Maybe it was unreasonable to expect the US men’s national team to walk into Paris and beat a team like France – even a French side fielding a young squad. Maybe the disappointment of Jurgen Klinsmann’s early tenure put too much meaning into a friendly. Previous editions of the U.S. team would have been just as much of an underdog in.
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What was reasonable was to expect the United States to show some sort of improvements, or even some semblance of an offense after five straight games of largely disappointing attacking soccer. There was not much offense to speak of, though, with the Americans suffering a seemingly inevitable 1-0 loss to France on Friday.
The United States defended bravely, and once again relied on the heroics of goalkeeper Tim Howard, but while the defense did its best to hold off France, the quality of Laurent Blanc’s substitutes, led by Loic Remy, ultimately proved too much for the United States to deal with, and only another standout effort from Howard kept the match from getting ugly.
The problems for the US started with a midfield that was largely invisible in the first half and not much better in the second. Despite Jozy Altidore looking sharp and dangerous on the few occasions he could get the ball in useful spots, and even with Dempsey playing as a playmaker/second forward, the American attack just simply couldn’t threaten France because the midfield couldn’t do its job.
Danny Williams, who got by with energy and athleticism in previous appearances against inferior competition, was thoroughly exposed against France as he simply couldn’t provide anything on the right flank (in no small part because he’s really a defensive midfielder).
You can make the case that Klinsmann had to use Williams on the wing because of Landon Donovan’s decision to skip the friendly, but that would suggest Klinsmann had no other options to play in the entire pool. To say so would be to ignore the more offensive-minded options Klinsmann has passed over in favor of carrying a boatload of defensive midfielders, players like Alejandro Bedoya, Sacha Kljestan, Freddy Adu and Benny Feilhaber. As a matter a fact, even Michael Bradley has more experience as a right winger, having been a pretty effective goal scorer on the right wing for Dutch club Heerenveen.
On the other wing, Brek Shea managed to earn a compliment from France coach Laurent Blanc after the match, no doubt for his speed and defensive work, but Shea finished the match without a single shot or cross. He rarely put a foot wrong, but simply couldn’t get into the threatening positions he has managed to get into in recent appearances.
Then you have Maurice Edu, who continued his habit of floating in and out of matches. He is supposed to be the more attack-minded of the two central midfielders but failed to deliver a single true attacking pass during his time on the field. He played a much better second half, getting more of the ball and completing all but one of his passes, but he never put his stamp on the match and gave little evidence to suggest he is the answer as a starter.
Kyle Beckerman’s performance against France was decent, if underwhelming, and probably looked great compared to his midfield teammates. He was one of the few players who provided incisive attacking passes, but much like Edu, he was outworked by his French counterparts, which led to France having so much more of the ball.
The lackluster performances in midfield only served to magnify some questions that grow more perplexing by the day, questions such as how on earth can’t Michael Bradley get minutes in a midfield this ineffective? If the team is having so much trouble creating chances and scoring goals, then why can’t a creative player like Freddy Adu get a sniff from Klinsmann? And at what point will Klinsmann realize the group he is playing just isn’t working.
Klinsmann will have one more match this year, on Tuesday against Slovenia, to try and figure out a midfield group that works. Until he finds a unit that can do the heavy lifting as well as providing service to the wings and forwards, the United States will continued to struggle to find chances, and the defense will continue finding itself needing to pitch shutouts to have any chance of seeing the national team get a result.
Here are some other observations from the match:
Altidore looked sharp
So how does a forward look good without scoring a goal or putting a shot on goal? You do it by taking the few possessions you get and putting effective pressure on the defense. He was a handful every time he got the ball in a good spot, but he once again looked mis-used playing as a lone forward.
Remember when Altidore was considered a big forward with no real hold-up game? Those days are well behind him. He has learned how to use his body to ward off defenders and keep possession (something his half season in England helped him develop) and once the national team has a forward to partner with him and provide a good outlet and player to combine with, Altidore could thrive on the international level the way he is flourishing with Dutch club AZ Alkmaar.
Bradley on the bench doesn’t make sense
If there were players who were impressing in their starts in central midfield then you could make a much better argument for why Michael Bradley can’t get a single minute against a team like France (let alone start).
The reality is nobody is wowing people with their performances in central midfield. Kyle Beckerman has been serviceable, while Maurice Edu has been lackluster, and you won’t find many coaches outside of Klinsmann who would be starting either ahead of Bradley.
If Bradley doesn’t start against Slovenia, the same team he had a monster game against in the 2010 World Cup, then it may be time to start asking whether Klinsmann’s handling of Bradley has less to do with the depth chart he is married to and more to do with distancing his current team from the Bob Bradley era.
We need a longer look at Fabian Johnson
A 19-minute cameo wasn’t nearly enough time to get a good look at German-born playmaker Fabian Johnson: a promising prospect who could help give the team the attacking midfielder it has been looking for.
He wasn’t able to create anything in his brief appearance, but Slovenia just might be the perfect opponent to get a longer look at the Hoffenheim midfielder.
Who should start against Slovenia?
Here is the squad Klinsmann should trot out against Slovenia on Tuesday:
So why this group? Klinsmann insists Orozco-Fiscal is a project worth working on, so why not give him a game to show how he can do against non-CONCACAF competition? The rest of the changes were explained above.
Do I see this lineup being used? The biggest question marks for me are Fabian Johnson, who is still pretty new to the team, and Bradley, who has apparently fallen even behind Jermaine Jones in central midfield.