State of the Union: US Defense Desperately Searching for Right Combination, Continuity

Geoff Cameron appears to be a cemented starter, but beyond that, Klinsmann is still playing mix and match.

Geoff Cameron appears to be a cemented starter, but beyond that, Klinsmann is still playing mix and match.

Garrett McInnis

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part “State of the (US Soccer) Union” series that will run between today and the US World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico in two weeks. Today we examine the defense.

When I set out to examine the current State of our Union’s defense, I did so with the full expectation that my resulting opinion would be something to the tune of  “Of course our defense has been shoddy…we’re a little banged up and our lineup choices have given us very little continuity.”  

 HOLY MOTHER OF JUPITER WAS THAT AN UNDERSTATEMENT!

Not so much with respect to the banged up part…that’s mostly just Chewy and Edgar Castillo’s face(not sure how much I’d want him out there anyway right now).  No, I’m talking about the whole idea of creating some continuity.  You know, allowing your players to get a good feel for each other, letting them learn to communicate with each other and giving them a chance to form some semblance of a rapport, usually through repeatedly putting them on the field together.  Yeah…..that might be a concept on which our jovial German needs a refresher course.

See, after the Yanks lost in Honduras last month I remember seeing a tweet from some prominent soccer personality stating that since he was hired, Jurgen has yet to start the same 11 in two games in his entire tenure.  That’s a bit of an anomaly but it is, at least in my mind, SOMEWHAT understandable.  We’re talking about a starting lineup of 11 different players in a country that has a hoard of 15-20 players of mid-level talent that fit somewhere behind the obvious 3-6 starters(who are sometimes injured), but are capable of fitting in at one point or another.  Plus we’re still working with a new-ish coach who is trying to figure out what talents he has available.  Ok, so let’s give him a break on that statistic.  That’s what I did.  I decided to do my own research on 1 section: the back four.  I didn’t go back to the beginning of Klinsmann’s tenure.  I went back exactly 1 year and started moving to the opening match of the Hexagonal.  I knew it would be ugly. I thought I was prepared.  I. Thought. Wrong.

Take a look at the following thirteen back lines in a row starting with the most recent and working backwards for one calendar year.

  1. Chandler, Gonzalez, Cameron, Johnson
  2. Beltran, Gonzalez, Besler, Morrow
  3. Chandler, Cameron, Bocanegra, Johnson
  4. Cherundolo, Cameron, Bocanegra, Parkhurst
  5. Cherudolo, Goodson, Cameron, Bocanegra
  6. Cherundolo, Cameron, Bocanegra, Johnson
  7. Parkhurst, Goodson, Cameron, Johnson
  8. Johnson, Cameron, Edu, Castillo
  9. Cherundolo, Goodson, Bocanegra, Johnson
  10. Cherundolo, Goodson, Bocanegra, Torres
  11. Cherundolo, Goodson, Bocanegra, Castillo
  12. Cherundolo, Onyewu, Bocanegra, Johnson
  13. Cherundolo, Cameron, Bocanegra, Johnson

I double dog dare you to find a pattern in there. Any pattern. Even a modicum of logic. Good luck.

Steve Cherundolo is training again in Germany, but will Klinsmann go with the known quantity moving forward?

Steve Cherundolo is training again in Germany, but will Klinsmann go with the known quantity moving forward?

13 matches.

12 totally, completely, unabashedly different starting lineups.

No player started more than 9 games.

14 different starters across the period for only 4 spots(granted 5 of them only got 1 start and two of those, Tony Beltran and Matt Besler would hardly be considered legit options).

The 2 matches that happened to have the same starting back line occurred almost 3 months apart and there were 6 matches between the two.   Funny thing? Regardless of the time a part, in the second of these matches the Yanks pitched a shutout against Jamaica(Coincidence? I doubt it).

