The US came out of a reasonably difficult group at the Copa America and now faces Ecuador, a team they just beat 1-0 in a pre-Copa friendly, in the quarterfinal. Assorted items. Nobody cares if you don't like soccer, sports talk radio enthusiast.
Klinsmann wasn't entirely wrong after Colombia… The opener against Colombia was a 2-0 loss but far less dispiriting than a lot of victories over the past couple years, and because everyone's on edge about how Klinsmann is a bad coach there was a ton of pushback/panic/etc. Klinsmann in the aftermath:
Despite the loss, USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann declared himself generally pleased with how his team performed in what he termed “a totally even game.”
“We were absolutely OK with the team performance,” Klinsmann told reporters in his postgame press conference. “Obviously we got punished for two set pieces in the first half, and then against such a quality team [it’s] very, very difficult if you don’t force one goal to get back into the game and equalize it. But overall, we were completely even. We didn’t give them anything.”
This was sort of correct and sort of the same product Klinsmann's self-serving excuse factory has been dumping into the river for a couple years now. (Please do not try to compare the above statements to anything Klinsmann said during or after the 2015 Gold Cup. If they touch each other they will explode.) Colombia generated little from the run of play. The fancystat Expected Goals more or less thought the game was a wash:
xG map for USA - Colombia. Not much in this one between the goal and the Bacca big chance. pic.twitter.com/RZWb2NhG7O
— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) June 7, 2016
That more or less corresponds to what I saw, except the one big Colombia chance it sees is overrated by the formula because it doesn't take the difficulty of Bacca's attempt into account. I'll take that against the #3 team in the world. One missed mark on a corner and a fluke PK were about it for Rodriguez, Cuadrado, Bacca, and company. That's the bit where Klinsmann was right. The bit where he was wrong was a game state thing. Colombia scored within ten minutes and were happy to sit back and see what happened, especially once it seemed like the US was no threat. It wasn't a threat, and a large part of that goes back to the manager.
[After THE JUMP: soccer content that will probably revoke your man card or something]
…and he is a big part of why the US couldn't generate anything… Klinsmann's 4-3-3 was stunningly impotent, in large part because it did not morph into a thing that made sense once the US had the ball. Average positions in the first half:
— Seth Vertelney (@svertelney) June 4, 2016
Dempsey dropping off is fine as long as your other guys take up the CF slack, and neither did that. Zardes was absurdly wide and Wood not much different. In the aftermath Klinsmann admitted that things had not gone to plan:
…the coach also made it clear that even in a 4-3-3 -- the formation the U.S. used against Ecuador in its May 25 friendly win in suburban Dallas -- Wood isn't supposed to be pinned to the wing.
The coach also said Wood's partnership with Dempsey is steadily improving. "This is a learning process, a development process, to integrate a younger striker up front," Klinsmann said earlier in the tourney. "Bobby needs to learn to play off Clint; Clint needs to get a feeling for Bobby."
That's an issue that the US does not have if they've used the 4-3-3 consistently over the past few years; this kind of unfamiliarity with how to move productively would have been a disappointing friendly.
The frustrating part of the Colombia game was Klinsmann watching his team do zero offensively in the first half, then take 22 minutes to make a substitution. A packed-in Colombia should have drawn Nagbe off the bench for Zardes at halftime. Even as Klinsmann starts making more sense there are moments that still make you shake your head.
…but he's adapted and made the team better. Klinsmann's adaptation is to stop adapting every 20 seconds and just stick with something. While I'd prefer a lineup featuring Nagbe it is huge progress for Klinsmann to play the same guys over 3, 4, 5 games in a row and deploy them in just a few formations. The US has alternated between a 4-3-3 and a 4-1-3-2 with largely the same players and they have been in the frame with a bunch of solid teams. Once the 4-3-3 seemed like a bust offensively the move to two guys up front was pretty effective.
It was just a year ago when an absurd Klinsmann lineup* took on more or less the same Haiti team that got run out of the Copa with an –11 goal differential. They got massively outshot…
…in a game they were lucky to scrape 1-0. That Gold Cup was the low point. Now they're back to something reasonable.
I don't know if Klinsmann had a come-to-Jesus moment with Gulati or had to seriously re-evaluate what he's doing or if this is just a blip and we go back to the random number generator, but this is indisputable progress. It may be progress away from the worst USMNT since the 1994 World Cup made soccer a thing in the US, and that worst USMNT may be largely Klinsmann's doing, but I'll take a return to something watchable. I still think he's a bad coach and am eagerly anticipating a change after the upcoming World Cup, but at least he's not so so bad anymore that I am watching solely out of obligation. (Again, the Brady Hoke comparisons are obvious.)
