Featured, January 2015, USMNT

Chile 3, US 2: Why, Klinsy, Why?

The Americans found the net twice in attractive fashion, but once again failed to hold a lead.

The Americans found the net twice in attractive fashion, but once again failed to hold a lead.

John D. Halloran

Another match—another second-half collapse by the United States men’s national team.

Another match—another set of confounding decisions by U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

 On Wednesday, the USMNT fell 3-2 to Chile in the first of two friendlies scheduled to conclude this year’s January camp. Despite holding a 2-1 lead at the half, on the back of goals by Brek Shea and Jozy Altidore, the U.S. managed to concede twice in the second stanza to squander the result.

 Against Chile, the U.S. opened the match in a much-anticipated 3-5-2, a move that seemed positive for a number of reasons. First, the 3-5-2 gives a team height, width and depth—three requirements for success. The formation is also tactically flexible, giving a coach the ability to play a more attacking, or more defensive, style based on how far forward the wing-backs are deployed. It also provides a strong midfield triangle—especially v. a traditional 4-4-2—and the U.S. usually needs a little help in the middle of the park against more possession-oriented teams.

Additionally, the formation seems to fit the U.S. player pool better than a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3. The U.S. has an abundance of center-backs in Omar Gonzalez, Jermaine Jones, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and John Anthony Brooks. It also has a series of outside backs in DeAndre Yedlin, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler and Greg Garza—all of whom love to get forward. Lastly, the U.S. has a number of quality holding midfielders as well as a need for a consistent attacking midfielder—a perfect match for the two holding midfielders and single attacking midfielder in the 3-5-2.

But for some reason, at the half, and holding a 2-1 lead, Klinsmann switched the U.S. back to a 4-4-2, employing a diamond midfield. The result was a second-half collapse and yet another loss. Things have gotten so bad of late for the U.S. that, in its last nine matches, its record is 1-5-3. In eight of those nine matches, the U.S. has conceded a goal in the second half and, even more worrying, it has given up nine goals after the 75th minute in that stretch. Furthermore, since Brazil, the Yanks have surrendered a lead in all but one of the matches they have led in, losing leads against Ghana, Portugal, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia and now Chile, respectively.

 

While some might be quick to dismiss the result because the match was a friendly, or because it happened during the January camp, these second-half failures have become a pattern under Klinsmann. The January camp is also not an excuse considering how many regulars took the field for the Americans on Wednesday night.

While Klinsmann tinkered with a winning formation, Mark Gonzalez and Chile struck back.

While Klinsmann tinkered with a winning formation, Mark Gonzalez and Chile struck back.

Beyond the second-half collapse, the switch in formation is worrying on another level. Klinsmann has become a world-class tinkerer, giving his players no time to settle into any consistent formation or strategy. If his players are ever going to learn how to play within a system, Klinsmann himself needs to find a system and his players need to be given the time to settle into the one he chooses. Since Klinsmann took over the U.S., he has constantly changed his rosters, his starting XI’s and his formations—never giving his players time to figure out how to play together.

A perfect example of this is Jermaine Jones. Deployed as a center-back since the World Cup, Jones has shown both promise and flaws as a defender. Klinsmann has gone out of his way to talk about Jones’ transition to the back line. Despite this, halfway through the game against Chile, Klinsmann moved Jones back into the midfield.

For a player like Jones, one who is learning a new position and getting no time to practice it at the club level, consistency from Klinsmann is needed.

Now, even at the beginning of a new World Cup cycle, with four years in front of him to plan, and a deep knowledge of the player pool after three years in charge, Klinsmann should have some sort of consistent vision for where he wants to take this team. Wednesday night’s result, and the tactical decisions involved, once again proved that Klinsmann has no long-term vision for this team—at least not one he’s willing to stick with for more than 45 minutes.

After scoring a brilliant goal, Brek Shea struggled mightily at playing defense, which is what wingbacks must do.

After scoring a brilliant goal, Brek Shea struggled mightily at playing defense, which is what wingbacks must do.

Brek Shea and Bobby Wood

Perhaps it was no surprise, but as soon as U.S. Soccer announced the starting lineup on Wednesday, the outcry from fans began. Bobby Wood, who last started in a competitive match 151 days ago, was given a spot up top. Brek Shea was slotted in for the U.S. at left wing-back—his last competitive start was for Birmingham 135 days ago, and he’s never played wingback professionally.