Since March 2012

 

Name

Number of Starts

Substitutions

Number of Positions

 

Carlos Bocanegra

9

0

2

Geoff Cameron

8

1

1

Fabian Johnson

8

0

2

Cherundolo

8

0

1

Clarence Goodson

5

1

1

Michael Parkhurst

2

2

2

Edgar Castillo

2

2

1

Tim Chandler

2

0

1

Omar Gonzalez

2

0

1

Others receiving playing time(subs in parentheses): Tony Beltran, Matt Besler, Maurice Edu, Oguchi Onyewu(3), Jose Torres, Justin Morrow, (1 sub for Orazco Fiscal);

I want to be clear…I’m all for experimentation. It’s encouraging for the future that Jurgen sees talent worthy of getting on the field and we all know that the likes of Bocanegra and Cherundolo won’t be around forever. We have to have contingency plans in place.  But as the Hexagon progresses, one wonders if experimenting so much is having a damaging effect on continuity and consistency, on the types of relationships between players that make a defense successful in the first place. And if there is a damaging effect, it is, even one match into the Hexagon, getting a bit late in the game. The US must find some modicum of consistency to qualify. It’s gonna be tough enough to get there without all the lineup shenanigans.

Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler combined effectively in the back against Canada. Is that worth revisiting?

Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler combined effectively in the back against Canada. Is that worth revisiting?

One guy who was involved in a combination that worked was Matt Besler, although his and Omar Gonzalez’s partnership came against Canada, who is certainly a lesser opponent. Still, the two did combine to shut down Canada through the middle of the field and produced what has become a rare clean sheet for the US. When we talked to Besler, the MLS Defender of the Year, by phone two weeks ago, he noted that the long period of time to train with Gonzalez and learn each other’s tendencies was extremely helpful. Besler noted that having that time to gel with Omar was immensely helpful, telling us “You know, it helped that we were able to play for three or four weeks before the game, so we got to know each other a little bit. We got to know each other’s tendencies. At the same time, when you’re a central defender, your job is to keep things tight, keep the team organized in front of you and not give up any goals. And so, when you look at the Canada game– you know– the only game that me and Omar have played together, we did our job pretty much.” The example doesn’t work perfectly, because there just aren’t three to four weeks to get ready for any qualifying match or even for the Gold Cup. But the larger point is well-taken: national team combinations rely on familiarity with who you are playing with and the ability of two players to read each other. When you flip lineups constantly, you can’t breed that familiarity. That’s a pretty big problem.

It’s one thing if the changes were happening in strategic games…say big friendlies without direct consequences or even if we shook things up less often.  Instead, we’ve seen nothing but a swinging door in the back middle & a struggle to stay healthy on the outside.  What we’ve had is the benching of our stabilizer and captain for 2 World Cup Qualifiers ON THE ROAD.  That’s led questionable communication in the area of the field where communication is most vital.  We saw the grand introduction of Omar Gonzalez in, of all places, San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Yeah, THAT Honduras.  The Honduras that makes you wonder if you’ll make it out alive, much less be able to “Keep Calm and Defend”.

Regardless of the combination, the Americans need continuity at the back.

Regardless of the combination, the Americans need continuity at the back.

Obviously having a hurt Cherundolo isn’t helping things.  He’s not been quite the same since South Africa but he had, until his injury, a very productive Gold Cup in 2011, he’s fundamentally solid and usually delivers a quality ball into the box.  Plus, he’s been through these battles a bunch of times before. There’s value in that. Regardless, I honestly wasn’t worried a bit about his absence once we finally knew that Timmy Chandler was on board.  Unfortunately Chandler disappointed with his performance last month.  He seemed to be thinking so much about his defending that he was slow to react, and most importantly, inhibited going forward.  His value lies in his extreme athleticism and ability to stretch the field for us going forward.  If he feels restricted or uncomfortable we might as well have Parkhurst or Bocanegra out wide just staying back the whole game.  Timmy can be a major asset.  In fact, he very much needs to be.  We struggle for width in the midfield with our player pool so it almost has to come from our two German-American outside backs.  There is little doubt that Chandler will be give every opportunity to reprise the promising performances that we’ve been accustomed to seeing.  It’s clear his spot on the right flank is not the immediate question mark going forward.  That would be in the center.

