Neil W. Blackmon
Two months ago in Jacksonville, after a dominant 4-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago secured US passage to the final round “Hex”, Jurgen Klinsmann puffed his chest a bit in a press conference.
He’d earned the right, truth be told.
After a troubling 2015, the US had shown dramatic improvement in 2016, and had the summer credentials to prove it. A semifinal run at the Copa América Centenario was capped by a dominant pair of Labor Day weekend qualifying victories. The U.S. had suffered growing pains and roster adjustments in the eighteen months following the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, sparking intense criticisms of Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff. What a difference a summer made. Klinsmann sat in front of the media beaming, suggesting he was finally comfortable with his personnel and the growth the program was making under his stewardship.
“In every time period between World Cups, we are trying to bring in younger players to push the older ones, to improve competition, to mix things up. The downs last year were part of the process,” Klinsmann said, channeling his inner Nick Saban. “So was the good showing this summer,” he added. “But even there, you have lessons, like the Argentina game. it is a part of the process.”
Klinsmann paused and continued.
“The chance to play a Copa America was priceless for us. It was amazing in helping to build confidence. And now we can go into the Hexagonal with our chests puffed out and seeing ourselves on the right path after last year. The path isn’t always just up. The downs are part of the process to getting to enjoying a night like tonight. You mature and get there. Always moving forward.”
Two months later, following last night’s 2-1 US defeat to Mexico at a sold-out MAPFRE stadium in Columbus, Ohio, the manager is again under fire. In the wake of the United States Men’s National team losing its first home World Cup qualifying match in fifteen years, it’s hard to argue the Americans moved forward.
Perhaps beginning the Hex with zero points and having your arch rival win in a building where you’d seemed invincible is just another natural ebb and flow, a fluctuation or down bullet point on Klinsmann’s bell curve of progress. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like a fairly substantial step backwards.
Holding the manager to his word, he would agree.
In Jacksonville, Klinsmann said the US had the confidence to win both the opening fixtures of the Hex.
“It’s a huge opportunity to start the Hexagonal in these two matches,” Klinsmann said in September. “It’s not easy, with these opponents, everyone knows that. But we have the confidence, especially after the Copa America, to go into these games and get six points. If it’s four points, we’ll take that too.”
The US won’t have six points when it leaves these two matches and looks forward to 2017. It won’t have four either. And the Yanks will need to do something they’ve never done- win a qualifier in Costa Rica- to even get three. And while it is true that there are still eight qualifiers in 2017 that will help define the Americans World Cup fate- last night’s loss was devastating, both for the psychological edge over Mexico that was lost and for the progress that was obstructed in defeat. And mostly, because with better tactics from the opening whistle, the loss was avoidable.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to open the biggest home qualifier of the cycle in what he dubbed a 3-4-3, a formation the US has not utilized in a competitive match since the Steve Sampson era, wreaked havoc on the Americans, both in terms of shape and defensive spacing and in attack, where the US struggled to locate simple outlet passes to the midfield zones to initiate offense in the Mexican half. The Americans spent the first half hour of the game overrun, particularly down the right flank, where the choice to start Timothy Chandler, in form in Germany but only a nominal figure in the US’s 2016 collective improvement, proved to be a mistake.
When asked why, in such a big game, he deployed a formation the US had only utilized in a Camp Cupcake friendly against Chile to open 2015, Klinsmann sounded incredulous: “We trained that [formation] and it went really well in training.” Klinsmann added it had nothing to do with Mexico’s approach either.
It’s important, in soccer, to take the initiative, play a style and try to impose it on an opponent. You don’t have to attack to do this– but you do have to seize the game. But decisions about how to play, even when a style is culturally ingrained (in the United States, one is not), don’t operate in a vacuum. Managers tinker and adjust. But again, that happens with a framing in mind, an objective, an opponent to frustrate.
To suggest the US formation change, away from the 4-4-2 that helped the side succeed throughout the summer and to a brand new formation not subjected to any of the trial and error pragmatism of an international friendly, had nothing to do with the opponent, is madness. A tinker for the sake of a tinker in the biggest home qualifier of the cycle. A Klinsmann knows best moment, and what that demands is accountability.
As usual JK wants to prove how much smarter than the rest of us he is with this selection…and as usual he isn't. #USAvMEX
— Kartik Krishnaiyer (@kkfla737) November 12, 2016
However, there would be none.
In the aftermath of the defeat, Klinsmann insisted the formation was a 3-4-3, not the 3-5-2 it functioned as in shape. And he blamed Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones for failing to space the formation properly, noting that the Americans spacing had created a lack of help defense on the opening goal for Mexico.
When you play 3-5-2, you better understand defensive spacing, your fullbacks better help defend in the zones between the CB and midfield, and your CB’s better be able to move to cover the additional space.
The US fullback on the right flank, Chandler, struggled mightily, and was late to help when Bradley lost the 50-50 in the video above. His tardiness gave Layun time to get off his shot on the opener.
As for the American CBs, Omar Gonzalez and John Brooks were okay covering the extra space, but the lack of live repetitions showed. Couple that with the fact that only one American starter- Michael Bradley- plays a similar formation at the club level, and you begin to understand the American collective confusion.
Trailing 1-0 and fortunate it was only one goal, the game changed in the 27th minute. Andres Guardado, once again brilliant against the United States, left the game with an injury. As he departed, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones walked to the touchline and had a brief conversation with the manager. The veteran midfielders urged Klinsmann to switch the formation. Klinsmann agreed, shifting to the 4-4-2 that had served the Americans so well through the summer.
