By Jon Levy
I’m going to be really nice to Jurgen Klinsmann and describe his first six matches in charge as “underwhelming.” Far more severe adjectives could be applied, especially after the disappointing performance against France. Alexei Lalas nailed it, as he often does, in calling the team out for not even attempting to rise to the lofty forward-thinking ideals set forth by the new regime. If exhibition results don’t matter, and we’ve been told they don’t by Klinsmann himself, then why settle for playing the limited brand of soccer we saw on Friday? That looked like a Bob Bradley team’s performance, but under Bobbo the Yanks find a way to draw that match; the man got results. (One likely way would have been to recognize that without Jose Torres and Stu Holden, the US needed a defense-slicing mid, and the in-form Sacha Kljestan was essential to a result– but alas, Klinsmann suggests “there are others ahead of him.” We digress.)
So here the Yanks sit, browbeaten and insulted in the formerYugoslavia. They’re not exactly on the verge of being eliminated from the World Cup, but the Slovenia match represents an early “backs against the wall” scenario for a team and manager that have come under significant fire in their first few months together. Thankfully, resilience has been an appropriately American hallmark of this group for a number of years. It’s time for Klinsmann to prove that he hasn’t let that trait wither and die along with the team’s offensive production.
What to watch for from the Yanks: This statement wouldn’t have sounded ludicrous six months ago, but it does feel strange to type after the France match: The Yanks can win this match in the midfield.
I know, I know, not one but two far fetched assertions in that statement. Blogging! Shock and awe! But in all seriousness, Klinsmann’s defensive midfielders will go a long way to foiling the frantic Slovenian attack if they can shield the backline effectively as they have for most of the matches under the new manager. Any combination of DMF’s that Klinsy chooses to start will be more prepared to handle the quick counter than José Francisco Torres was in his worst match in the USA shirt a year ago (hitting the post on this free kick aside).
Furthermore, the Yanks will probably win the possession battle in this match. As we’ve seen in a couple recent matches against lesser CONCACAF opposition, this doesn’t always lead to victory, but it’s a good start, and a core operating value for The Klinsmann Korporation. These Yanks don’t yet have the nimble feet or quick decision making/programming to out-pass a technical squad like France, but no one would ever accuse Slovenia of being heavy on technique. In fact, the Slovenians will sit out the EURO precisely because for all their tenacious defending and thrusting of bodies forward late– they couldn’t find enough goals to avoid draws. This kept them out of a playoff by one point– and it may keep them from defeating the Americans Tuesday evening. Back to the Americans, though-I’m looking for quality possessions out of the US, if not incisive attacks, but I’ve been hearing those are on the way. I won’t start holding my breath just yet.
And finally, maybe we get a Bill Hamid cameo in this match? The young number two goalkeeper represents a conundrum for Klinsmann, who would probably prefer to give the DC United man at least a half of football on this road trip. But if the Yanks have an opportunity to break a seven game losing streak on European soil and score a big “get off my back” win, they may not risk taking one of the world’s best goalkeepers out of the match. Monitor closely. You can avoid a tough halftime decision if you start Hamid, just sayin’.
And what will we see out of Slovenia?
The book on Eastern Europe’s Charlie Brown impersonators is all about playing disciplined defense, and looking to strike on the break as fast as possibly once they have the ball. Think of an American football team that plays a rigid zone D, has a great punt returner, and launches three big shots at the end zone once their offense takes the field. (Yes, I am a super fan of such a team and it plays off the shore of Lake Michigan…) It’s not a bad strategy for a team that will never have the dearth of talent available to many of their European neighbors. But it is one that allowed them to concede only seven goals in Euro qualifying, despite coming up short in what was a Group of Death. And- They made it to the 2010 World Cup and did more than give a stunned US team a run for their money; they split the pot with the eventual group winners (one horribly disallowed goal notwithstanding.)
And when the blitz-style attack does leave a few players out of position, Slovenia still has a security blanket in Samir Handanović between the sticks (not to be confused with his cousin and Slovenia backup Jasmin Handanović). He may have looked porous during last summer’s second half American goal rush, but Handanović is still one of the top goalkeepers in Italy’s Serie A. If Buffon and Cesar are in a class of their own, the Udinese shot stopper occupies the tier right below them. But he’s not my Slovenian player to watch.
Slovenia Player to Watch: Zlatan Ljubijankič
I’m not sure if it takes a special type of player to operate effectively as a forward in Slovenia’s seemingly chaotic attack, or just a certain mindset. Whatever the answer is, Ljubijankič’s got it. This is the guy that snuck behind the US defense to score what everyone thought was a decisive goal in South Africa. Two-nil’s a tough hole to climb out of. Fortunately, we had that late-running Serie A midfielder who seems to have disappeared…I digress, again. With righteous indignation !
Zlatan’s not going to overpower Gooch or Goodson (unless Clarence decides to fall down on his own again), but he knows where to put the ball for his teammates, and is good at finding soft spots in the defense. He’s a pseudo target man in Slovenia’s system, and a smart player. The Yanks can keep him quiet if they avoid a lapse in concentration. Easier typed than done.
US Player to Watch: Michael Bradley, the artist formerly known as MB 90
This is silly. We here at The Yanks Are Coming first applied the MB90 moniker because Bob Bradley would never take his son out of the game. Flash forward four years, and the best box-to-box midfielder in the US player pool can hardly get one minute under Klinsmann. If this goes on much longer it will quickly reach embarrassing levels of hypocrisy. And yes, I am still righteously indignant.
Jurgen preaches quick thinking, ball movement, and defensive responsibility. And you can’t even come to camp if you’re not starting for your club. Fine. Let’s kick the ballistics on Mikey Bradley. After enduring an ill-fated loan at Aston Villa, he quickly pulled his career out of the fire by securing a move to Chievo Verona where he took about two weeks to cement himself as a Serie A starter. He’s excelling as a defensive midfielder for the Italian team, after similarly excelling as a true central mid in Germany, and as an attacking middy in the Netherlands( where his best goal-scoring year will likely outpace the recently praised resurgent Jozy Altidore, for what it’s worth). He was lauded by the international press during the World Cup for his ball movement and off-ball runs, and his vocal admirers included Klinsy’s mentor Arsene Wenger. Bradley has also improved his defensive positioning in the past two years, cutting down on the amount of cards he’s shown without sacrificing his trademark physical style of play. So?
I’m a huge fan of Maurice Edu, and I love that Kyle Beckerman earned Jurgen’s trust, but with all due respect Mr. Klinsmann, Michael Bradley is what you’re looking for. He’s not tailor-made for the spot behind the striker, but MB90 should make a triumphant return to the true center of the pitch in order to haunt Slovenia once again. And what of his at times shoddy distribution? Is this the bugaboo? Well- OPTA, the great resource that records such observations, reflects that MB 90 is the third most effective distributor in Verona. So there’s an argument things are getting better.
Prediction: Slovenia 0 – 1 USA
We win! Give me a run of play goal for Jozy Altidore and a bourbon on the rocks. Here’s to American resilience, and some signs of improvement! Now let’s just hope I’m right.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Editor and Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can and should follow him on Twitter, for two reasons: First—his West Ham United Championship musings are the dreams of a cynical, cynical man—and second, well—just follow him already, at @TYAC_Jon.