Featured, January 2015, USMNT

USA vs. Chile: TYAC Preview: The New Camp Cupcake

Klinsmann hopes 2015 has the US again trending up, after the autumn swoon.

Klinsmann hopes 2015 has the US again trending up, after the autumn swoon.


Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy

 Given the way 2014 closed- ties at home to Ecuador and Honduras, a loss in London to Colombia and a thrashing in Dublin against Ireland—American fans, and Jurgen Klinsmann, most likely—are thrilled the 2015 campaign will begin for US Soccer against Chile Wednesday evening in the Chilean wine country town of Rancagua (5 PM ET, Fox Sports 1).

Now before you open that bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and settle in for this preview, consider the wrinkle in traditional US January openers (Concacaf opponent, home match, fringe roster).

The US have turned the traditional Camp Cupcake into Camp Doughnut (Doughnuts are the new, improved cupcake, and this graph proves it). What I mean here, of course, is that while traditional January have featured domestic league players on the fringes of the U.S. player pool, this January camp features domestic league players already well assimilated into U.S. Soccer’s national team culture. Largely, this is a byproduct of the headlong flight of elite American players from unsettling European club situations to MLS, where lavish contracts and endorsements await. More top-tier U.S. player pool selections in MLS means more top-tier U.S. player pool selections for the January camp.

The irony is exceptional: Jurgen Klinsmann’s number one complaint about being a national team manager is he simply doesn’t have his best players in the same camp often enough.

Meanwhile, Klinsmann’s chief complain in his other role, that of U.S. soccer technical director, is a lamentation on the reluctance of U.S. star players to challenge themselves in Europe. To the bitter end, Klinsmann expressed disappointment in the Americans greatest field player, Landon Donovan, because “he could have been better” if he had challenged himself abroad. And it is no secret Klinsmann views moves back to MLS as a step back for his players. In fact, Klinsmann’s made  this argument with enough frequency to induce MLS league commissioner Don Garber into a bizarre press conference this past October where Garber defended the league from Klinsmann’s “frustrating” and uninformed assault.

In the end, Klinsmann the national team manager reduces the frustration of that job at the expense of increasing the frustration of Klinsmann the technical director. But hey, Sunil Gulati seems convinced Klinsmann is the best man for both gigs. So we move on. Into 2015.

Sampaoli continues the Chilean tradition of attractive attacking tactics.

Sampaoli continues the Chilean tradition of attractive attacking tactics.

Let’s kick around the usuals before we dive into the particulars, shall we?

SERIES: 10th meeting. Chile lead, 4-3-2. The first meeting came at the 1950 World Cup, in Recife, Brazil. The Americans were bested 5-2 in a match that came three days after one of the finest days in US Soccer history, when  the US stunned pre-tournament favorites England on a Joe Gaetjans goal in Belo Horizonte. Chile went on to win or draw every meeting with the Americans until 1995, when the US won 2-1 in Uruguay. The Americans have won or drawn each of the three matches since, including a 2-1 win in Coquimbo in January 2000 behind goals by Cobi Jones and Eddie Lewis. That win for the Americans marks the only previous encounter on Chilean soil.

WEATHER: Rancagua weather Wednesday night appears to be terrific- a warm sunny day with highs in the 80s and cooling to the mid-sixties at game time.  The match will be played at the recently renovated Estadio El Teniente, which despite a capacity of only 15,200 will also be a group stage venue for the 2015 Copa America.

Jon Levy on What to watch for from the Yanks:

I’m keeping a close eye on the USMNT’s formation on Wednesday evening, and that’s not the norm for a January “Camp Cupcake” match. But as noted in the introduction, this is no ordinary Camp Cupcake roster. Each position group has one more seasoned national team player than we’d usually see on a “show your stuff” January squad. Some of that is obviously due to the “Americans migrating back to MLS” movement, but we’re getting indications that Jurgen Klinsmann selected these players with a tactical change/experiment in mind.

 Ever since Jermaine Jones made a reference to it after a couple training sessions, 3-5-2 is on the tips of American tongues. So why is Klinsmann looking at the 3-5-2? And how will it play with this squad?

