By: Colin Reese
Jürgen Klinsmann has been overcomplicating things as the coach of the United States Men’s National Team by tinkering with things that didn’t need tinkering and by not using a Back Four made up of players deployed at their natural positions.
Klinsmann can talk about the need for more American players in the Champions League, but this doesn’t excuse him from his illogical Starting XIs for which he himself is responsible.
While there is a big gap in skill between the United States and elite national teams, the United States does have a fairly solid group of players that can be deployed as the Front Six that at the very least have a baseline of good technical skill and sufficient athleticism for international play.
Geoff Cameron and Michael Bradley are defensive midfielders who provide a combination of skill on the ball, quality defending, overall athleticism, and running endurance that make them a defensive midfield partnership with the qualities to perform at the international level.
Klinsmann has used that two-man defensive midfield only once out of his perhaps German bias toward Jermaine Jones who is in reality a German player. Jones is an excellent defensive midfielder, but he and Michael Bradley have not meshed well, whereas Cameron demonstrated a willingness to play the more midfield destroyer role in order to give Bradley more freedom to attack.
Over the years, observers of American soccer have seen how both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have performed better when they had the support of a playmaker to not only create more scoring chances for them but to also give them another player with whom they could maintain ball possession.
While Feilhaber’s positive influence on Donovan and Dempsey is something that American soccer fans and observers have seen more frequently, Freddy Adu’s influence on both Donovan and Dempsey in the 2011 Gold Cup seems to have absolutely shocked the American soccer media and many American soccer fans, but Adu’s influence was just a reminder of how a team that combines players of differing and quality skill-sets improves the collective play of a team.
In soccer as in basketball, a team comprised of skilled players is always more important that just one world-class player. The United States doesn’t really have any truly world-class or elite players, so it’s all the more important that Donovan and Dempsey have the support of a playmaker.
Since Klinsmann prefers the 4-2-3-1 formation, starting Feilhaber as a central attacking midfielder that is flanked by Donovan and Dempsey who both have the freedom to roam around in the attack is not rocket science.
For all of the strange decisions Klinsmann has made in regards to the Back Four, not starting Jones or Cameron with Bradley as the line of two with Donovan, Feilhaber, and Dempsey as the line of three is perhaps Klinsmann’s most illogical coaching decision.
Attackers like Donovan and Dempsey have no clear position as they are forward and midfield hybrids, so starting them somewhere in the attack with a playmaker to orchestrate the attack is the best way to maximize the skills of the best two American players while making sure that Jozy Altidore receives enough service.
Altidore’s two years playing in the Eredivisie combined with the quality and difficulty of his hat trick against Bosnia and Herzegovina have confirmed that he is indeed a complete striker who can excel against high-caliber competition, even if he has struggled with a poor Sunderland EPL side.
Given the quality of Dutch football and their footballers, the argument that Altidore’s play in Holland was against easy defenders has to be treated as a ridiculous argument that overlooks the overall quality of Dutch footballers of all positions who are products of the Dutch top flight.
Furthermore, a strong argument could be made that by starting Feilhaber as the central attacking midfielder, Jermaine Jones wouldn’t feel the need to surge forward with the attack, and it appears that Jones’ likely reason for participating in the attack so much is that there is no clear link between the defensive midfielders and the attack. Jones appears to be trying to dribble up field so frequently in order to get the ball to the feet of the attackers in the final third.
With Feilhaber deployed in front of Jones and Bradley, Jones would likely play more under control and not attempt to force so many passes or try to dribble through crowds.
In a sense, it’s hard to blame Jones for trying to get the ball into the final third in a slightly better fashion that hitting long balls up to Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey.
If Jones and Bradley were to communicate better and stick to their roles, then a player of Cameron’s qualities would be able to play in the center of the defense, and the task for Klinsmann would then be to decide which center back should partner with him.
These minor adjustments would give the United States a Starting XI where eight of the eleven starters were all proven players whose skill and athleticism wouldn’t be doubted by many people. The task would then be to find a center back partner for Cameron (such as Michael Orozco) and a suitable right back and left back.
