2013 Gold Cup, Featured, July 2013

Tuesday Thoughts: Donovan’s Future Role, Eating Crow on EJ, More Semis Thoughts…

Landon Donovan paced another dominant US Gold Cup performance, this time at the famed "Balt-zteca".

Landon Donovan paced another dominant US Gold Cup performance, this time at the famed “Balt-zteca”.

Neil W. Blackmon

Ooo that Baltzteca looked scandalous,

And you wondered if a US B-team could handle this,

Then Donovan dazzled and EJ Sisqoed,

The US dominated aga-innnn…”\

Baltimore was basically El Salvador’s version of the Azteca Sunday but even what was essentially a road game a short drive from the capital of…you know…America, couldn’t stop the streaking United States Men’s National Team, who won their ninth consecutive match in a 5-1 dissection of El Salvador. El Salvador aren’t a great team, and the narrative of the “US playing a road game in a hostile environment on home soil” was one of the more silly narratives in a while, and yet,  the fact remains that this was a thoroughly dominating performance by a team playing at an extremely high level right now. And it occurred against a team that, while not nearly as talented, was highly competitive and difficult to break down in all three of its group stage matches, including a 1-0 defeat to rival Honduras where El Salvador really deserved a part of the spoils.

To your writer, it was the nature of the victory, not the opponent, that was so impressive. It was a knockout stage match that delivered on the promise Jurgen Klinsmann made when he took the job– that the US could play a diverse, attractive brand of attacking football befitting their diverse, attractive culture and that when on their game, they could thoroughly outclass the lesser-talented CONCACAF minnows who had given them fits in the past. Gone, US fans hoped, would be the “I’ll take it” 1-0 colossal struggles against bunkered-in, outmanned CONCACAF opposition. Instead, the US would dominate who they ought to, and with gusto. To see a US “B” side do that Sunday in Baltimore was more than encouraging, it was validation for a manager who just four months ago was in the crosshairs. That’s remarkable progress, and it has earned Jurgen Klinsmann a large measure of trust from the fans and media alike moving forward.

With this trust and progress come new challenges and opportunities. Let’s examine those as the US turns its attention to Dallas and Jerry’s World for Wednesday night’s semifinal against Honduras.

The US are now dominating lesser-talented sides. This is a promise Klinsmann made when he took the job.

The US are now dominating lesser-talented sides. This is a promise Klinsmann made when he took the job.

First, I tweeted this Sunday night, and I’ll defend it moving forward. Finding out how Landon Donovan integrates into the “full” (read “A”) US side is Jurgen Klinsmann’s largest challenge over the next few months, save the Mexico qualifier in Columbus.

The World Cup qualifier in September against El Tri remains the watershed game for the US progress under Klinsmann, and the way the US are playing right now, it appears as if it could be a Doc Holliday on Wyatt Earp type “Make no mistake, it’s not revenge he’s after, it’s a reckoning” type match.

Still, form can be fallacy– just look at Mexico, who are in disarray heading towards a potential Gold Cup final at Soldier Field next weekend only a year after winning the Olympics and hearing loud whispers about “Dark Horse” title status in Brazil. That should keep the US’ feet on the ground (a point of emphasis for Klinsmann in the ESPN studio following the US win over Algeria), and a struggling El Tri will have all of the US’ focus and attention as summer turns to fall.

Challenge number two, and part of the US vs. Mexico focus, however, will be finding where to deploy Landon Donovan moving forward. Put simply, Donovan has been astoundingly good in the Gold Cup. His movement in the final third has been spectacular. His service Sunday was sublime, producing three assists and raising a legitimate question as to whether he or Graham Zusi should retain those duties with the full team. That’s a far cry from where the US was against Guatemala- remember Jose Torres insisting that he take most the set pieces- and literally taking the ball from Donovan on the early corner kicks? His motor is a 10,000 meter motor– or it was Sunday, when DaMarcus Beasley actually singled him out for tracking back and defending with vigor.

Landon has shown Klinsmann more than he needed to see. Question now is about deployment.

Landon has shown Klinsmann more than he needed to see. Question now is about deployment.

“There’s no debate,” Beasley said after Sunday’s game. “For me, Landon has grown throughout the tournament. I didn’t think it could get better than the last game, but it just did. Landon is being Landon. He’s happy. He’s excited to be here, and you see it in how he plays. He’s assisting, he’s scoring. And for me, now that I’m a defender, he’s defending. I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Donovan is happy and Donovan is productive. This is a far cry from the Donovan we saw last summer. After he scored a hat trick against Scotland in Jacksonville, I asked Donovan if he felt that great performance would springboard him away from the comments he made in the build-up to that game suggesting he would take a break from international duty and MLS. Donovan looked exhausted, and half-mumbled his response. “It’s not a matter of ‘want to’,” Donovan told me. “It is a question as to whether, feeling the way I do now, I am capable of executing the way I need to do at this level.” His voice trailed off, and seemingly distracted, he added, “at every level, really.” A handful of months later, Donovan had left the game, calling it a “sabbatical”, and unsure if it was permanent.

I wrote some time later that based on those remarks, and based on all he had given to US Soccer, I wasn’t sure if he would return to the game at all. And that when he did, it wouldn’t be an automatic that he’d get back in the Klinsmann circle of trust. It was fair to ask those questions.

This trio's goal and celebration aptly demonstrated Donovan's new-found joy for the game.

This trio’s goal and celebration aptly demonstrated Donovan’s new-found joy for the game.

