We’ve had consistent roster breakdowns, usually by position, throughout this World Cup cycle but tomorrow’s the first “big day”, as Jurgen Klinsmann names his 30 man preliminary World Cup roster. The thirty players selected will meet in Palo Alto, California for a pre-World Cup camp that will culminate in a “Send Off Series” of USMNT matches against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria over the course of the next month. After the first two matches, Jurgen Klinsmann will name 23 players from this camp to the official USMNT World Cup roster for Brazil. The USMNT will then conclude its stateside preparation for the World Cup with a match against fellow World Cup qualifier Nigeria in Jacksonville, Florida on June 7th. A closed door match against Belgium will conclude US World Cup preparation on June 12th in Brazil.
World Cup roster selections always contain a few surprises, whether it be a notable omission (2010- Brian Ching) or odd inclusion (2010- Robbie Findley). To prepare you for tomorrow’s announcement, and to provide a primer for what to watch for at the camp in Palo Alto- we at TYAC assembled a roundtable of soccer writers, who teamed up to address at least a handful of the most pressing questions for the States heading towards the World Cup camp.
Before we get to the questions, let’s introduce our rather esteemed group of writers:
Jay Bell is an old-school print journalist who writes for the Hot Springs Sentinel Record in his home state of Arkansas. Jay tweets frequently about all things US Soccer at @JayBellHS and has written frequently for our friends at The Shin Guardian.
Zack Goldman is one of the brightest young minds in American soccer writing. Educated at Oxford, Zack has written for The Guardian, The Shin Guardian, A Football Report and appeared as a guest right here at The Yanks Are Coming, among other publications. He works for the American version of football by day at the NFL. Follow him on Twitter @thatdamnyank.
Neil W. Blackmon is co-Founder and co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. You read him here, we hope. He’s a lawyer by day, but still finds time to be one of the hardest working writers in American soccer. Follow him on Twitter @nwb_usmnt.
Jon Levy is an award-winning radio news man and producer by day in Washington, DC. He is co-Founder and co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. Jon’s USMNT match previews receive large-scale acclaim. You read him here too, we hope. Follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.
Matthew Tomaszewicz is one of the most thoughtful and intelligent American soccer writers, and that’s not even his day job. He co-founded The Shin Guardian, writes there often, runs one of the best US Soccer Twitter feeds at @shinguardian and is a frequent guest on the fantastic MLS podcast “March to the Match.” Matt’s USMNT match previews often find their way into national broadcasts, and he’s without question one of the hardest-working writers in US Soccer.
You’ve met the panel. Let’s dive into the questions:
1) Defense: Bob Bradley took seven, with the flexibility in Edu and Spector to trust he had cover at every spot. The thinking was he optimized roster talent thanks to this flexibility. Should Klinsmann do the same or does the tougher group create yellow card concerns that mean eight “natural” (including Run DMB in that category) defenders need to be on the plane?
“If everyone was healthy, then Klinsmann would have and should have taken eight “natural” defenders, including Damarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson. I don’t think the draw affected the roster composition nearly as much as injuries have. Timothy Chandler and Steve Cherundolo, if they were healthy and in form, would have definitely been among the US’s best 23 players.
I think Klinsmann takes seven defenders with someone like Danny Williams or probably Maurice Edu providing defensive cover. Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Gonzalez and Johnson have always been locks. A lot of folks disagree with me when I say Goodson is a lock. If Klinsmann elects to not take Goodson, then John Anthony Brooks has played his way onto the roster.
My late pick is Tim Ream. The guy has had a great season and offers versatility since he can play left back. You could see a disaster scenario where the back line could be Ream, Edu, Brooks and Johnson, but I think that’s better than Williams, Parkhurst, Goodson and Evans. Ream also offers a like-for-like backup to Besler. We saw how clunky Brooks looked when paired with Oguchi Onyewu in March.”