 The 3-5-2 requires a pair of tireless all-action wing backs who relish the opportunity to get forward, and have the make-up speed to track back and help the bank of three central defenders. You’ll probably notice that I just described DeAndre Yedlin. Sadly for this incarnation of the USMNT, that description doesn’t fit anyone else on this roster. Oh, and the rumblings about Brek Shea playing wing back on the left flank are quite disturbing. No sentence should contain the name “Brek Shea” and a position ending in “back” unless it’s lauding his will to make opposing defenders look bad. Wing backs in a 3-5-2 don’t have to be masterful technical defenders, but you can’t just deploy the most defensively hapless speedster on your team either. That said, guys like Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Edgar Castillo, Greg Garza, Chris Klute, and Tony Beltran could be options at wing back if this formation takes.

A potential US 11 is in the graphic– and as you’ll read below, we’re not ruling out the idea of a Wil Trapp start given the inexperience of Chile’s group– and we’d never rule out a Serna look over Ibarra at the other “wingback” spot. We would, however, be stunned if both Serna and Shea were favored of Ibarra, as the Minnesota United star has played over the past year, which rules out Shea, and he’s played brilliantly to Serna’s good. All arguments for Shea or Serna above Ibarra are about writing off NASL, not talent or form.

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Jurgen’s other big motivation for trying out the 3-5-2 is obvious; he’s dead set on converting Jermaine Jones into his very own Rio Ferdinand (circa 2006). The idea of taking a hard-tackling midfielder like Jermaine and converting him into a ball-distributing central defender before retirement is a good one. Putting that ball-control brain on the back line would have worked the team out of a number of jams against Belgium in the World Cup. The problem, of course, is that the passing perk becomes an almost irrelevant silver lining if Mr. Jones cannot reliably perform the primary function of a central defender. Since Jermaine’s looking shaky as a defender thus far, Klinsmann, it would seem, now has the formula to ease his transition from midfield. Jones can sit in between two more traditional center halves, and assume a hybrid roll that’s part central defender, part defensive midfielder. Sounds great, right? Not so fast my friend. In spite my great esteem for Jermaine Jones, here’s how I see this part of the 3-5-2 experiment playing itself out:

Jermaine cuts out an attack or two early, makes some quality outlet passes, and gains the confidence that leads to his downfall for the rest of the match. Suddenly America’s most central defender is “in the game” and “feeling it,” so he’s doing his defensive midfielder bit, tracking down the ball wherever it may go. But his recessed anchor position means he’s doing so in and near his own box, essentially playing sweeper and “traditional six” midfield all at once. And since Jermaine Jones is not Franz Beckenbauer, this is not going to work out. To put it in NFL terms, your aging cornerback-turned-super-safety just went rogue and left a gap in your defense that even RG3 could exploit. So now your bonus center backs are hung out to dry, and oh by the way, the manager already deems everyone in the player pool at that position to be such a liability that he’s absolutely refusing to concede defeat on this Defender Jones experiment!

So. That’s just my take on why I’m leery of the USMNT taking the 3-5-2 out for a spin. I’ll be quite happy to be proven wrong, and I can’t be mad at a manager using a January friendly to workshop new ideas.

Perry Kitchen, a mainstay of US youth team midfields, auditions in defense.

Perry Kitchen, a mainstay of US youth team midfields, auditions in defense.

Two other quick player notes, because this is an interesting roster.

First, Sean Johnson in goal, not because Rimando isn’t the steady veteran and the best goalkeeper in MLS- that’s who usually starts this friendly, right– but because Johnson has earned the shot Bill Hamid just got, and it is a new World Cup cycle and one where behind Brad Guzan there’s not really a number two for the time being and won’t be until Tim Howard returns and he and Guzan decide who starts. 