Without even mentioning the new crop of young MLS defenders that the USMNT could surely use, certainly starting Eric Lichaj at right back and Fabian Johnson at left back would give the United States a set of more than capable outside backs with a solid track record at the international level and at the club level in Europe.
For a national team like the United States that is looking to improve its play on the international level and increase the respect that other national teams have for the United States, the following USA Starting XI would be a good place to start:
HOWARD; LICHAJ, OROZCO, CAMERON, JOHNSON; JONES, BRADLEY; DONOVAN, FEILHABER, DEMPSEY, ALTIDORE.
Many observers feel like the time before the 2014 World Cup is so short that there is no time to make any changes, but changes can be made without starting players that Klinsmann and American soccer fans aren’t too uncomfortable with.
It is an unpopular opinion to say that Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez are a center back pairing that lacks the ability to mark, tackle, and keep up with elite attackers, but it is nevertheless a reality that the Gonzalez and Besler center back pairing is one that has never displayed a facility at passing and dribbling out of trouble in the back or in not being wrong-footed by higher-caliber international attackers.
Center backs like Orozco and Cameron at least have a track record of being quick, fast, and technical players with much more of a track record of being able to defend better attackers than Gonzalez and Besler have defended.
At the very least, one can say that Orozco and Cameron can defend strikers like Oribe Peralta and Chicharito of Mexico, and that’s more than can be said about Gonzalez and Besler who held their own against Mexico’s A Team largely due to the amount of defensive coverage that was provided by Cameron at right back and the defensive midfield partnership of Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley in March of 2013.
American soccer fans shouldn’t feel like time is running out before the 2014 World Cup because the United States does have a quality Starting XI that can be used and many other players can be monitored and scouted at the club level in the months leading up to the roster announcement.
World Soccer Source has backed the use of many young and inexperienced players in the USMNT’s World Cup XI (and this writer still does), but the United States also has a quality group of 11 players that have both the skill and athleticism to start at their positions in the World Cup.
There isn’t just one, two, or even three USA XIs that can perform well in the World Cup.
If Klinsmann doesn’t want to keep experimenting with his Starting XIs, then maybe he should use a group of proven players that have too much experience to be referred to as experimental players.
Using players like Benny Feilhaber, Michael Orozco, Eric Lichaj, Geoff Cameron, and Fabian Johnson with a Front Six consisting of Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, Benny Feilhaber, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore isn’t experimenting.
Going into the World Cup, Klinsmann should be finding ways to test out some of the new American talents and incorporate them into the roster and perhaps the Starting XI, but the United States can certainly start a proven Starting XI without feeling like it is rolling the dice on some risky line-up.
The following Starting XI is a line-up that displays how the United States has become a better national team, and if Klinsmann wants his starters to be proven players, then this Starting XI is a way to field a proven and skilled group of players:
HOWARD; LICHAJ, OROZCO, CAMERON, JOHNSON; JONES, BRADLEY; DONOVAN, FEILHABER, DEMPSEY; ALTIDORE.
The Tactics Behind This Starting XI Are Simple:
1. Start Tim Howard in goal
2. Start natural outside backs in Eric Lichaj and Fabian Johnson
3. Start defensively-sound center backs in Michael Orozco and Geoff Cameron who are skilled on the ball, quick, fast, and capable of keeping up with shifty and quick attackers.
4. Start two defensive midfielders in Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones who combine technical skill, quality defending, and tireless running in the back of the midfield, and both players know how to cover for the outside backs when they make their marauding runs down the sideline into the attack.
5. Start a line of three attacking midfielders in Landon Donovan, Benny Feilhaber, and Clint Dempsey who bring excellent technical skill and creativity along with the ability to score goals. Feilhaber is key to providing the style of playmaking that Donovan and Dempsey simply don’t have but that both players need to perform their best.
6. Start a complete striker in Jozy Altidore who can put the ball in the back of the net in a variety of ways as long as he receives sufficient service.