By Jon Levy
Jurgen Klinsmann welcomes most of the important European-based pieces of his new national team as he looks to build on the Mexico draw in matches two and three of his USMNT regime. But before we get into the Costa Rica match, some news and notes are in order.
Clint Dempsey did not move to Arsenal this week, but transfer speculation may have led to his impending absence in the Costa Rica match. The flip side of that coin sees The Yanks swapping Landon Donovan for Dempsey when they take on Belgium next week. Lando will stay stateside after friendly number one to focus on business with the Los Angeles Galaxy. And Kyle Beckerman may have a new lease on life with the national team under Klinsmann, but we won’t be seeing him on Friday night. Real Salt Lake are woefully short on midfielders after the international break call-ups, so Jurgen is garnering some good will in the MLS and allowing Beckerman to skip out on Costa Rica and feature for RSL against the Union on Saturday. And don’t think Jurgen isn’t above asking Jason Kreis to repay the favor, somehow, a couple of years down the road. Kyle will forego the short trip to Cali and embark on only the long flight to Belgium, presumably because he really likes waffles. The favor to his club has already led Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis to applaud the likeable Klinsmann for his compassion and understanding (which adds meat to the potatoes comment above).
But Jurgen’s compassion and likeability have never been in question, and it’s actually been a pretty bad couple weeks for his perceived weakness, tactics. First Germany captain Philipp Lahm berated Klinsmann’s tactical acumen in an excerpt from his new biography, claiming that Bayern Munich players were forced to figure everything out for themselves on the field while Jurgen was in charge. Klinsmann rebuked this claim about as effectively as The Dude responding to The Jesus, “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, you’re opinion man.”
Then, in a quicker than expected hiring, Klinsmann named his buddy Martín Vásquez second in command for the US. Vásquez is a career soccer guy, and there’s no doubt he knows the game, but his last gig under Klinsmann was in the same role for Bayern Munich. For the team that Lahm was on. The same team that fell way short of expectations, and was just criticized for being tactically deficient, for the record. Admittedly, Phil Lahm has a track record of running his mouth and being a bit of a petulant punk, but that doesn’t make him wrong. Germany manager Joachim Löw has already told the press that Lahm would be disciplined for the comments made against his former mentor, but again, that doesn’t make Lahm wrong. I’m not saying Lahm is right, but many in the US Soccer community had expressed a hope upon Klinsmann’s hiring that he would appoint an “x’s and o’s guy” as his number two, and it doesn’t seem like that’s what happened. I agreed with everyone from Alexi Lalas to this site’s own Neil Blackmon on what type of “right-hand” Klinsmann should bring in, so color me skeptical about the hire Jurgen just made.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
Tactics? Isn’t that what we’re talking about? Right.
We’ve got a small sample size to look back on when it comes to the USMNT under Klinsmann, but I we can clearly separate the good from the bad in last month’s Mexico match. The first twenty minutes of each half were relatively even, and the second and fourth quarters as it were, were abject landslides in opposite directions. That match probably should have been closer to 2-2 with the amount of chances and near misses for Mexico in minutes 20-45 and The Yanks in minutes 65-90. The failures of USMNT at the end of the first half have been pretty well covered, from the Panic! At The Left Back Edgar Castillo, to an out of position JFT, and not least but last here– an offensively stagnant midfield.
Meanwhile, the success of the American offensive barrage at the end of match was largely attributed to the substitutes providing for more attacking play through more forward passing options in more advanced positions, and that’s fair. Much of the analytical focus was placed on Robbie Rogers and Brek Shea who combined for the goal, and were part of the team’s best moves. But as much as I love two of Major League Soccer’s best wide men (said slightly tongue in cheek), I hope Jurgen and his staff are focusing more on how to consistently generate that en masse attack, and less on ways to filter the ball to “Flock of Shea-gulls” and Robbie “Clown Shoes” Rogers. That doesn’t mean I don’t want and expect to see more out of those guys, just that the tactical construction is far more important.
US Player to Watch: Sacha Kljestan
Okay, so going backwards for just a sentence here, I’ve already referred to the USMNT attack at the end of the Mexico exhibition as a “barrage” and “en masse.” Both those terms are synonyms for what I’m constantly praising about El Tri’s attack, the swarm.