Neil W. Blackmon:
” I’ve made the argument for seven defenders at TYAC and I’ll stick by it. When Bob Bradley took seven, the thinking was he had positional flexibility to do so with Edu as an emergency CB and Jon Spector capable at any spot along the back four. Keep in mind Jurgen probably has more “flex” guys in defense– even if you don’t think Ale Bedoya is an emergency RB– you have Michael Parkhurst who can play each spot, Edu still in the pool, Fab Johnson capable at either fullback spot, and Geoff Cameron capable at three of the four spots on the back four. You probably optimize roster talent by bringing seven and understanding, as Jay referenced- that you are in big trouble anyway if you’re fielding a back four that is much different than the optimal group of Run DMB, Besler, Gonzalez/Goodson, Cameron.”
“I think you’re right on, with the operative word being “flexibility.” Now if the operative word was “natural,” then this pool of full backs will make you cry. Thankfully, Klinsmann’s USMNT is more about the former than the latter. I think Klinsmann brings seven defenders, and that’s counting Fabian Johnson, DaMarcus, and of course the least natural defender of them all, Brad Evans. For all the holes we can poke in Evans’ right back game, he’s put in good performances in qualifying, and is never intimidated by the moment. That last part is key, because I think we could all see Edgar Castillo imploding if he somehow made it onto the field in Brazil. Put me down for three center backs (really sorry Clarence!), along with Run DMB, Fab J (who will start in midfield), Brad Evans, and a utility man, probably played by Michael Parkhurst. Thus begins the theme of “guys that Klinsmann feels he can count on.” Watch as I marble this steak with their fatty goodness.”
“With Parkhurst, Cameron and Fabian all able to play defensive positions, seven defenders is likely fine. Even with yellow card concerns, Fabian Johnson at LB over a backup like Castillo or Cameron–who should be the starter–at CB over Goodson puts the the US’s best players on the field.”
“I’m going to potentially say this a few times in this roundtable, but I think we too often break down the squad with a sense of positional inelasticity. In my mind, this is especially true when it comes to Klinsmann’s squad, which will contain the most versatile defensive corps in modern USMNT history. It’s hard for me to engage with the question of how many “natural” defenders will be on the plane for this reason; a lot of players whom I consider to fit that billing could, in fact, be listed (and popularly conceived) as midfielders. Nevertheless, that’s further to my point that I see at least eight in the 23 who would be completely comfortable along the backline.”
(2) Assuming Omar Gonzalez truly is okay with the knee injury he picked up- where do you stand on the starting back four? And do you have a surprise or two you think will be in camp in Palo Alto?
“I think it needs to be repeated. Beasley, Besler, Gonzalez and Cameron combined for the shutout draw in the Azteca and have never been on the field together since. Folks have a lot of doubts about Beasley and Gonzalez, but they may have a lot more potential when Besler and Cameron have their backs. If Gonzalez cannot prove to be an option as starter, then you go with Cameron at CB and Fabian at RB.
My camp surprises are Tim Ream and DeAndre Yedlin. I just don’t think Evans or Parkhurst have the foot speed to be options on the biggest stage against Asamoah Gyan, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lukas Podolski. At least with Yedlin he has some foot speed to try to match up with those guys if the top 2-3 options go down.”
Neil W. Blackmon:
“I’d play Run DMB, Besler, Cameron and Brad Evans but Jurgen won’t. We’ll see the combination Jay talked about and he’s right (and it isn’t pointed out enough) that they shut out Mexico at the Azteca. Maurice Edu was massive in that game– I wonder if that memory + his current form have him closer to a roster spot than most think?
I’m glad Gonzalez’ knee is fine. That said, I still think John Brooks is in camp in Palo Alto– Klinsmann loves the measurables– and I think that says a bunch about the extent of Klinsmann’s faith in Goodson against this type of competition. I also fully expect to see Tim Chandler and Tim Ream in the 30 man camp, which means almost assuredly Michael Orozco won’t be there. That’s tough for Orozco because he played well during the cycle. The Ream/Chandler thing is worth watching because it tests Klinsmann’s credo regarding the importance of club form. Form can be fallacy but Klinsmann has almost always sided with form. At least with Brooks right now you have a player performing well at Hertha. Chandler is such an unknown outside of Roger Espinoza being his father.”
