Mixed results for Klinsmann, United States
Jurgen Klinsmann called it a mini-tournament, a stretch of five games in 18 days meant to simulate the challenge the US national team will face at a World Cup. The scheduling was ambitious, but done with a clear purpose, even if it might lead to some disappointing performances.
The results were mixed. The team finished 2-1-2, outscoring opponents 10-6 (with the help of a 5-0 opening win against Scotland). Most importantly, the USA started World Cup qualifying with four points to lead its group.
Overall though, it’s tough to come away from the recent stretch of games feeling better about the national team than before it. Prior to the five-game run, there was a real sense of confidence about the team after the historic win against Italy in February. What the recent games have done is magnify the team’s clear weaknesses, and detail the fact that the national team is still very much a work in progress.
For Klinsmann, the run of games has given him valuable information on his team. He’s seen many of his players put in pressure situations. He has a better sense of who is legit, who needs work, and who probably needs to be put out to pasture.
So what have we learned after the US national team’s recent run of matches? Here are five things that stand out:
GOMEZ UNDISPUTABLE STARTER
The most promising development of the mini-tournament, at least with relation to the offense, was Herculez Gomez’s ascent to the role of starting striker. In a crowded field of candidates, it was Gomez who emerged as a consistent threat. He scored or set up goals in three of the five matches, showing a tireless work rate, intelligence and an ability to finish when the chances came.
What needs to be noted about Gomez is that while he is a relative newcomer to the national team in terms of appearances, he has played in big games and tournaments in his career. Gomez has had to fight hard throughout his career, and that is clearly displayed in the work ethic he shows with every opportunity he is given.
Gomez benefited from AZ Alkmaar’s decision to hold Jozy Altidore from joining national team camp on time. That cost Altidore three weeks of intense training, and he never caught up. Make no mistake though; Altidore will be starting for the USA sooner rather than later. Only Clint Dempsey had a better club season and Altidore should only keep improving now that he’s found a stable club situation.
DONOVAN'S SLOWING DOWN
When the US legend notched a hat trick just days after revealing he was already considering his future after soccer, Donovan looked like a player who just needed to be back with the national team in order to regain his top form. The rest of the mini-tournament revealed a Donovan who just couldn’t impact games as consistently as he used to.
In fact, you could argue he was largely disappointing in three of the next four matches, with his games against Brazil and Guatemala standing out as terrible showings by his lofty standards. Now Donovan returns to an LA Galaxy team in shambles, in a season that looks all but lost. If he doesn’t hit the ground running on his return to MLS, you have to wonder what he will be able to bring to the table when World Cup qualifying resumes in September.
We know what you’re thinking. Donovan needs to go back to Europe. He has heard that his entire career, but it has never felt more accurate than now. He was outstanding for Everton this past winter, showing he can still play on that level, and he may need that to help motivate him and keep him in good enough form to maintain his place as a national team starter. As crazy as it might be to suggest, Donovan might be coming closer to the point of not being a regular starter anymore. It is something that will happen eventually, and his recent games suggest that time may be sooner than we thought.
JOHNSON 'THE REAL DEAL'
Left back has been a weak link in the US defense for the better part of a decade, but Johnson has shown that he is capable of playing the position at an elite level. He is an adequate defender, but a dangerous threat getting forward, which gives the US attack a sorely-needed threat on the flank.
The depth at the left back spot raised some eyebrows when Johnson suffered a calf injury before the Canada match. Edgar Castillo looked okay against Canada, while Jose Torres provided an intriguing option in the win against Antigua & Barbuda.
There were plenty of calls for Eric Lichaj to get a national team look, but Klinsmann’s selections suggest he wants his fullbacks to play on their natural feet, in no small part because he wants them to be able to provide service from the flanks. The naturally right-footed Lichaj will likely have to compete for the role of heir to Steve Cherundolo’s right back spot.
Okay, so maybe that’s a bit harsh, but what we do know is that he wasn’t ready for this tournament. Klinsmann revealed as much in Guatemala City, stating that fitness tests showed Onyewu wasn’t at his best. This was clearly seen when he was given chances against Brazil and Antigua & Barbuda.
Is it time to write him off for good? Not so fast. He was outstanding for Portuguese champion Sporting CP before undergoing knee surgery in the spring, and it is entirely possible he came back too soon (something he has done before).
Clarence Goodson took full advantage of Onyewu’s recent struggles to assert himself as the front-runner to start alongside Carlos Bocanegra through the rest of qualifying. He is good in the air, and has solid feet. Goodson can get pushed around at times by physical forwards, but his poise gives him the edge for now over the likes of Onyewu and Geoff Cameron.
BRADLEY, JONES LOCK ON CENTRAL MIDFIELD
Whether or not Klinsmann sticks with his 4-3-3 formation, or starts using more of a 4-4-2, what became increasingly clear during the recent stretch of games is that Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones need to be in the starting lineup. That really shouldn’t be a surprise considering the seasons they just had for Chievo and Schalke respectively, and considering they were Bob Bradley’s first-choice tandem a year ago.
It took Klinsmann a bit longer to come around on that pairing, trotting out the likes of Kyle Beckerman, Jose Torres and Maurice Edu over the past year as he looked for the right central midfield mix. The cream rose to the top though, with Bradley firmly establishing himself as the best of the bunch while Jones offered up some bite and relentlessness to the middle of the field.
And the rest of the midfield options? Torres is clearly skilled, but isn’t ready for a regular starting role. Not against top competition. Edu struggled in these recent games, showing good moments but far too many shaky moments. He did show against Italy that he has the capability of being a solid starter, which makes you wonder how much the distractions of his club team’s uncertain future is weighing on him.