Jurgen Klinsmann is still trying to figure out system and personnel as Mexico loom

Ah, the age old question that faces the U.S. men’s national team: Should they stick to their oft-preferred 4-4-2 or move to something like a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.

It’s a question that never seems to go away, but that’s not because of fickleness or high-minded concerns about what’s in vogue. It’s a practicality of the USMNT’s constant ebb and flow. Players are continuously coming in and out of form while starter candidates emerge or drop off.

To that end, the USMNT system should fit its best personnel rather than the other way around – and their personnel appears to be on the brink of big changes before the 2018 World Cup. In fact, some of that change has already started. Any national team will see players fluctuate, but it may be especially true on a USMNT team that has many longtime veterans who look close to aging out.

So what does the USMNT need to figure out?

Jurgen Klinsmann knows how important it is to control the midfield. That’s why last year he experimented with a three-back defense, much to the chagrin of USMNT fans. It didn’t really work out and seeing Jermaine Jones back there was weird, but the logical explanation is that Klinsmann was looking at potential ways to get more numbers in the midfield.

With a 3-5-2 or similar looking unlikely, there are really two main choices for the USMNT in setting up its midfield. In a 4-4-2 with two strikers up top, they will look at having two wingers along the flanks with fullbacks pushing behind them and then two dedicated central midfielders. In a 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1, they would have one striker up top, roughly the same set up along the flanks and three central midfielders.

Games aren’t played on paper, but the different options offer different numbers in the midfield and some different roles throughout the squad. And against tougher teams – Mexico-level teams – there’s reason to think extra numbers in the midfield could help.

In tight matches, presumably like the one ahead for the USMNT in Columbus, the Americans probably won’t dominate possession throughout the match. They can have a player like Sacha Kljestan pulling the strings as a playmaker and they can have Michael Bradley sitting a bit deeper and playing more of the box-to-box role he does well. But without a disruptive ball-winning type player with them, the Americans are risk of being overrun in the midfield.

That’s why Klinsmann has so often turned to players like Kyle Beckerman or Jermaine Jones to be the physical enforcers. Even when a player like Jones has been put in a wide role, he usually roamed centrally and was marauding ball-winning presence. It’s undoubtedly where both Beckerman and Jones have been their best.

But that’s also a problem – at 34, Beckerman is losing a step and, at 35, Jones is becoming increasingly injury prone. Luckily, players like Perry Kitchen and Danny Williams are promising options there to do some of that gritty work in the midfield, but they’ve still yet to prove themselves capable.

Yet, the American attack just tends to look better with two strikers. Jozy Altidore is the leading man, but he looks best when he has someone to play off of, whether that’s Sebastian Giovinco in Toronto or Bobby Wood for the USMNT. Wood also happens to have been terrific over the last 18 months, making it difficult to drop him. All the while Altidore is in excellent form too, bagging goals for Toronto FC and helping them to the Eastern Conference final. Getting two strikers up top means giving up that extra man in the midfield triangle and going from either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 with a two-man central midfield.

The solution, however, may again be in that midfield setup. With a 4-3-2-1, which often works like a 4-4-1-1, the Americans can have a playmaker sit a little bit higher to combine with Altidore, Wood or whoever. If Kljestan is that guy, we know from his MLS play that he is good at combining in the box with his passing vision and off-the-ball movement. But it’s unclear if the USMNT has enough playmakers for that to be the go-to system moving ahead.

And so, we’re back to that age-old question about what the USMNT should do. But if the recent past of the USMNT has taught us anything, it’s that how quickly things can change. An injury here, an injury there, and suddenly the whole attack needs to be re-examined and players are asked to shift around.

There is no certainty, today, tomorrow or in 2018. Klinsmann may not have the midfield to play with four there, at least ideally, but it may be worth figuring out. If he wants to keep Altidore and Wood together up top, that could affect his options deeper on the pitch. The U.S. has to compromise somewhere, even if compromise is worrying. And that’s the case against anyone. Mexico aren’t just anyone, but that doesn’t change the situation, and choice, Klinsmann has to make.

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