Second, there’s been plenty of chatter about Perry Kitchen as a defender. Here’s our take: he’s probably not a national team midfielder unless the Yanks return to the empty bucket (unlikely). He is, however, a competent passer and a disciplined defender in his midfield position. So you move him. He’s not a national team fullback however, unless you like out of position midfielders like Brad Evans in that role. And he’s not fast enough to adjust to the role like DaMarcus Beasley was when he covered that far post all night in Natal. So, is he a centerback? Well, he’s not a traditional one, really. But he might excel in the role described above for Jermaine Jones if the 3-5-2 becomes less experimental and more reality. And that’s probably a big reason he’s listed as a defender in camp. That position suits his disciplined, skilled  short passing and defending and allows for his infrequent but typically smart and effective runs forward. I think Kitchen is a smart- if limited- soccer player. I think you find a way for those kinds of guys to help the national team, like Ricardo Clark did in the 2010 cycle and Kyle Beckerman did in the 2014 cycle. 

Jose Rojas is the only player in this La Roja group who played in Brazil.

Jose Rojas is the only player in this La Roja group who played in Brazil.

Neil W. Blackmon on What To Watch For From Chile:

A splendid question, at least personnel wise.

While the United States bring a Camp Doughnut side to Rancagua that features nine members of the 2014 World Cup side,  Chile have domesticized their January roster, (Camp Banana Pepper?)- bringing a squad composed entirely of players from their top league, the Chilean Primera Division. This means a young, inexperienced side for manager Jorge Sampaoli, one that features only two 2014 World Cup veterans, goalkeeper Johnny Herrera and tough tackling center back José Rojas, the only member of this side who played in Brazil.

So with a less-experienced side, the 2015 Copa America hosts will be a tough scout, right? Not entirely.

La Roja are to international soccer what the Oregon Ducks are to college football. The Ducks may not win national championships, but they move the ratings needle and are fun. Chile, likewise, may not win tournaments, but they are steady in style and system, particularly since Marcelo Bielsa took the job as manager of La Roja in 2007. Bielsa’s Chilean teams are an ideal example of how national team tactics and ideas playing themselves out in international soccer often impact and improve domestic leagues and ultimately, player cohesion.

Bielsa brought his uncompromising 3-3-1-3 to Chile and his teams pressed heavily and attacked almost constantly, and that style trickled down to the domestic league, particularly Primera power Universidad de Chile. Naturally, when Bielsa departed (following a 1-1 draw in Los Angeles with the Yanks, as it turned out- and yes, Teal Bunbury scored for the US of A),  Jorge Sampaoli, who was playing the same system and winning championships with Universidad, eventually took over Bielsa’s post.

The transition was smooth, if not seamless, as Sampaoli rescued Chile’s World Cup qualification and quickly reinstituted Bielsa’s heavy pressing sytle.  Chile have an identity, something Jurgen Klinsmann often speaks of developing in the American game, despite what can only fairly be characterized as a pragmatic tactical approach. To accommodate that identity, Sampaoli has chosen many of his old Universidad players for the national side while simultaneously continuing the Bielsa approach.

It will be interesting, this cycle, to see if Jurgen Klinsmann can come up with something interesting, which then trickles down to Major League Soccer.  As it currently stands, with the exception of a couple of domestic managers in the states (Bruce Arena, Jason Kreis, Óscar Pareja), it would be tough for Klinsmann to accommodate MLS-specific tactics on the world stage against more ‘advanced’ European approaches, though from a pragmatic standpoint, he hasn’t been reluctant to do so when results necessitate that.

At least Chile wont have their scary good European players.

At least Chile wont have their scary good European players.

The Americans should expect Chile to be Chile Wednesday night then, staying true to their system, pressing the ball heavily and attacking relentlessly. Except without the really scary good European club guys. And Marcelo Isla.

La Roja remained the most attacking side at the World Cup, just as they were in 2010, and the personnel shouldn’t affect that a great deal. In fact, the addition of old Rafa Benitez failure Mark Gonzalez to Sampaoli’s side since the World Cup ended has been perhaps the most (only?) interesting development.

Gonzalez is an electric fast left winger even at age 31, and he’s part and parcel the key to Chile obeying the first commandment of football under Sampaoli: retain width at any cost. Sampaoli’s forwards in Brazil also heeded this edict—which meant supporter Arturo Vidal played almost like a false nine at times—but tomorrow- youth may make it critical for Gonzalez to keep things wide. With Gonzalez hugging the areas on the wide left, the wing back tucked inside will dart forward, and Chile play the ball quickly to that space, particularly when they recover the ball in the midfield zone. If both Gonzalez and the wingback are forward in wide spaces and a defender has little help—the system is working.