*[Your back line: Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream, Greg Garza.]
This isn't a huge accomplishment. Will Leitch admits that he's an aw-shucks kind of guy when it comes to the USMNT. That's true. It leads to statements like this in long pieces defending the indefensible last two years of USA soccer:
The U.S. never does this. Klinsmann is always being measured against some presumed standard of excellence that the USMNT has never reached. His critics act like he's falling short of expectations. But why should the U.S. have expectations about anything? U.S. Soccer takes itself far more seriously than the rest of the world takes it. Klinsmann has been working on that. And this is progress.
That's ridiculous. The US is one of I think 9 teams worldwide to get out of the group stage in 3 of the last 4 World Cups. They've finished on top of the Hexagonal three straight WC cycles. They reached the final of the last Confed Cup they made. When Klinsmann arrived the US was in the midst of a decade-long spell of dominance over Mexico.
The US got out of a group with Costa Rica, which has been the third banana in CONCACAF for 20 years now, and Paraguay, which finished last in CONMEBOL's 2014 WC qualifying. As far as accomplishments go it's not bad. It's expected, or it least it should be expected if a team with way more talent than those two nations is playing near its potential. Beating Ecuador, which is 13th in the FIFA rankings but hasn't gotten out of a Copa America group since 1997(!) would be nice, but again, the United States has more talent than Ecuador. They've got just four guys in major European leagues on their entire 23-man roster, and two of them had issues staying on the field this year. It's probably close since a couple of those Ecuadorian dudes are really good, but if the US wins this game it only represents a return to previous form—they're more or less on par with Mexico.
Anyone who doesn't think the US has the talent to get to the semifinals—to expect to get to the semifinals—is not paying much attention.
Related: this is the best CB pairing the US has ever had. This isn't close. The US has occasionally had one player who is immense for the national team but didn't have a club pedigree to match—Eddie Pope, Oguchi Onyewu. Until recently they've never had a CB who plays regularly in a top league. They've certainly never had two at the same time. Geoff Cameron and John Brooks are both in the running for best USA CB of all time and they're paired together.
Brooks won't be controversial after his performance during the group stage; early hiccups in his national team career are pretty easy to dismiss because defenders take longer to develop than forwards. This is a gentleman with 95 appearances for a Bundesliga team at 23 years old; he'd have 50% more if not for injury.
Geoff Cameron has two big mistakes to overcome for his reputation to match: a botched clearance against Portugal and the missed mark on the opening Colombia goal. Those are a couple of big issues, but you don't want to overrate any particular mistake that happens to turn into a goal, especially when so much of the job of a center back is to erase a scoring chance before it happens. Outside of the mistake at the beginning of the tournament, Cameron has been almost as impeccable as Brooks. This is a dude with 129 appearances for an EPL team.
Hooray for that, wave a flag, and all that. Insanely frustrating that Klinsmann set so many minutes on fire with Ventura Alvarado and Michael Orozco. Neither of those guys was a regular starter for his Liga MX team this year, and yet they've absorbed a ton of minutes—mostly while playing badly.
Speaking of Orozco, right back. With Yedlin out, Klinsmann has a choice between starting Orozco or flipping Fabian Johnson to right back and going with Edgar Castillo. Castillo is only on the roster because Tim Chandler withdrew after an injury. Here, too, Klinsmann dicking around with players who are not outside backs and have no future at the spot is costly. When Chandler withdrew this is who SI came up with as possible replacements from the 40 man roster:
Acosta is one of a few fullbacks on the preliminary roster (there's no law that Klinsmann needs to replace a fullback with a fullback, but one would think that he would replenish the depth at an already thin spot), along with Tim Ream, Eric Lichaj and Edgar Castillo.
Acosta is a defensive midfielder. Ream and Orozco are center backs. Fabian Johnson is a winger. The entire 40-man USA roster contained four natural fullbacks. Klinsmann decided to take two of these players. In what world does that make sense? The US is now in a situation where I made a joke about starting Gyasi Zardes at right back, and was then uncertain about whether I was actually joking.
Maybe Portland's Jorge Villafana or Brek Shea or Robbie Rogers isn't the answer at left back, but for none of those guys to even get a look when the left back depth chart reads "a winger and then the endless, vast expanse of space" is completely crazy. Lichaj is an even crazier case:
Since Klinsmann took over Eric Lichaj has played 12,700 minutes of injury-free soccer at LB & RB in the EPL & English Championship.
— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) June 4, 2016
Hell, Klinsmann even spent a bunch of time playing Yedlin as a winger. Mad, all of it. The US in in a grim-looking spot against various Ecuadorian Valencias on Thursday because of it.
