Neil W. Blackmon
After a rout of woefully overmatched Belize and a game, but ultimately outgunned Cuba, the USMNT move on to more serious and daunting endeavors Tuesday night in Connecticut when they take on Costa Rica (FOX SOCCER, 8PM). If you toss in the US’s warm-up match against Guatemala, the Americans have scored sixteen goals in three matches, conceding only twice. I’ll spare you the clichés about great success and false confidence, but only because I believe a veteran-laden Yanks side understand the success will be much greater against a “B +”, MLS-heavy version of the Ticos, who also sit on six points and will throw all they have at the Americans to try to win Group C. Jon Levy will write the usual preview, which we think will be up tonight or tomorrow morning, but as the competition moves forward and the challenges get steeper (or become, you know, challenges)– it is worth reflecting on what we’ve learned in the 2013 Gold Cup thus far. Here are five Monday musings. Comments encouraged.
1) Chris Wondo(W)lowski has been terrific. But it is negligent analysis to suggest he’s earned a permanent roster spot, for the fall qualifiers or for Brazil, at this point in time.
The beauty and tragedy of international football is the small sample-size. So much rides on every match that it is both easy to overemphasize current success or failure and forget past success and failure. The key is finding a balance and avoiding both extremes. With Chris Wondolowski, we are seeing an object lesson in the difficulty in finding that balance.
Wondolowski has no-question been splendid in this tournament. He’s scored six goals in three matches, and in the Cuba match, his goals were vital in creating comfort in a lead that was very much in the balance. Following the match, no less than Cobi Jones said on national television that he felt Wondolowski has “earned a spot on the team in Brazil.” You read that right– “earned a spot” on the team for…Brazil. Not “earned a spot in fall qualifying.” Nope. Jones skipped right over that and put the Earthquakes man, who has tallied a remarkable 67 goals in MLS over the past three-plus seasons in MLS, right on the World Cup final roster. I’m not saying he’s rushing to judgment, but he’s rushing to judgment.
The more fair and balanced argument here is that Wondolowski has played well enough to earn the trust required by Klinsmann to give him an extended look against a quality opponent. A start and a ninety-minute shift against a talented Costa Rica side tomorrow night would be entirely appropriate. A call-up to the roster for the fall qualifiers, where he could compete for time with everyone not named Jozy Altidore, would be fair and appropriate. Anything more than that is excess and loses sight of Wondolowski’s national team history, which until he found the back of the net against Guatemala featured zero goals in nine matches and several ineffective shifts where not only did he fail to score, he failed to influence the game in any positive manner whatsoever.
In the interest of balance, it needs to be noted that Wondolowski is a poacher striker (think a bit of a poor man’s Ruud van Nistelrooy) who scores most his goals by making very sharp, clever movements off the ball. Those movements, as is the case with most talented poachers, tend to always be towards space and they tend to always be deep in the penalty area. Furthermore, it should be noted that Herc Gomez, a forward with whom Wondolowski is competing for a spot in Brazil, is not really the same type of player. Gomez is a hybrid target man/unorthodox “9”– almost in the Wayne Rooney mold of not really being a traditional center forward but of overcoming positional limitation through work rate and a strong first touch. In a US shirt, Gomez has almost always put in a strong shift. He’s also been in the Klinsmann “circle of trust” leagues longer than Wondolowksi, who just found it. But Wondolowski does offer something that Gomez cannot– which is a high-volume goal scoring pedigree at club level and the ability to quickly influence a game through his lethal movements in the area. Wondolowski is very reliant on service, as any Earthquakes fan who has seen him in a goal drought will tell you– but with the likes of Graham Zusi, Landon Donovan, Stu Holden, Jermaine Jones and Jose Torres in the fold to provide it– a confident Wondolowski should get what he needs. The question– and it has to be answered on the field– is whether this confidence will carry over against a better opponent. We’ve seen Wondolowski against better sides in the past. The results have not been good. Until they are- he should not be considered a lock for Brazil and he probably shouldn’t be above Terrence Boyd, much less Herc Gomez, on the US forward depth chart.
2) Brek Shea is really struggling, and he’s in a place right now as a US player where he could fall into the abyss.
Shea played his worst match in a US shirt against Cuba on Saturday, and sadly, that’s saying something because he hasn’t had a good shift in the red, white and blue in a very long time. Shea continues to struggle with things Klinsmann thinks it is inexcusable to struggle with– notably, defensive investment and poise on the ball. Shea’s turnovers aren’t “ambitious” turnovers– they are the simple, keep possession and keep play moving distributions American fans resent Jose Torres for making constantly and have come to expect from the Michael Bradley’s, Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi’s of the universe.
Of late, Shea has thrown bad body language into the mix after these turnovers. One notable sequence Saturday saw Shea give the ball away on a six yard pass to an overlapping Castillo, and then bend over and adjust his shoe laces, hands on knees, as the Cubans launched a counterattack the other direction. Were it not for a swiftly covering Kyle Beckerman, and a streaking Landon Donovan, Edgar Castillo would have been left hopelessly pursuing the counter. To me, that was the telltale moment- worse than Shea’s continued obsession with ball-tricks instead of “head-up, decisive distributions” on the flank, worse than his turnovers, worse than his indecision when he does make threatening runs in the area, worse than his struggles with a first touch. Klinsmann needs to see that he is invested. Right now, it is hard to say that he is. Fitness questions abound, but what is most surprising is that Shea is here, not at a Stoke City camp he so desperately needs to be a part of, and he is playing dreadfully. To be frank, it is the stuff of nightmares and Shea has to be close to running out of chances, at least for a few months. Jozy Altidore was in this same spot with Klinsmann eighteen months ago. We have seen how that has worked out. A new and improved work ethic and confidence from club and “Voila!”– world beater. But Altidore had time, prior to Brazil, to close the gap. It’s hard to imagine Shea doing the same. Right now, he’s a great Bob Dylan song, despite his technical potential, and he ain’t goin’ nowhere!!