What will be missing from this side (or should be), is the dynamic attacking player. Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas played these roles well in Brazil, with Arturo Vidal supporting them to pressure every backline. There’s nowhere near that quality here, although youngster Juan Delgado is a speedy and raw talent who has dominated at all levels of Chile’s youth system and scored in his first lengthy appearance for the national team last autumn.

Sampaoli will play with a number ten, presumably César Valenzuela, another mainstay of the Chilean youth international teams currently playing for Palestino- any appearance by this youngster would mark his first cap. Again, there’s not much experience here, which should help the Americans, because Sampaoli’s forwards tend to play very wide and rely heavily on the ten to create or overwhelm defenders with pressuring late runs when the forwards get into dangerous spaces. Most players in the world are a steady drop off from Vidal—here, Chile’s options are nearly all uncapped. In fact, the only midfield playerrs in this side other than Gonzalez with any caps at all are Bryan Carrasco (typically a wingback) and veteran Jaime Valdes.

Defensively, Johnny Herrera is the best domestic goalkeeper Chile have—the Chilean Nick Rimando—and he should keep goal. Height is a serious issue—starting LCB Rojas is 5’9 (think a highly technical Michael Orozco) and no one is larger than 5’10—so the Chileans, like all Conmebol sides that aren’t Brazil or Colombia—are vulnerable in the air.

In the end, event this version of La Roja should be a good tactical challenge for the Americans: loads of pressure, interesting movement, incisive passing—but the question with Chile will likely be what it usually is: underneath all the interesting tactics, can they find enough goals? They’ll go games where they don’t generate many shots despite loads of pressure—see Holland, this summer—and when that happens, they are, as you’d expect, vulnerable on the counter-attack.

Can the U.S. take advantage?

Former Liverpool man Mark Gonzalez has more caps than the rest of the Chile team combined.

Former Liverpool man Mark Gonzalez has more caps than the rest of the Chile team combined.

Neil W. Blackmon on the Chile Player to Watch: Mark Gonzalez.

The South African born Gonzalez has played all over the globe—Liverpool, CSKA Moscow, Real Betis—but has flourished since returning to Chile and Universidad, where his professional career began. He’ll also enter this game with more caps for his chosen country than the rest of the roster combined.

He’ll join Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley as the only players on the field who have scored in a World Cup match, as Gonzalez scored this winner with his noggin against the Swiss in South Africa:

Gonzalez has the speed, experience and tactical nous to make life tough on whoever the US play on the right, whether it be DeAndre Yedlin, fresh off his move to Tottenham, or Shane O’Neill, slotting out wide. The main thing? If the Yanks do trot out a new formation, as has been rumored, they’ll need to ensure they know how to defend Gonzalez from their new position.

Jon Levy on the Yanks Player to Watch: Wil Trapp

“He’s a true central midfielder.”

“No he’s a true defensive midfielder.”

“Naw, he’s got the ball-retention and passing acumen of a player much older than 22.”

“He’s a young Michael Bradley without the headstrong tackles that used to get him in trouble.”

 People like to talk about Columbus Crew midfielder Wil Trapp. Thankfully, Wil’s always been good enough to justify the conversation. He’s made the grade at youth level on the national team, and now in the MLS. So how does he fit into the senior national team picture?

 Trapp could be a like for like replacement for the number six version of Michael Bradley. It’d be nice to have two of him to choose from. But Will could also play alongside MB90. That might work in Jurgen’s 4-2-3-1 or in a new 3-5-2 formation. Bradley, Jones, and Beckerman easily developed a good working relationship on the field, and Trapp might slot as seamlessly into one of the holding roles as Mix Diskerud has farther forward on the pitch.

 The answer to everyone’s “can he?” questions start to get some answers in these two matches, and hopefully we see a lot of Trapp on the road in Chile on Wednesday night.

Prediction: Chile 2 – 2 USA

A hard fought, entertaining, and defensively frustrating draw. Goals for Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey. Sorry new kids, big dogs gotta eat.

Enjoy the match, and Go USA!

Neil W. Blackmon