As the United States wraps up its 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup campaign with a trophy and prepares for the final slate of World Cup Qualifying, United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is enjoying a wealth of talent across the board.
Whether it’s the continued renaissance of DaMarcus Beasley, the return to world beater status by Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore replicating his club exploits for country, or the rise of dual-national players such as Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams, Mikkel Diskerud, and Terrence Boyd, the depth of talent that Klinsmann has to tinker with is no doubt better than any previous US coach.
While Klinsmann was the target of pundits and fans alike during the beginning of his tenure in 2011 (and rightly so–the US went 2-1-4 under Klinsmann through the end of 2011); he is also deserving of praise when the US gets it right. And currently the Kaiser could not be more on point with his player call-ups, starting deployments, and in-game tactics.
The United States currently sit at the head of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying with 13 points from 6 games, with a trip to second place Costa Rica forthcoming in September. The United States have also rolled over all comers in route to the CONCACAF Gold Cup Championship, with a squad of mostly fringe players. This run currently sees the Yanks on a record 11-game winning streak which started in June against Germany. Since that game the US has scored 35 goals in 11 games, while conceding only 8. Granted the US levied hefty tallies against Guatemala, Belize, Cuba, and El Salvador during that time, but isn’t the United States supposed to light up the scoreboard against teams like that? Jimmy Conrad made an excellent point during an episode of his “American Soccer Spectacular” podcast, and I’m paraphrasing, but during his time as a player with the national team, the United States, though clearly the winners on paper in terms of talent, would often pull out a 1-0, 2-1, or 2-0 win against lower quality CONCACAF teams. Under Klinsmann, the United States is blitzkrieg-ing through them in style. Keep in mind also that the United States rang the bell four times against a depleted but still madly talented Germany side to start the eleven game run.
The United States’ surge comes at a time when major confederation rivals Mexico are sleep-walking through all of their major competitions. Having won only five of their 17 matches thus far this calendar year, El Tri were eliminated from the group stage in the Confederations Cup, and they currently sit a mediocre third in World Cup Qualifying with 8 points from 6 games and only 3 goals scored. As cherry on the struggling cake, they were eliminated in the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals by upstart Panama, and last evening, they couldn’t even win a press conference/release- with various outlets reporting that embattled manager Chepo De la Torre was fired, not fired, fired, and finally, retained (for now). As such, El Tri, clearly thought to be the giants of CONCACAF a summer ago after winning the Olympic Games, are in disarray and the US have once again claimed the mantle as finest side in the region.
What Klinsmann has done this calendar year has been nothing short of astounding. Previously, the US struggled to find depth across the back line. Aging guardians Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo are both now 34, and to expect pristine performances from them at this point in their careers is a risk not even the most optimistic managers would be willing to take. As we have written on this website previously, the Timothy Chandler saga continues to be one of the more frustrating tales of this era. While now cap-tied to the United States, Chandler spurned Klinsmann’s call during the most recent run of World Cup Qualifiers due to an injury concern, raising more questions about his dedication to the United States. With Cherundolo also out nursing an injury,- another happening that seems perpetual of late- Klinsmann made the bold move to call-up midfielder Brad Evans from the Seattle Sounders. While many (this writer included) criticized the nomination, Evans performed quite well, all things considered, in consecutive matches while playing out of position at right-back against Germany, Jamaica, Panama, and Honduras, even netting the last gasp winner in Kingston to secure three points in World Cup Qualifying. While certainly not the long term solution at right-back, Evans has proven to Klinsmann and the fans that he can be a sturdy stand-in. Add Evans’ performances to the recent exploits of Gold Cup right-back Michael Parkhurst and the situation at right-back, while still thin, seems in capable hands. And even with lingering doubts about who will play there in Brazil, at least there are options. This is a far cry from where the US were in 2009 at left back, where it was…
Jonathan Bornstein: U.S. starting left back? And behind him was……….? Yea, those days are long gone. Enter the renaissance man DaMarcus Beasley. Lost in Europe following the 2006 World Cup, Beasley moved from Rangers in Scotland to Hannover 96 in Germany over a five year period, appearing in only 33 matches during those years. Needing a place to rediscover his form, he managed to find his way to Liga MX with Puebla in 2011, and there he blossomed and managed to catch the eye of Klinsmann. Under Klinsmann, he was named captain of the Gold Cup squad, and earned praise from the coaching staff and teammates alike for his dedication in training. Hoffenheim midfielder/defender Fabian Johnson is also in mix at left-back, but his best position for the United States has been on the left side of midfield, where he’s offered a great deal of width and somewhat inconsistent, but threatening, service. The mercurial Edgar Castillo offers another decent enough option at left back as well.
More recently, the centerback position has been one of great concern for US fans. The aforementioned Bocanegra, oft-injured Jay DeMerit, and the once dominant Oguchi Onyewu have given way, through age or injury, to a new crop of talented, but still green central defenders. Award winning MLS defenders Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler have stepped in and provided solid enough defense, but the depth behind them has come in to question. Clarence Goodson has always kinda been hanging around in the background, with some solid performances mixed in among some head-scratchers. But during the Gold Cup, Goodson has staked a claim for a Brazil ticket with masterful performances, even keeping Gonzalez on the bench for the wins over Honduras and Panama in the semifinals and final. Clarence Goodson has never been fast, and he will always struggle with pacier forwards and incutters. But he does offer aerial domination in a way that only Oguchi Onyewu before the knee injuries has before, and he seems to be Jurgen Klinsmann’s insurance blanket against a big, brutish, “we score on set pieces” side that could feature in the US World Cup group. Draw Greece, Hungary, Croatia or even Bosnia, and you can bet that Klinsmann will consider starting Goodson in a World Cup.
