Jurgen Klinsmann was full of praise for his U.S. national team after its 1-0 loss to Ecuador on Tuesday night. He couldn’t say enough positive things, and took the time to point out that while the team lost, it probably deserved something more out of a match that was fairly even for most of the night.
That Klinsmann would be so positive isn’t a big surprise. He’s always positive. At times you think he could find the silver lining in a car crash. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to have such a positive coach, and all the pats on the back he is handing out might do well to instill some confidence in his squad.
The only thing is that, while there are certainly plenty of bright spots and positives to be gleaned from the recent friendlies against Honduras and Ecuador, there are also causes for concern. The U.S. attack isn’t exactly lighting up scoreboards and questions about the depth on the back-line have only grown more worrisome.
Klinsmann isn’t too stressed about the negatives, not with eight months still standing between the national team and meaningful World Cup qualifying matches. He can keep touting silver linings and playing the role of Mr. Happy, but no amount of positive thinking will keep explaining away loses and disappointing overall performances.
With positives and negatives in mind, here are five things we learned from the U.S. national team’s recent friendlies.
The USA back four is set
Remember when two of the biggest concerns surrounding the U.S. national team were finding a center back to partner Carlos Bocanegra and finding a competent left back to finally anchor a position that has been weak for a decade? Well, those days are over for now as Timmy Chandler has put a chokehold on the left back position and Oguchi Onyewu has shown everybody that he is all the way back to his old dominant self.
He’s back: Oguchi Onyewu is back to his old dominant self with the United States national team. (Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Anybody who watched Onyewu play in 2010 and early 2011 could see that something was wrong physically with him and his knee. He played with a hitch in his stride, even in the 2010 World Cup when he enjoyed a strong performance against England. Now, he looks to be completely recovered and playing with extreme confidence. It isn’t just about his playing time with Sporting Lisbon, it’s also because he feels healthier than he has in almost two years. Perhaps it was fitting that the day he delivers his most dominant performance since the 2009 Confederations Cup comes almost exactly two years to the day he tore his patellar tendon.
As for Chandler, you can’t say enough good things about what he brings to the team, and specifically to the left back position. It’s no secret that he’s naturally a right-sided player, but he has attacked the left back spot with full dedication. His defensive qualities have carried over and he’s developed an uncanny understanding with left winger Brek Shea that has Klinsmann eager to keep the two together in the starting lineup.
The other two veterans in the back four, Carlos Bocanegra, and Steve Cherundolo, may still be considered too old to be viable options for 2014, but the fact remains they are the best options at their positions right now, and until some other options emerge, or either of them has a tangible dip in form, the two 32-year-old defenders will keep starting.
Clint Dempsey has found a new home
When asked during an interview in May what his preferred position was, and though he hadn’t really played it much since his MLS days, Dempsey responded by saying a central role behind one or two strikers was it. Whether Jurgen Klinsmann got a similar answer or merely decided it was the right place to put Dempsey, the Texas-born star looks like a perfect fit for the role.
New home: Jurgen Klinsmann has placed Clint Dempsey in a comfortable and new position on the pitch. (Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
Dempsey is the national team’s best attacking player, and in his new withdrawn forward/playmaker role he has the freedom to focus on searching defenses for weaknesses and attacking from a variety of spots on the field. The offense isn’t quite clicking yet, but it hasn’t been for a lack of Dempsey trying to create.
What will be interesting to see is how the return of Landon Donovan to the field will impact Dempsey’s effectiveness. Having Donovan play on the right wing, where he and Dempsey can partner closely together, could yield some very positive results, and with the ever-improving Brek Shea on the left and an in-form Jozy Altidore, the U.S. offense could still develop into a dangerous unit.
Klinsmann’s midfield picks curious to say the least
There aren’t many national team head coaches who don’t do a few things that leave you guessing the reasons behind certain moves, and in Klinsmann’s case it has been his handling of central midfield that has led to the most head scratching (though his early affinity for Edgar Castillo and then Michael Orozco Fiscal also raised questions).
Klinsmann has fallen in love with Kyle Beckerman, a quality midfielder who has clearly improved over the past two years, but who hasn’t looked as convincing as a starter as Klinsmann seems to suggest. He has had good moments, but has also struggled, as he did against Honduras, and didn’t exactly impose himself against Ecuador.
Maurice Edu was even less convincing in his two appearances this past week, though he was left to battle Michael Bradley for minutes while Beckerman was handed the deep-lying midfield role. Given the freedom to join the attack, Edu didn’t really get involved much in either friendly, at least not nearly as much as you would expect from a player on outstanding form for his club.
This brings us to Bradley, who came off the bench in both friendlies and thoroughly outplayed Beckerman and Edu on both occasions. His passing, work rate and technical ability are on a different level, but he still finds himself on the bench on two occasions.
Perhaps the most curious comment from Klinsmann regarding his midfielders was the suggestion that both Edu and Bradley are competing to play alongside Beckerman. At some point Klinsmann will figure out that he should take a look at Edu and Bradley as a central midfield pairing, something he has yet to do since taking over as manager.
While Bradley does bring some good attacking qualities to the midfield, he is more than equipped to handle the defensive duties of a deep-lying midfielder stationed in front of the defense, and as inconsistent as Edu has been in recent national team appearances, you only have to go back to the 2010 World Cup to be reminded of a time when a Bradley-Edu pairing worked well.
Brek Shea is ready for prime time
It might not seem like it, but it wasn’t too long ago when Shea was a tentative national team newcomer who looked shy and overwhelmed by the big step to international soccer. In fact, it was just a year ago since that forgettable national team debut. Shea has blossomed into a fearless and dangerous winger who may not let go of the U.S. national team left wing role for a decade.
Prime time player: Brek Shea has broken into Jurgen Klinsmann’s long term international plans. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Jurgen Klinsmann basically named Shea a full-time starter after Tuesday’s match, saying he’s locked down the spot, and it’s tough to argue. The FC Dallas winger has brought speed and dangerous runs to the left wing and dynamic qualities that should eventually help the U.S. attack find its form.
Shea’s success in recent friendlies has also been helped by his connection with left winger Timmy Chandler. The two have already developed an uncanny timing and understanding, something that could keep them both starting on the left wing for a good while.
Klinsmann needs to dig deeper for defensive depth
As impressive as the starting back four was against Ecuador (a group that was also solid in the second half against Honduras), It’s not all good news for the U.S. defense.
Depth remains a concern, particularly in central defense, and Klinsmann is going to have to start digging deeper into the pool to try and find viable alternatives before the U.S. team finds itself in important matches without cover. Michael Orozco Fiscal simply wasn’t good enough and Tim Ream is clearly locked in a serious rut that has hurt his confidence and left him making mistakes he just didn’t make a year ago.
Klinsmann has cited his personal depth chart when asked about why he hasn’t called in players like Omar Gonzalez and George John, but given the serious struggles of players like Orozco Fiscal and Ream, he really doesn’t have any excuses for not bringing in some new defensive faces come November. Players like Gonzalez, John and Geoff Cameron at center back, and Heath Pearce and Todd Dunivant at fullback. That all could depend on whether their teams are playing in MLS Cup or not, so we might have to wait until January to see some of these defensive candidates get a long look from Klinsmann.