3) Mix Diskerud has been good enough to push Sacha Kljestan for a Brazil roster spot, but again, balance is required in this evaluation.
Like Chris Wondolowski, Mix Diskerud has been outstanding in this Gold Cup. Like Chris Wondolowski, those performances have come against woefully outmanned opponents where the US have enjoyed acres of space and the lion’s share of possession. Unlike Chris Wondolowski, there have been moments in friendlies where Mix Diskerud looked outstanding. And that’s the reason we think Diskerud is closer to a World Cup roster spot than Wondolowski.
Whom would he steal that spot from? The most logical answer is Sacha Kljestan. Both provide two-touch, attacking creativity in the center of the pitch. Both are limited in what they are able to do from positions of width. Neither would start, and both would likely only be utilized if the Americans were chasing the game. This is where it gets tricky. Kljestan is a longtime veteran of the national team fold, but he isn’t exactly a mainstay in the Klinsmann formula. He has earned Klinsmann’s trust in terms of consistent “A” team call-ups, but he also didn’t see the field in the three qualifying victories this summer, and that’s not a coincidence. Kljestan plays for a better club than Diskerud and is a reliable starter for that club. He’ll again play Champions League football this summer. He has, rightfully, earned a bit of separation for one of the coveted midfield spots next summer. But that isn’t to say a little competition wouldn’t do him some good. It is fair to suggest Kljestan has been better for club than country, and given his skillset, the Americans would love anything that could close that gap.
Of the “safe” spots, Kljestan’s spot seems the most vulnerable (if one considers Maurice Edu not a lock at this point.) Diskerud offers a lot of what Kljestan offers on the ball, and is probably a better player shooting from distance, unless we’re talking free kicks. Diskerud needs to continue to show Klinsmann he can help this Gold Cup team as the competition gets tougher. If he does that, he’ll earn a look in the fall qualifying matches– perhaps even a start if qualification can be secured prior to the end of the Hex. Assuming both he and Kljestan remain fit, those matches, perhaps more than club form, could be World Cup roster auditions for Sacha and Mix. It is hard to see a world where the US bring both, barring injuries.
4) This US Win Streak is Similar to the 2007 win streak, but with World Cup qualifiers, it is slightly more impressive.
With a win Tuesday night, the Yanks will achieve their longest win streak in federation history. The win over Cuba tied the 2007 side for the longest streak ever. Both streaks occurred with Gold Cup cupcakes littered throughout. In 2007, the Gold Cup tuneup was China– this year, it was Guatemala. The fundamental difference in the two streaks of course, is in 2007 the best win was the Gold Cup Feilhaber final against Mexico–a very good, “A” side to be sure but arguably no better than the “B” Germany side the Americans beat in DC last month– and in this streak, you have three World Cup qualifying victories. Because the 07 streak lacked World Cup qualifiers, it seems a slightly less impressive streak, but until the Americans defeat Costa Rica Tuesday night, it remains just as long as the current one.
5) Steve Cherundolo has to be thinking he’s winning this Gold Cup. Eric Lichaj is playing his way back into fold by not playing.
The US fullbacks are nearly in a completely antagonistic position to the one they were in at this time in 2009. In that cycle, RB was the position of certainty and LB was Jon Bornstein and well, we’ll figure it out sooner or later. This cycle, LB is the position of certain options if not player certainty and RB is, well, a colossal question mark. What a difference a cycle makes.
For the Yanks at right back, Michael Parkhurst has been anywhere from “ok” to “bad” this tournament, and isn’t doing anything to separate himself from other options. Tony Beltran was roasted on the Cuban counter that scored a goal Saturday on his home field. That said, he did manage to find himself in good positions quite a bit in attack, except that he was too stationary to take advantage of them. He’d get into a good spot, then stop moving, quickly becoming not in a good spot. His inexperience at this level may have something to do with that– but when you are a mainstay for a very good MLS team and you are playing Cuba, you shouldn’t forget that stuff.
Sigi Schmid invented a right back for his pal Jurgen Klinsmann in the summer qualifiers, and Brad Evans thanked the two for their confidence with a thrilling gamewinner against Jamaica. It’s very difficult, however, to think of that as a “move on, nothing to see here” solution. Steve Cherundolo is 34. He’ll be 35 next summer. He’s injured a lot. And he’s still the Americans best option at right back. He defends responsibly, compensating for some of his lost pace with brains and positional sense. His service is less consistent than it used to be, but it’s still, err…serviceable. And he moves off the ball and allows his wings to overlap. He’s the guy until someone proves the US otherwise.
Timmy Chandler, you say? Interesting. Who’s that? Eric Lichaj, now with Nottingham Forest, might be a guy Klinsmann wants to see again. And if qualification is settled, the US will have two fall friendlies where that could happen. What’s more, Lichaj is with Nottingham now, trying to earn playing time at club, instead of Brek Shea-ing his way off the roster. That should give folks some hope. Either way, it’s a mess. And we probably don’t get more answers Tuesday night.