On the other hand. Bobby Wood is legit, and Klinsmann saw it before anyone. His turn and fire goal against Costa Rica is the thing people will remember, and… yes. Do that. I was equally impressed by his work up top as a solo hold-up forward after the Yedlin red card. That's the most difficult situation a forward can find himself in and he thrived. He was way, way more effective than Jozy Altidore has ever been as a hold-up guy.
He got super angry and got a dumb yellow card, and I'm totally fine with that. Dempsey isn't going to be around forever…
…and we need a guy who is crazy enough to play South American teams.
Altidore's injury may have been a blessing in disguise. At this point if both are healthy and I've got one spot for a #9 I'm taking Wood.
The absurdity of player rating posts. Without fail every outlet covering the USMNT will have a player ratings article in the aftermath of a game, usually posted without even the luxury of a rewatch. These are inane, constantly, and even more frustrating is the fact that they rank on a 1-10 scale and almost never use the extremes of that scale. Deandre Yedlin took two dumbass yellow cards within 60 seconds and got sent off barely into the second half, an occurrence that is worth approximately -0.75 goals of expectation. Since neither of those fouls prevented a scoring chance all of that should be charged to Yedlin. A player that singlehandedly costs you three-quarters of a goal and got suspended for the next game has been mind-boggling terrible.
Player ratings posts:
DF DeAndre Yedlin, 3 -- No matter his shift in the first half, undid any good by picking up two yellows inside of a minute to put his team at a disadvantage for nearly the entire second half with advancement on the line.
The right back had a decent enough first half, during which he caused some stress for the visitors rushing into attack. Yedlin's first yellow card was an iffy call, but he failed to appreciate the situation mere seconds later when making an unnecessary challenge to draw his second and an early gate to put the team under heavy pressure the rest of the way.
Yedlin deserves a zero for that game. Z-e-r-o. If you don't issue him that, change your scale.
Similarly, John Brooks turned in a performance matched only by Onyewu against Spain in the 2-0 Confed Cup win and people are all out here issuing 8.5s to him. If your scale does not give an all-time performance a 10, your scale is bad.
What to do with Gyasi Zardes? Anyone who's followed the USMNT for a minute recognizes Zardes as a particularly American variety of player: the lightning donkey. Robbie Findlay, Josh Wolfe, Frankie Hedjuk, Marvell Wynne, etc, etc. There's always room for a guy who can run nonstop for 90 minutes, cover defensively, and maybe stretch out a defensive shape. He's been great—like, legit great for a FW/winger—in this tournament… when the United States doesn't have the ball.
When the ball gets played to him he's been mostly brutal. The lowlight reel that went a bit viral a few days ago has unfortunately been taken down; the most telling thing about it was that it was culled from just three games. One of the biggest benefits of the switch to the 4-4-2 was withdrawing Zardes from the high-pressure melee up top and allowing him more time on the ball with which to work. The infamous first touch is under less pressure when he's operating as a 4-4-2 winger, and his speed allowed him to assist on Dempsey's goal.
That assist was indeed a great play but I think people are going way too hard the other way as the backlash to the internet's Zardes fury ramps up. Zardes was not consistently dangerous out wide; he was fortunate that his very good moment was not cleared and Dempsey ran onto it. He also blew two golden chances to put the US up 2-0 on breaks, one a duffed shot, the other a lack of vision on the break. He's a useful player; he's a limited one.
I would be interested to see if Zardes can hack it as a fullback. He's got the speed and the endurance; 1-v-1 defending can be learned, right? LA already did it with Rogers, and Shea has been pretty good after making the switch a couple years ago. He's comfortable, such as it is, with both feet.
Jermaine Jones is mortal after all. Jones was immense in the first two games, covering acres of space and forcing dangerous turnovers, one of which eventually led to his goal. He finally blew out his engine in the second half against Paraguay. That's a very difficult situation for anyone (third game in ten days, down a guy) and shouldn't impact Jones's place going forward—I still think he's going to be on the World Cup squad in 2018. But it seems like clear evidence that he shouldn't be going 90 minutes game in, game out, at this juncture.
On Ecuador. Said my bit above. They're good. Yedlin's suspension is an issue, doubly so since the roster composition is bonkers. The US just played Ecuador in a very friendly sort of friendly, winning 1-0 on a late Nagbe volley. The game changed dramatically when Nagbe was inserted for Kyle Beckerman at halftime, with Bradley sliding back to the DM spot. I would be tempted to start Nagbe, especially with Jones slowing down significantly at the end of the last game. I expect that Klinsmann will make as few changes as possible, though.
The US may not win; they should at least match their opposition in chances created.