It is marvelous to see Donovan this happy. His goal celebration Sunday was one of the best I’ve seen from an American player in some time- a celebration of the moment, a player who had nowhere else he’d rather be. The only thing that will be more satisfying for Donovan than this return, what is palpable every time he speaks, is his desire to contribute this autumn. Can he? Clarence Goodson told Grant Wahl that was a “silly question.” Grant knew it was– he asked it to prove the debate was no longer a debate.

The question for Klinsmann now becomes “where.” Slotting him behind Altidore is one option, but you don’t want to eliminate the mojo and momentum Clint Dempsey has generated in his absence. Dempsey’s goal-scoring binge (remember when he was the only American who could score?) came largely in Donovan’s absence. That’s not all coincidence. Klinsmann will obviously want to integrate Donovan in the least-intrusive means possible. The left flank is likely the best spot– it doesn’t require him to move Dempsey from his left-drifting-central position, and allows DaMarcus Beasley to overlap. If Klinsmann wants, it allows Fab Johnson to overlap instead of Beasley (but that’s a different column). It also keeps Graham Zusi on the field, in all likelihood, on the other flank.

Mexico happens too quickly after this tournament for Klinsmann to get a long look. But the autumn friendlies, including one in Europe, give him a testing period. And as much as it would upset Bruce Arena, Klinsmann would do well to put Donovan on a plane to Europe this fall, where he could join what is always a highly European-based US team, and Klinsmann could give him a look in a couple different spots.

Donovan will be on the plane to Brazil if he is healthy. It is now a matter of where will he play.

Eddie Johnson celebrating another US goal this summer. Time to eat crow.

Eddie Johnson celebrating another US goal this summer. Time to eat crow.

Second, Eddie Johnson aka Sisqo has done enough to make me eat crow on my consistent criticisms. 

The Eddie Johnson currently playing for the US Men’s National team, he of the deft first touch and fourteen seconds after taking the field goals is a far cry from the Eddie “First Touch” Johnson who struggled mightily in Europe and who I thought was desperately trying to revive a career that had gone terribly south when he returned to MLS with the Sounders early in 2012. Even after Johnson played well with Seattle, I wasn’t confident that he had anywhere near the first touch, or the work rate, to help internationally. Now the only issue is his “Thong Song” haircut…

Repeatedly this summer, Eddie Johnson has proven me wrong. I love being wrong about Florida natives, and I’ve also made a habit at Yanks Are Coming of admitting my miscalculations, so Johnson deserves this space. He absolutely has a place in Klinsmann’s side, whether it be in an advanced wing spot where at present he’s still leagues better than Brek Shea or as a substitute option at forward with Boyd, Gomez and Wondolowski. Johnson’s first touch is what has improved the most, to me, but he’s also finally figured out how to use what has always been a great mind for the game to compliment his talents.

Johnson’s goal Sunday was evidence of his ability to execute precisely what Klinsmann wants him to do within a system. That said, his play this summer in qualifying is a better marker of his growth as a player. How many times in the past did you get the sense Johnson knew what was happening in front or behind of him, and he’d make the proper run, but be unable to either time the run right or execute when the ball came to him? That’s changed. It’s a credit to Sigi Schmid, yes, but it is also a credit to Johnson’s improved understanding of his own limitations as a player. His timing has improved, but so has his body positioning. He has slowed down to receive the ball, and taken time to collect himself, settling for distributions instead of wild shots, or, as in the goal below, taking the extra touch necessary to ensure he’s on target. Those are subtle things and signs of a maturing player, and in Johnson’s case, one who will be a very useful option for Klinsmann as the Yanks move toward next summer.

Finally, the US central defense has impressed at this tournament, and is nearing a solid foursome for next summer.

Don’t read much into Matt Besler’s quick run out in Sunday’s match. There’s no real indication he aggravated an injury and he’s still the top center half in the US depth pool. Omar Gonzalez, who has joined the Yanks in Dallas, is likewise holding at # 2. The interesting thing at the Gold Cup has been the play of Michael Orozco-Fiscal, whose pace and positioning have been outstanding, and who has limited his usual proclivity for silly fouls in bad areas and his carelessness on set piece marking. Fiscal has played resoundingly steady football, and might be a # 3 now if Geoff Cameron is not a center half option.

Michael Orozco-Fiscal is proving himself a capable Besler-Gonzalez deputy for Klinsmann.

Michael Orozco-Fiscal is proving himself a capable Besler-Gonzalez deputy for Klinsmann.

Meanwhile, Clarence Goodson has also impressed. He played a great match against Costa Rica (they seem to bring out the best in him), and had a great half, including the beautiful set piece goal, against El Salvador. His second half left something to be desired, as his positioning was hurting the United States ability to close gaps on the El Salvador counter, and it was magnified, as it always is, by his lack of pace to correct when he finds himself adrift. There were at least two El Salvador counters where Zelaya nearly broke free because Goodson wasn’t positioned properly, preventing offside calls. (As a measure of Besler’s leadership, he approached Goodson on the second occasion, pointing to the spot where Goodson needed to be.)

Goodson’s run-outs vs. Mexico have been dreadful, and it is hard to see him figuring in the Gold Cup Final if El Tri handle Panama, but despite his limitations, he is a dominant enough aerial presence, and has shown enough at this tournament, to be included next summer. He might even be a starter if the Americans play a physical, tall, brutish European side (see, Croatia, Hungary, Greece) in the group stages. Last thing of note on the Goodson discussion: the better Goodson plays, the more pressure on Maurice Edu. Edu’s versatility is valued by Klinsmann, but Cameron at this stage is an “Edu-plus”, in that regard, and Edu’s distribution issues make him earning a spot outright as a midfielder less clear. The good news? Klinsmann has earned enough trust and has enough capital to make these decisions confidently moving forward.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and C0-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.