tim Howard (if Howard persists through the next few years). Brooks, Jozy Altidore and Fabian Johnson probably feature on it as well, though Altidore (consistency and production) and Johnson (concerns stemming from his recent substitution against Mexico) must answer their own questions along the way. After that small group, the waters muddy quickly with players who might age out of the player pool sooner rather than later (Clint Dempsey remains a vital piece in the short term given the lack of viable alternatives up front, for example) or who might not perform consistently enough to serve as linchpins of the side.
Klinsmann must choose carefully and then construct a team capable of facilitating their strengths. One of the primary concerns during the Klinsmann era is the dearth of consistency in team selection and the lack of tactical coherency from match to match. Those issues stem from Klinsmann trying to alter his pack to squeeze the absolute most out of the players at his disposal. There is merit to that approach and tactics inevitably change depending on the opponent, but there is also a need to cultivate partnerships, feature players in their preferred positions and stop searching for minimal gains at the expense of the overall team shape. It is a balance Klinsmann must strike more deftly in the future.
Locate some creativity
The emphasis on consistent team shape must include latitude to inject more craft and guile into the side. Bradley leads the break well and stretches the field with clipped balls over the top, but there is a need for more alternatives and more ingenuity in the approach play. At the moment, it is simply too easy to choke off the Americans’ preferred routes to goal — narrowly constructed counters, overlapping fullbacks and set pieces — and force them to toil in possession.
Opposing teams plan to charge with the Americans with the burden of carrying the game at this stage of World Cup qualifying. It looms as a significant issue because their work in possession right now isn’t nearly good enough to dictate terms effectively or slice open deep-lying defenses with any frequency.
"We need to want the ball," Altidore said. "We need to want the ball more. We need to have guys who are in between the lines who are able to get the ball and be thinking about the next play and what they want to do."
Those big-picture issues cannot distract this group from the need to meet its current potential. There are too many instances over the past few months where this side simply did not perform to its capabilities. There are no allowances provided in World Cup qualifying. There are long-standing concerns to fix along the way, but this group must shoulder the burden of satisfying its current demands even as broader changes beckon.
"We can’t wait for that," Cameron said. "We have to get it going. Qualifying is right around the corner. Next time, we’ll be back into camp and I’m sure things will be a little bit on edge. For us as players, this is our life. You are used to getting criticized. You get praised and criticized. It all comes into the part. We have to take some of that on board as well."