FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN'T PAID ATTENTION IN A YEAR OR TWO
If you're just joining us after the World Cup, hoo boy. The US has alternated impressive friendly victories over world powers with dismal performances against the likes of Jamaica and Guatemala in competitive matchups. The US had its worst-ever Gold Cup, limping through the group stage and getting bashed out of the competition by the Reggae Boys in the semi, then losing in the third-place match. Since then the USA has careened wildly from one thing to another; they're now in slight danger of missing out on the World Cup after a first-ever loss to the aforementioned Guatemalans.
Even Aussies writing for the Guardian have noticed:
Jurgen Klinsmann is …
… an average coach whose motivational abilities can’t disguise his tactical shortcomings. JW
… stretched too thin. The technical director of US soccer keeps interfering with the head coach in trying out new personnel to bring through, with a perpetual eye on a distant event horizon. The coach is unable to settle on a side with all this going on, and should maybe take that up with the technical director, but the technical director … etc etc. GP
… still unsure of his best team and tactics and surely ripe for replacement if the Copa is a catastrophe. TD
… relying on new blood. Pulisic, Brooks, Nagbe and Wood have excited in recent matches. Will they finally fulfill Klinsmann’s promise of proactive soccer? DM
… always a motivator, never a tactician. Klinsmann’s Achilles heel is that he doesn’t have a plan B. LME
For Michigan fans the parallels to Brady Hoke are many. Good recruiter; tactically deficient, in over his head, tends to clap a lot.
Some good things have occurred. Klinsmann was ahead of the curve on both Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood, and did call up Darlington Nagbe the instant he was eligible. (Starting him seems to be a bridge too far at the moment.) Along with the aforementioned three, the emergence of Deandre Yedlin as a legit EPL right back and John Brooks's continued development give the USA a player pool that is at least on par with the best they've ever had—even without Jozy Altidore, who will miss the tournament with another hamstring injury.
Meanwhile, there appears to be a light at the end of a long dark tactical tunnel. But first…
A BRIEF RANT ABOUT AVAILABLE TALENT
If any eurosnob you come across attempts to defend Klinsmann by trashing the USA's current talent level, please stab them. The USA got out of a World Cup group in 2010 with a striker corps of Altidore, Robbie Findlay, Edson Bubble, and Herculez Gomez. Fringe EPL defender Jay DeMerit, Belgian-league star Oguchi Onyewu, and either Jonathan Bornstein or an out-of-position Carlos Bocanegra were most of the defense. Ricardo Clark and Maurice Edu split time in the midfield; neither of those guys ever made it in a top league. (Edu did have a good run at Rangers.)
This USA team figures to feature:
- More or less the same goalies, Bradley, and Dempsey
- Two regular Bundesliga starters (Johnson, Brooks) and a guy just signed by Hamburg after scoring 17 in the German second flight(Wood)
- Two regular EPL starters (Cameron, Yedlin)
- A regular for Nantes (Bedoya)
- A former Schalke captain (Jones)
- aaaand Gyasi Zardes
Off the bench they'll bring Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe instead of one the aforementioned strikers and Edu/Clark. Maybe the talent isn't better, but for it not to be the dropoff from Landon Donovan to Not Landon Donovan would have to be stunning.
Anyone who tries to tell you the USA doesn't have the talent to get out of this group or not get massively outshot at the Gold Cup last summer is the kind of soccer hipster who should be deported.
AT LONG LAST, A PLAN
The USMNT's long-standing lack of commitment to any approach, lineup, or even center-back pairing finally appeared to resolve itself into a formation and even a starting 11 over the past few friendlies. It looks like the US is set to deploy a 4-3-3 close to this:
This more or less makes sense. Without Altidore the US does not have a traditional burly center forward. They do have a couple of fast buggers and one ornery Texan with a nose for goal and sweet moves. The 4-3-3 accommodates these gents.
A lot of commenters hate Dempsey as a "lone forward" up top, including MLSsoccer.com's Matt Doyle. His desired formation inserts Wood up top and has Dempsey as a highly nominal right winger.* Doyle is an excellent analyst who I agree with most of the time, but not here. While Dempsey is without question the USA's most skilled and dangerous attacker, he's never been an industrious player. Now that he's into his 30s, expecting him to cover on defense is foolhardy. Putting him (again, nominally) up top allows him to marshal his energy reserves and allows a much more spry player to provide cover when the game demands it. Zardes, for all his flaws, runs his ass off to support on D.
Dempsey's best as a striker when the US is out of possession. When the US gets the ball his natural tendency to drop deep provides center backs with a dilemma: allow Dempsey time and space to turn in or near the final third, or challenge him and hope the space you're leaving doesn't bite your ass. Bolivia chose the latter and gave up chance after chance, including the opening goal:
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 29, 2016
In fancy talk this is Dempsey operating as a "false nine." (Fancy people will refer to the lead striker as the 9.) Dempsey facilitated several dangerous opportunities by playing like this; in addition to the goal you can catch him playing Wood in at around 1:30 on US Soccer's highlights of the game.
Dempsey is well suited to this kind of play. He's crafty, he's skilled with the ball at his feet, opponents are generally wary about getting too close because he has the ability to smoke 'em. This makes sense. Maybe. Probably.
We don't know it makes sense because Klinsmann has spent every friendly he's had on something that is not this. Whether the US can sustain this in a competitive match against a good opponent is unknown. Whether Klinsmann will even stick with this setup is unknown. He has rumbled about going with Beckerman when opponents deploy an attacking midfielder, ominously.
But still, I'll take something that looks like it makes sense, and might remain the same for a few danged games consecutively.
*[You may have heard me describe a 4-3 under in football as a defense halfway between the 3-4 and the under's 4-3 predecessor, the 4-3 even. Positional designations in soccer are far less rigid but the same principle applies here: a 4-3-3 often turns into a system that is a hybrid between one- and two-striker systems. If Dempsey is deployed on the "right wing" he is going to function like a slightly right-biased underneath striker.]