Back in the comfortable 4-4-2, the US defended better and looked much more fluid in attack. The US created opportunities through a lively Bobby Wood late in the first half, attacking the weak El Tri center of CB Diego Reyes and Carlos Salcedo, who has had better nights in a Mexico shirt. The Americans leveled on a beautiful turn and dish from Jozy Altidore to Wood, who finished calmly despite the ball taking an odd hop. But for some inspired goalkeeping from Alfredo Talavera, the Yanks would have pulled ahead.
But the damage had been done in the first half. Put in a hole due to Klinsmann’s tactical error, the Americans dominant hour was spoiled by longtime nemesis Rafa Márquez in the 88th minute. Marquez got loose on the back post and headed past a leaping but helpless Brad Guzan to give El Tri a winner.
For Márquez, it was another moment to cement his legend in one of soccer’s best rivalries. The former Barcelona star was brilliant all evening, making up for Guardado’s absence with cool passing from the backline and steadying an unsettled Mexican midfield that saw a subpar performance from the talismanic Héctor Herrera.
For the US, it was a reminder that tactics matter, and a poor half hour stemming from a poor plan can render some special individual performances- particularly by the likes of Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood- meaningless.
It was also a cruel reminder that the Americans lack a great margin for error, even in a building that is supposed to be a fortress. On a night raw with emotion, from the pregame Veterans Day salutes to the shows of unity, inclusion and solidarity in the wake of Tuesday’s surprising election, the US neglected to do the little things that impact winning properly. Failing to cover a back post and mark a set piece with a game at stake is not the type of error a team with talent and tactical limitations can afford. And whether it was Jozy Altidore’s job to mark Márquez or someone else, the Americans need to perform better moving forward.
A manager’s job, at the most basic level, is to put players in a position to succeed, what Matthew Doyle aptly described as the “Hippocratic Oath” of football management. Whatever your take on his long term future, Jurgen Klinsmann failed in that regard Friday.
Six other quick thoughts:
Credit Mexico. A few months removed from the 7-0 loss to Chile, a match where El Tri were globally criticized for basically giving up on the field, El Tri never quit Friday, even after the US had seized the momentum and were thundering away at the Mexican goalmouth trying to take the lead. The winning goal, on a corner set up after a beautiful counterattack, showed how quickly Mexico’s quality can change a game.
But it was the mentality of the side and their (forever) under fire manager that impressed the most. In a hostile environment, and after losing their heartbeat in Guardado, El Tri stayed together and stayed with Juan Carlos Osorio’s plan. It was enough for three vital road points.
Klinsmann’s substitutions were poor too: If you are going to start Jermaine Jones after announcing he can’t play 90 minutes, fine. And Jones was much better when the Americans switched to the familiar 4-4-2, even if Jones and Bradley continue to be less than an ideal as a pairing. But keeping an obviously tired Jones on the field in favor of removing Timothy Chandler was poor, particularly with Mexico on its heels and the crowd willing the US to a victory. At home, managers should make ambitious changes. Klinsmann had Sacha Kljestan, who I voted for as the MVP of Major League Soccer, and who looked brilliant in a US shirt in September, on the bench. He had Julian Green, in form and seeing the field for Bayern Munich, on the bench. His response was to bring on DeAndre Yedlin, who yielded nothing going forward, though he played well enough defensively to make you wonder why he didn’t start at fullback to begin with.
His final substitution, Michael Orozco for the cramping Matt Besler, showed just as little in the way of ambition.
The US is in crisis at the goalkeeper position: There’s not really any way around this anymore. Ryan Rosenblatt wrote at FOX Sports that the US need a new starting goalkeeper. That’s half-right. The real root of the problem is that at 37 years old, Tim Howard remained the best American option in a game of that scale, as his brilliant early save of a Tecatio Corona blast demonstrated.
The problem of course is that when you start a 37 year old at goalkeeper, you risk the player’s body doing 37 year old things. Any athlete or active person in their 30’s will tell you muscles are usually the first things to go, even when you are as strong and fit as Tim Howard. So when, on a very cold night, his groin gave out in the first half, the US had to burn a substitution on a goalkeeper. That’s bad always- it is un fracaso when you are already behind.
So what does Klinsmann have to do with the misfortune of an injury?
As technical director, his job is to find and develop an American keeper for the future. He hasn’t done so, and as manager, he has seldom given young keepers looks and almost never started anyone. The best shot stopper in the pool is Bill Hamid, who can’t buy minutes with the national team. It’s a failure of the technical director and an indictment of the manager that he can think it’s okay to tinker with a formation in a Hexagonal match but not okay to tinker with a young keeper in the 2 years leading up to Friday night.
Christian Pulisic is really good, but not ready to be the US number ten. At least not in a 3-5-2 formation. He excelled on the wing, where he plays at Dortmund.
Jozy Altidore, quietly having the best season of his career, played his best game in an American shirt last night. He’s had a lot of games in an American shirt, but the US have missed him in meaningful tournament play the past few summers. Healthy, confident, and vastly improved as a target player, Altidore ate Hector Moreno alive on more than one occasion last night and his turn and assist on Wood’s goal was a play of substantial quality.
The US missed Clint Dempsey last night. It isn’t a coincidence that the US lost the first competitive match the US played against a team of equal or better quality without the Sounders star. Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore played their hearts out in his absence. But the Texan’s leadership, and his ability to get in the heads of Mexican players, was sorely missed.
Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.