By: Colin Reese
Going into the 2014 World Cup, the United States Men’s National Team needs to shore up the Back Four and look to improve the squad’s ability to keep possession. Jürgen Klinsmann and the USMNT would be wise to take advantage of not only new and young American talents, but also to take advantage of players that have shown that they have qualities and experience that can improve the national team.
The Back Four can be improved by using not only using natural and modern outside backs but also more skilled center backs. In the Front Six, young players like Juan Agudelo, Joe Corona, and Benji Joya can help to improve the passing and overall skill level of the United States.
The Best USA XI (February 2014)
GOALKEEPER: Tim HOWARD (Everton)
Tim Howard always saves a couple of goals per game for the United States, and the United States would have been subjected to some pretty ruthless goleadas in the past had Howard not been between the sticks to jump kick or punch out certain goals with full lay out dives. Both Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are elite goalkeepers, but Howard is the more experienced goalkeeper. Howard has a whole highlight reel of seemingly impossible saves that include last second kick saves when he dove the opposite direction.
RIGHT BACK: DeAndre YEDLIN (Seattle Sounders)
A young and modern outside back who is speedy and two-footed with a rapidly developing defensive skill-set which includes marking, positioning, and tackling. Knows how to pass and dribble out of the back instead of just clearing the ball out of bounds of kicking downfield to nobody.
CENTER BACK: Maurice EDU (Philadelphia Union)
A defensive midfielder or central midfielder with underrated skill on the ball plus he has experience playing as a center back. Edu is the type of center back that American soccer has been looking to use because of his combination of defending and technical ability plus the benefit of speed, quickness, and agility
CENTER BACK: Michael OROZCO (Puebla)
A somewhat maligned center back by American soccer fans but nevertheless a fast and quick defender with excellent defensive fundamentals and excellent technical ability. Like Edu, Orozco quite simply gives the American defense a center back who is much more athletic and skilled than either Omar Gonzalez or Matt Besler while also being a better actual defender.
LEFT BACK: Chris KLUTE (Colorado Rapids)
Chris Klute is the best left back in Major League Soccer, and his two-way skill-set and his world-class speed make him a good option here. Klute is inexperienced at the international level, but the United States simply does not have many left backs. Eric Lichaj and Timothy Chandler are more than capable options, but Klute has an x-factor with his speed and ability to run tirelessly up and down the sideline for the entire 90 minutes that makes him someone that might deter opposing teams from attacking down their right side.
DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER: Geoff CAMERON (Stoke City)
It’s tempting to put Cameron at center back because of his defending, athleticism, and skill on the ball, but these same qualities make him a player who can be more influential as a defensive midfielder where he can protect the defense and be more involved in the passing and attacking of the United States. In many ways, Cameron is a supporting center back who protects the danger zone between the right center back and the left center back. His tireless running and his speed make him a player that is naturally-suited to patrol the back of the midfield so that other players have more license to make more runs and to attack more knowing that Cameron is covering for them.
CENTRAL MIDFIELDER: Michael BRADLEY (Toronto FC)
Michael Bradley is basically a complete midfielder who lacks that next level of attacking skill needed to play lots of final balls and score goals. Bradley is a great passer who doesn’t just play back passes or square balls, but he doesn’t have the skill set of an attacking midfielder, as his passes are more the type to keep possession rather than the type that split defenses and create goals.
CENTRAL MIDFIELDER: Benji JOYA (Chicago Fire)
Of all the players that have come through the pipeline since Clint Dempsey, Benji Joya is the best one, and Joya himself recently declared Dempsey his idol while adding that he wanted to be the substitute for Dempsey or even start over him. As far as this writer knows, no other American has said that into the camera. Beyond being an attacking midfielder and also an actual playmaker, Joya is also a box-to-box midfielder who is a level above Stuart Holden in terms of talent, athleticism, and mental toughness and intensity.
CENTRAL ATTACKING MIDFIELDER: Joe CORONA (Tijuana)
A goal-scoring playmaker that high presses and uses both feet interchangeably to pass, dribble, and shoot. Corona is a 1-2 touch player with the vision and ability to break down defenses quickly with cultivated passes. Unlike Benny Feilhaber, Corona can beat people off the dribble with tricks, fakes, and changes of pace and direction.
FIRST STRIKER: Juan AGUDELO (Utrecht)
Juan Agudelo is the best American striker. Jozy Altidore has developed refined technical ability and excellent finishing and creativity, but Agudelo is a more dangerous and talented striker with more weapons and creativity. Aron Jóhannsson is the striker that American soccer fans and the American soccer media are discussing the most as the striker for the World Cup, but Agudelo is a more electric player with more skill, size, and athleticism. Agudelo plays with Clint Dempsey’s bravado and flair but with the skill set and physical gifts of a first striker. Of all the American strikers used since the 2006 World Cup, Agudelo is the one who has disrupted defenses the most and always looked the most dangerous. Even when he doesn’t score, Agudelo always changes the dynamic of the game such that American goals are more likely. It’s hard to describe it, but Agudelo seems to open up the defense more and cause them to become disorganized.
SECOND STRIKER: Clint DEMPSEY (Seattle Sounders)
Clint Dempsey is the best American soccer player ever, and while outright mockery of Benny Feilhaber and Freddy Adu is off base, the idea that Dempsey is on the decline or not needed is really off base. The best American footballer’s position on the field is essentially the same position that Robinho or Neymar play but with less skill and without the electrifying speed and quickness. Dempsey can be deployed out left where he essentially goes wherever he wants or he can be used as a second striker. By using Agudelo and Dempsey as a strike partnership, both players can combine with each other, and both players cause opposing defenses to mark both of them, which frees up one or the other (plus other American players). In terms of playing style, Agudelo and Dempsey are kindred spirits who look to dial up the flair and attacking bravado as much as possible even against elite opponents. Both players not only seem unfazed by famous and elite opponents, but they seem to relish the chance of facing off against global icons.
How They Line Up:
YEDLIN EDU OROZCO KLUTE
This USA XI uses actual outside backs of the modern and better variety along with fast and technical center backs who know how to mark and tackle.
The Front Six is a combination of more defensive-minded players with more attack-minded players plus players who do both.
The current hypothetical Klinsmann USA set-up of Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Graham Zusi, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, and Jozy Altidore is fairly strong, but that XI is actually not even one that Klinsmann has been consistently using.
For this writer, the center backs are a weakness, and Zusi is hardly better than Benny Feilhaber, Mix Diskerud, or Joe Corona. Thinking that Zusi is on the same level skill-wise as those other three players and thinking that Dempsey and Donovan are playmakers is way off base, but both opinions seem to be very, very popular with Jürgen Klinsmann, the American soccer media, and the American fan base.
Simply placing Donovan and Dempsey out wide (on paper) with a central attacking midfielder in between them would seem to be much more tactically-sound and effective, especially with two defensive midfielders in the Starting XI that are basically midfield destroyers.
Starting Gonzalez and Besler can be justified with Jones and Bradley protecting them, but contending that Zusi is a better attacking midfielder than Feilhaber, Diskerud, and Corona is a contention not based on technical ability or proven performance against strong competition, especially since one has to prove that Zusi is better than all three players who have all been more effective and impressive against high-level competition outside of CONCACAF.
This XI uses a better Back Four with a diamond midfield formation comprised of a defensive midfielder, two central midfielders, and a central attacking midfielder. Additionally, it includes a dangerous strike partnership with a first striker for more direct play and a second striker to combine with the first striker to score or pass.