Behind Goodson, Geoff Cameron offers the flexibility to play centerback, right-back, and even in the center of midfield if necessary. Cameron looks good for the jack-of-all-trades seat for Brazil. The recent news that John Anthony-Brooks is set to accept a call-up to the United States for a match against Bosnia & Herzegovina next month is also certainly welcome. Brooks is an uber talented youngster, and one who certainly has a future in the Bundesliga and with the United States. Is he good enough to make the World Cup squad if he impresses? Who knows, but again, it’s a delightful problem for Klinsmann to have.
The center of midfield is the position where the United States has enjoyed the abundance of its talent throughout the years, and the Klinsmann era is no different. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones form the cornerstone of the current US midfield. Throwing their proverbial hats in to the ring as alternates include Sacha Kljestan,
Stuart Holden, Mikkel Diskerud, Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman, Danny Williams, and perhaps even Conor O’Brien and Jonathan Spector. The trio of Holden, Diskerud, and Beckerman have staked their claims with their excellent play in the Gold Cup. Obviously Klinsmann will only want four or five central midfielders on the World Cup squad, but having a crop of eight or nine players to choose from creates positive competition at the position and will only make the team better for it. Diskerud has taken his opportunity by the horns and perhaps wrangled himself a seat on the plane, were the World Cup tomorrow. His steady play and precision passing have been a welcome addition to the squad. And then there’s the hair…flowing locks that even Narcissus would envy. Herbal Essences ought to have this guy on speed dial…just saying.
As for the wide and attacking midfielders, options are just as plentiful. Jose Torres, Fabian Johnson, Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya, Brek Shea,
Josh Gatt, and Joe Corona have all given Klinsmann something to think about. Johnson and Zusi have shined during World Cup Qualifying, while Torres, Bedoya, Shea, and Corona have proven themselves viable options during the Gold Cup. Perhaps the player who has made the most of his opportunity has been Corona, who netted his first two international goals against Cuba and El Salvador during the Gold Cup and is a dynamic playmaker in the Clint Dempsey mold- just the type of young, brash “too dumb to know where he is” super substitute you use at a World Cup. Bedoya and Shea have both also netted their first international goals as a part of this run, with Shea playing hero in the two 1-0 victories for the US in the tournament against Costa Rica and Panama respectively. A youngster who made a name for himself on the international circuit this past summer for the United States has been Luis Gil. The Real Salt Lake prodigy was undoubtedly the best player for the United States during the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Gil scored a masterful goal against Spain during the group stage which will rival the best of the tournament. Gil could get a look from Klinsmann for the January camp, and if one thing is true about World Cup rosters, it is that they always contain surprises. If Gil impresses Klinsmann this autumn or next winter, he could play his way into the mix. If you don’t believe us, then you must have missed the time Robbie Findley started matches at the World Cup in South Africa.
Forward options for the United States have never been as numerous (see the continuing trend here?). Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore have led the US line since last September, while Landon Donovan took his sabbatical away from the game. In that time, the Dempsey/Altidore pairing combined for 11 goals. Not bad at all. But since the return of Donovan to the team in the Gold Cup and the preceding tune-up against Guatemala, he has scored seven goals and provided assists on seven others. That’s an incredible rate over just seven games, in route to winning the tournament MVP award. It’s safe to say that Donovan will be on the team sheet for Sarajevo (where Klinsmann can get a look at him alongside the European-based players who weren’t in the fold at the Gold Cup) and the following World Cup Qualifiers. But the depth at striker doesn’t stop there. Hurculez Gomez, Eddie Johnson, Chris Wondolowski, Terrence Boyd, and uncapped dual national Aron Johannsson could all potentially make the World Cup squad next summer. Even Philadelphia Union starlet Jack McInerney got a chance to show out for Klinsmann and the staff, although it was interesting, if not telling, that he didn’t appear in the Gold Cup tournament. And don’t rule out a call-up for Juan Agudelo. The undoubtedly talented youngster got out of a poor situation at Chivas USA, where he was one of the only players in good form, and has found a new home back on the east coast with New England. Agudelo has played well this season in MLS, passing deftly, improving his off-ball movements, and reducing the number of times he disappears from games that are highly defensive and physical. Klinsmann wants to see Agudelo be “more consistent”, but the fact that he is looking at his club matches on a regular basis suggests that a call-up is not too far away.
Klinsmann’s handling of the Landon Donovan saga has been a complete masterstroke. While Donovan was out rediscovering his love of the game, Klinsmann worked his magic and made the US look like a world beater without him. He played it cool when asked about Landon’s place with the team, stating in so many words that Landon’s place would not be secure upon his return to the game. Klinsmann allowed enough time to pass,for the US fan base to begin thinking that the US would be just fine without Landon, as the US beat Germany and secured solid wins in World Cup Qualifying without their all-time leading scorer. Then Klinsmann announced Donovan’s return to the team for the Gold Cup, ensuring the US fan base would get a massive dose of Landycakes, and Landon hasn’t disappointed at all. His place with the “A” squad all but assured, Donovan is a player the US can rely upon again and he seems to be truly enjoying his return to international play.
The fact of the matter is that Jurgen Klinsmann has more talent than any previous US coach had at their disposal. The results bear this out as well- the US sit comfortably atop the Hexagonal and cruised through the Gold Cup with the “B” squad. Klinsmann has cast a large net in his quest to build an attacking team that plays, in his words, a “distinctly American style.” Now comes the tricky part: finding the best blend of the two groups we saw this summer. Klinsmann window to achieve this is short: a handful of friendlies, the final four matches of World Cup Qualifying, and then a January camp with one eye already on Brazil. The good news today is that Klinsmann’s proven he’s an astute evaluator of his options. The great news is he has a host of them.