It’s clear that Klinsmann is in that awkward transition from trying to tastefully phasing Bocanegra out of the starting line up but also not having a replacement that is ready to assume the spot.  Geoff Cameron is a starter. His athleticism and his regular solid play for Stoke City have earned him that position.  The question going forward is whether Geoff can mentally bring Omar Gonzalez along or whether we need a more veteran presence in the center like Clarence Goodson or Bocanegra.  Omar offers a ton offensively on set pieces.  He’s also an aerial presence defensively, but his feet can still feel still shakier than a pre-OutKast Polaroid.  At this crucial point, the USMNT needs stability in the back.  Give the midfield a solid foundation to push forward out of and allow them to create the offense. Matt Besler was steady against Canada and deserves another look, maybe even before we see Omar Gonzalez fail again. Besler won’t wow you with physical attributes like Gonzalez does, but his positioning and intelligence can absolutely make him effective internationally, at least against the equitable competition CONCACAF offers. Is he a long-term answer against great sides? Probably not. But it’s hard to say without seeing it on the field. Either way, Klinsmann would do well to pick one of those players and go forward.

Still, given the current state of affairs, the preferred situation, at least in my view, is to have Bocanegra start the next two games in Denver against Costa Rica and en Distrito Federal contra El Tri. With Chewy out indefinitely, the pressure situations we are facing demand a calming presence…a voice of steadiness and assuredness.  For the time being it’s gotta be the captain to go along with Chandler, Cameron and Fabian Johnson, assuming he is fit.  After those two huge matches we’ll have a chance to reevaluate our situation going forward. And hopefully, the US will get closer to find consistent answers.

In qualifying, sometimes bland and conservative is enough. Bocanegra should be involved.

In qualifying, sometimes bland and conservative is enough. Bocanegra should be involved.

On a slightly encouraging note, this combination of defenders HAS played together and somewhat recently.  In fact, this was the combo that played almost the entirety of the Russia friendly in November where the Yanks escaped the claws of the Commie Kickballers’ with a 2-2 tie(one goal the result of a poor giveaway from Danny Williams, the other a penalty conceded by a substitute, Clarence Goodson).  This lineup still leaves you Goodson, Parkhurst, Orazco Fiscal, Mo Edu, and Omar to form a rather healthy bench with a variety of skill sets depending on whatever situations may arise(Well……I have yet to figure out exactly what ‘skill’ it is that Orazco Fiscal brings to the table but I’m sure he’s got something going for him.   Maybe y’all can help me figure that out in the comments section).

To sum up my rambling, I have but one request for Jurgen in the next few weeks with respect to his defensive selections.  Go bland. Go obvious.  Go conservative.  You know…the German way. Just a good, solid, standard bit of continuity in the back and let your creative juices go crazy up in the front third of the field.  The rest will take care of itself.

Garrett McInnis is a regular contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at garrettmcinnis@gmail.com and you should follow him on Twitter at @captainmcinnis, where he tweets about soccer, the law, and how Ole Miss managed a top five recruiting class in college football without cheating. Really, read that again with a straight face.

Filed Under: 2014 World Cup QualifyingFeaturedMarch 2013USMNT

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  • Maxwell

    Took the words out of my mouth. When did we go from “Who the hell is gonna play left-back!?” to “Who is the hell is gonna play defense?!” About the same time Jozy started scoring in droves for AZ and disappeared for the USMNT. This is probably a coincidence. Probably. Anyway, I digress…

    I hope JK realizes he needs to eliminate inconsistency in the Hex, eliminate the NT games as a Gold-Cup tryout (Besler,Morrow), and deliver results we expect. Flashes of defensive prowess should sit fundamentally upon the example of a blue-collar heart we love so much in someone like Bocanegra, the hearth of the American back-line. I’ll never forget that yellow card he earned against Scotland. We all know why he did it, and it only instilled within the rest of the defense a limitless confidence from their fearless leader to put an American effort into an American win. It doesn’t have to be Boca to lead the backline, but it probably should be.

    I’m not worried about the confidence in the midfield, or even the forwards ability to score. If we are really going to play a progressive, attack-minded game that JK wants, the American game needs be begin with a strong defensive effort end-to-end. We all want to watch the USA score lots of goals (a la vs. Scotland), which starts by not letting in any goals against us. Easiest way to do that? Put them on their ass.

    So if we want a three-squares-a-day sort of consistency from the backline, the question becomes:

    Who is hungry?

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  • luckypablo

    Great article and analysis. Back line with Besler and Gonzalez should be what we move to with Cameron finding another spot because he never plays center for his club. We need to nail down our center backs with guys that regularly play at that position. Maybe Cameron or Chandler or Johnson on left or right backs. With one of them moving to mid since they all have experience and play there for there clubs. Castillo is playing very well now in Copa Libertadores games, so he may now be ready for left back as well.

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