“I’d like to think the starting right back spot is well and truly up for grabs, but I think we see Evans, Gonzo, Besler, and Beasley. I’m not thrilled with Brad Evans at right back, or the fact that Gonzo can be error prone, but I think this group of four has come closest to creating chemistry together. This is probably to right time to bring up the much maligned and oft-injured Timmy Chandler. He seems to be healthy, and he did switch his nationality to American so that he could play in a World Cup without having to be better than guys like Philipp Lahm. Now should be his time, if he’s got any “clutch” about him, to go prove his worth and make Brad Evans a backup on this team. But if he can’t do it, you DeAndre Yedlin might just be the next most likely candidate.”
“Since 2010 I’ve had concerns over Gonzalez at CB. The US just doesn’t rely on emergency defending all that much and that is where Gonzalez excels. I don’t think we’ll have a set back four for the tournament. What’s not in the US favor is they open with Ghana who are an absolute nightmare in the air. Given Ghana’s lack of wing play, I have to think the starters in Game 1 are Cameron, Gonzalez, Besler, DMB. I could see Goodson sneaking in for that match. For true surprises, I could see Fabian Johnson or Ale Bedoya receive a runout at RB–the former being more likely.”
“Let’s start at center back, which is, personally, my biggest worry for this squad. It seems to me that barring a truly standout or catastrophic pre-World Cup camp from anybody, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez will man the heart of defense—at least against Ghana. I don’t necessarily agree with that—I think Geoff Cameron is a safer pair of hands in general than Gonzalez, and particularly against a side that makes its living by exposing two things: a lack of pace on the break and lackadaisical defensive switching—but it seems like that’s how the US will start the tournament. Besler and Gonzalez have been the preferred duo for over a year now and, while they complement each other rather well, it’s clear that it’s not all a tale of symbiosis. All center-back partnerships have weaknesses, but the Besler-Gonzalez duo is particularly prone to danger against teams like Ghana who play such a frenetic and shifty brand of football in the attacking third.
As Jon points out, the right back slot is up for grabs—but, unlike him, I’m not picking Evans to get playing time in Brazil. I’m not even banking on him to make the roster, in all honesty (in which case we can call him this cycle’s Steve Ralston—a player who played such an important (and clutch) role in qualification and made the most of limited opportunity, but wasn’t ultimately taken on the plane in 2006). I think Cameron and Michael Parkhurst both offer competent wide options with a measure of versatility across the backline and that, when push comes to shove, Timmy Chandler will make this roster, if he is in the 30-man camp. There’s no question in my mind that Chandler is a more sumptuous option for Klinsmann to have at his disposal in Brazil than Evans—and if he isn’t frozen out of the Palo Alto picture, he wins that spot in camp.
Switching to the other side of defense, I see no reason, despite my vast reservations, that DaMarcus Beasley will be uprooted from the left back spot that he has held down for way longer than anyone, anywhere ever thought possible. Fabian Johnson will be the preferred option for many (myself included), but doesn’t come without problems—including in the 1v1 defending department, which is normally the knock on Beas. This is all the more reason to take Parkhurst along, who could absolutely fill in, in a pinch.
The backline for Ghana: Cameron, Gonzalez, Besler, Beasley. Who knows beyond that… God help us.”
(3) Forward: Terrence Boyd has been splendid the last six weeks for club but has shown very little that encourages in a US shirt this cycle. Eddie Johnson has been Klinsmann’s preferred #2 most of the World Cup cycle but has scored as many goals for DC as Jon Levy has this year. Is Eddie in trouble?
“The GAM is definitely not going to the World Cup. The US has at least five strikers in much better form than EJ. It makes it tougher to get on the roster when Klinsmann’s system only uses one pure striker at a time. Even if he’s switches it up and plays two forwards at any given time, you’re wasting other roster spots when you already know Altidore, Jóhannsson and Dempsey are going to be there. A fourth option will be on the plane. Past that will be pushing it with limited spaces available.
I think Wondowlowskiw…..w, Agudelo and Boyd are all fighting for one spot. Wondo has been in good form for club and country. He’s done everything he can to make the roster. Agudelo and Boyd’s youth will count against them when Klinsmann decides who to take to Brazil.”