The Mexican swarm uses Gio Dos Santos as a hinge (or swivel for our Shin Guardian faithful). Gio’s deployment is specific to his skill set, but every attacking force needs a fulcrum of some sort to distribute from a relatively central position during offensives. Michael Bradley was erroneously deployed at what looked like was supposed to be the central offensive distribution point in the first half against Mexico last month, and while he was calm and clean on the ball, MB90 is not that guy. When Jose Francisco Torres was moved inside later in the match and given runners of Shea and Rogers to pass to he and the offense were much more effective.
If Klinsmann is committed to an attack involving more than just Jozy Altidore elbowing people, and I think he is, then Sacha should get an audition for what many assume will come to be the Stu Holden role. Kljestan’s resume tape is the Gold Cup quarterfinal against Jamaica, and it’s good enough on its own to get him a nice look at something close to his natural position (finally). I have a feeling Sacha is just the type of European-style midfielder, pass first/less direct/more creative, that Jurgen will embrace.
All that said, with Beckerman out for this match, and MB90 and Ricardo Clark back in Europe, Kljestan may have to play one of the less advanced central midfield roles in this match, while Jose Torres is given a chance to build on what he showed at center attacking mid in the latter stages of the Mexico match. That should still workout fine though, once you’ve served as CM under Bob Bradley you’re pretty much programmed to avoid risks and support your center backs, and I think Sacha can start the offense from back there if asked to.
And what will we see out of Costa Rica?
The Ticos certainly aren’t bringing their best team to The Home Depot Center, but they’re not trotting out a squad full of scrubs either. Like most of their Euro-based players, captain Bryan Ruiz didn’t make the trip for this one, but he had an eventful week anyway. The influential winger completed a move from Twente to Fulham just before the close of the transfer window, so we’ll be able to watch him combine with Clint Dempsey to try and keep the London club in the Premiership this season! And really– wasn’t it about damn time the Cottagers got Deuce some help? But while that presents an exciting prospect, we won’t be seeing either of those players in this match.
The most notable exception to Costa Rica’s European vacation policy comes in the form of starting goalkeeper Keylor Navas, so the US will be forced to earn their goals in this one; depressing, I know.
More significant than the squad selections or even the manager, is the style that Costa Rica has been playing for years, and will probably play against the new(ish) look Yanks on Friday night. The Ticos’ deliberate ball control style of play has outlasted no less than six new managers in just the last two years, so I’m hesitant to give Jorge Luis Pinto too much preliminary credit for what we’ll see on the pitch in Carson, CA. This isn’t to say that Costa Rica plays boring. They’re far less negative than some of their Central American neighbors, and it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest they have “higher footballing aspirations,” meant in the most pretentious and English sense possible. At their best they move themselves and the ball very quickly and can make an irresponsible defense pay big, or teach a hard lesson to a stagnant US team in a new formation (June, 2009). It’s possible this style is built into the nation’s futbol identity; what the cheeky dribble-trick is to Mexico, the pacey outlet pass is to Costa Rica. This allows the team to regularly stay in matches and avoid embarrassing results, even against more skilled competition. So, the US will most likely have to earn their chances as well as their goals.
Costa Rica Player to Watch: Álvaro Saborío
This team’s got some guys in their early twenties and some players looking for their first cap, but it’s also got seasoned vets like the Real Salt Lake offensive machine. Saborío was heavily criticized for a couple misses in the Gold Cup this summer, and I expect the prolific forward to respond the only way he knows how, by scoring goals. The Yanks can avoid this fate only by denying him opportunities to operate in space in and near the eighteen yard box. Unfortunately for The States, Saborío will not be a pulling a Beckerman this weekend and skipping out on the national team to face the Philadelphia Union.
Prediction: USA 3 – 1 Costa Rica
I think we’re in for a little honeymoon stage here with our new manager, but maybe that’s just me being the eternal optimist after raising questions about him. Two goals from actual forwards in this match, how’s that for a USMNT prediction! And stock up on Labatt Blue and Crown Royal, because Bunbury’s going yard.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can and should follow him and his West Ham Championship Quest on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.