Not surprisingly, both struggled. Wood was basically invisible up top and Shea, while scoring a brilliant goal only six minutes into the game, was a defensive disaster.

Wood, thankfully, was subbed off at the half. Shea, on the other hand, continued to provide U.S. fans with heart-stopping defensive slip-ups for all 90 minutes.

In the first half, as a wing-back, Shea seemed utterly unable to recognize the runs in behind him as the Chileans repeatedly found space down the left side. In the second half, with Shea as a true left-back, things got even worse. Shea had multiple mishaps trying to defend services to the far post, and the U.S. was more than lucky not to concede even more goals.

The trouble with both players starting is that they’ve done absolutely nothing—at least at the club level—to deserve it. In fact, their club form has been so bad—it’s really been non-existent—that the two don’t realistically even deserve national team call-ups. But there Klinsmann is, giving them chance after chance and doing nothing to dispel the notion that he plays favorites.

At forward, Klinsmann could have started Gyasi Zardes, or even Lee Nguyen in the No. 10 role and pushed Clint Dempsey up top. Instead, Wood got the call.

On the left, Klinsmann could have used the game to get Dillon Serna some experience. Serna wasn’t in the 18.  Or Minnesota United winger Miguel Ibarra, who shares Shea’s speed but doesn’t share his disdain for tracking back. Or  perhaps he should have called in a certain member of the LA Galaxy who seemed to have a pretty decent season at left-back in 2014.

 The Positives

Despite the loss, and Klinsmann’s confusing decisions, there were some positives.

First, DeAndre Yedlin looked very good. Yes, he did fail to track his runner on the equalizer in the 66th minute—and had a few other minor mistakes—but, overall, Yedlin was fantastic. His 1 v. 1 defense was impeccable and he repeatedly got forward into the attack, helping to generate repeated, and dangerous, offensive sequences for the U.S.

Another bright spot was Steve Birnbaum. Coming off a standout rookie campaign with D.C. United, Birnbaum earned a call-up to camp and then the start on Wednesday. He kept his side of the field quiet for most of the night and showed a composure on the ball above his years. The U.S. January camp has a tradition of breaking in new center-backs for the U.S. pool (Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron being two recent examples) and Birnbaum certainly looked the part on Wednesday.

Michael Bradley and Mix Diskerud also looked good playing together. Diskerud put in a series of important, although largely overlooked, challenges and Bradley did a good job all match recycling the point of attack. Perhaps most critically, when Diskerud left the game, the Americans were ahead.

A goal for Altidore also has to be looked at as a positive. Coming off his nightmare stint at Sunderland, any little bit of success will help rebuild his confidence heading into a very important summer for the USMNT.

 Thoughts? The comments, as always, are yours.

John D. Halloran is a veteran soccer writer and the founder of American Touchline. His work has been featured in American Soccer Now, Bleacher Report, and Soccer Over There, among others. Follow him on Twitter @JohnDHalloran.

John Halloran

  • Mike Hein

    Really good piece on the details of the player decisions.

    The lack of an apparent plan from Klinsman is my constant complaint and I don’t know if it stems from indecision or from his massive ego believing he can, excusing the pun, wing it.

    I will admit that Shea’s defense was bad but he does offer a lot offensively…but it may be impractical in a 3-5-2. Then again, Yedlin looked positively Wynne-esque in his inability to be in position. So…I don’t know.

    Cheers,

  • Good comments, Mike. And very good piece, John.

    I only have one mild disagreement, which is that I don’t think Yedlin is a natural wingback, but I think some of that stems from my having this notion that wingbacks are still primarily defenders. That’s why the Shea decision is so baffling. It’s less about the 2 matches in a year– though there is that– and more about “Has anyone ever said ‘Man that Brek Shea sure does defend'”. No. Yedlin too, for that matter. He’ll crack Tottenham’s 18 in a year or so if he decides to commit to defending. Until then, he’s a speedy poor man’s Leighton Baines– quick and menacing getting forward without the service, the feint defending or the interest and positional savvy. People don’t like that view, because it seems like I don’t like Yedlin as a talent– that’s not true. But I do think we should “proceed with some caution.”

    The general tenor of this piece: that Klinsmann’s constant tinkering appears to be less pragmatism now and more just “I try stuff because I try stuff”, I think, is spot on. Jurgen is probably a very good CEO/Technical Director. But as a manager the jury is close to returning and the verdict isn’t great.