Neil W. Blackmon:
“I think the things going for Eddie Johnson are two-fold: 1) He has unquestionably been Klinsmann’s # 2 preference this cycle. 2) If the US play a 4-4-2- EJ put in a performance in Sarajevo that was as good as we’ve seen from a US forward (outside of Altidore vs. Germany) against quality competition this cycle. How much does that stuff matter in the end? Again- big test of “club form matters” mantra. I agree with Jay that the typical one striker set up- plus the use of Dempsey- means the US is probably only sorting out one roster spot at Stanford. Whether that player is Wondolowski, EJ or Boyd remains to be seen. You can book Ice Man, Dempsey and Jozy, for better or worse, right now.”
“Yes, Eddie’s in a little trouble, but this should be trouble he can overcome. Anyone can see that EJ’s struggles at DC United this season are the product of half a squad of free agents trying to figure out how to play with each other, and how to play with the DCU holdovers. Once this mature and resilient version of Eddie Johnson is back in training with his USMNT mates he should be able to erase any doubt that he might not make the plane. That said, I’m watching what should be a great competition between Herculez Gomez, Julian Green, and maybe, just maybe, Terrence Boyd, for the final traditional center forward spot. Jozy and Aron Jo are shoe ins.”
“Eddie Johnson has–what–20 goals in 70 game for the US so something. Terrence Boyd has maybe 2 in 15 or so.
So as a coach you have to trust Eddie Johnson to score. That said, Boyd is hot. If Eddie Johnson doesn’t show in camp it’ll be a coin flip by Klinsmann.
But CONCACAF foes or not, Eddie Johnson scores.”
“Eddie is done. I wouldn’t call the forward pool deep for the USMNT, but it is certainly lined with competent options of a similar ilk that render him replaceable. As qualifying showed, EJ does give you something unique—tremendous athleticism, an ability to attack the ball from set pieces and wide play, and a knack for getting under a defender’s skin—but what he doesn’t give you is anything that will set the world on fire, nor a first-class, everything-for-the-team, how-can-I-help-you?, let-me-forget-about-myself-for-a-second attitude. His comments this past week to his teammates didn’t somehow escape Klinsmann—and for a coach who is so big on chemistry, that was the death knell for Johnson if he has anything short of a monstrous camp.”
(4) Midfield, including the wingers… Kyle Beckerman has gone from “might get left out” despite being one of the best stories of this World Cup cycle to “there’s an argument he should start.” Midfield roster spots aren’t zero-sum to start but can be at the end. What prominent player or players in this cycle (prominent defined as 5 or more appearances) shouldn’t plan on going to Brazil in the midfield?
“Brad Davis doesn’t fit into a full US team at the World Cup. Davis has done everything he can to make the roster, but sometimes that’s just not enough. The rise of Zusi and Bedoya to go with Donovan out wide means that Davis is not even a starting option. Klinsmann likes to sub in attackers with pace late in the game. That’s what may get someone like Julian Green or Brek Shea on the plane. Any of the forwards could also slide out to the left in an attacking lineup.”
Neil W. Blackmon:
“For me the obvious answer is Sacha Kljestan. He’s a friend of TYAC and it’s tough to write, but…This two month dry spell at Anderlecht just assures me of that, because otherwise it’s harder given how well Kljestan has done in Belgium. There just isn’t a US formation that Kljestan seems the right fit for. He’s not a six by any stretch and he isn’t really a ten– and Jurgen hasn’t been able to figure out what to do with him. It’s sad b/c we’ve seen the flashes: he was masterful in the double-pivot with MB 90 under Bob Bradley against Mexico and he was splendid in the same role with the Olympic team. But he’s not going to Brazil. Davis I wonder about for two reasons. I’m with Jay that he’s done all he can and it would seem unlikely but then Doug McIntyre tweets that Davis much higher on “depth chart” than most think. He wasn’t “great” by any stretch against El Tri last month, but the US have so few options with capable left feet. We’ll see. Wouldn’t shock me if he made the final roster.”
“Maurice Edu may have left too little too late. Especially since Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, and defender/DMF Geoff Cameron are on the damn plane. I think Danny Williams can count on a full preseason with Reading as well. Ale-Alejandro Bedoya is probably safe after a great first season in Ligue 1. I had him on the wrong side of the bubble for a long time, but he’s on the right side now. Not a good sign for long shots like Joe Corona. TYAC favorite Sacha Kljestan is a bubble guy, and we’ll be wishing him a great camp.”
“Mix Diskerud. I just don’t know when you’d use him. He’s inconsistent in the tackle, does not balance his passing risk well (the overused metronome cliche) and save some moments against Russia and Mexico hasn’t commanded the game versus quality competition.
If you’re considering LFW as midfield then you have a three-way battle right now amongst Julian Green, Brek Shea and Brad Davis with Davis well behind. Green likely makes it, unsure if Shea does.”
“In a combination of all previous answers, I think Kljestan, Davis, and Williams are all done at this point. Edu is firmly on the bubble—and while his form and versatility tick two huge boxes for Klinsi, the squad picture is extremely crowded at the moment. As I said earlier, I think too often we break the 23 down rigidly by position—and the reality here is that Maurice’s biggest opponents for a roster spot aren’t other primary options in central midfield, but other utility players. In this respect, Edu should view guys like Evans or Parkhurst as his main competition—or any others whose versatility comprises so much of what they can bring to the table in a tournament setting.”
(5) Formations: In TYAC previews, Jon is usually careful to suggest that having a static/default formation is poisonous, particularly in the international game. People got excited about the diamond, albeit against Mexico’s funky 3 man backline– should they be excited? Does the US have the fullbacks they need to play the diamond? Given different styles of three opponents– what other formations should feature in the Send-Off Series or in Brazil?
“I know folks will disagree with me about the diamond, but I think Klinsmann rolled that out against Ukraine to prepare for Portugal. Jermaine Jones does not fit the diamond and Jones will be on the field against Ghana. You also plan on having an uber motivated Jones to go up against Germany. They key to slowing down Portugal will be stopping the ball before it can get to Ronaldo. You do that by getting Bradley further up the field to thwart Portugal’s attacks as soon as possible. Then you say three Hail Mary’s and hope the back five can stop Ronaldo when they need to.
Klinsmann’s 4-3-3-ish lineup is set to be the US’s main formation, but I think he is more than ready to utilize a flat 4-4-2 in an emergency. US players are most comfortable in that formation and the arrival of Jóhannsson gives Klinsmann’s the perfect foil to Altidore.”
Neil W. Blackmon:
“Good stuff by Jay on the diamond. I wish we could just ask Berti Vogts.
I’d add the following: I think Johannsson will start against Portugal. There’s an argument he should start against Ghana too because you have to start from width and get to the channels to beat them in build-up. They do a decent job of defending against build-up play but you can beat them on the counter– some of this has to do with the fact they’d prefer to man-mark a bit more than every other side in the group. This means the help defense is less organized when the ball turns over. Both those things make Landon Donovan or Johannsson likely starters in those matches. The Ghana game is tactically tricky to me: it’s the one match where the diamond seems acceptable because the US could argue it has the better fullbacks on paper– but who do you play behind Bradley in that match? Does Kyle Beckerman have the pace to help on Gyan, Boateng, etc? The Kyle Beckerman-Jermaine Jones decision is so critical for Jurgen.
I think the US will have a great plan against Jogi Low. I’m not sure it will involve a diamond so much, especially if Khedira is healthy for the Germans. The US might do well to sit a bit deeper and wait for chances on the break. “
“I don’t see the Yanks starting any of the three group stage matches with a midfield diamond, but that could change. At this point Klinsmann’s got the guys that execute in his preferred formation, and they do so at speed. In the Group of Death at the World Cup the US will have to play its best players at their best spots. That means Tim Howard in goal, Clint Dempsey in the hole, and Michael Bradley in the center of the park, not as a “number ten” or “traditional six,” which would be his two options in the diamond. That said, the 60th minute Klinsmann switch to 4-4-2 has worked a number of times, and it will absolutely be in the arsenal next month.”
“A formation is a guideline and the US plays multiple styles with different objectives as all teams do through 90′.
Just as important as formation is where the team elects to set the line of confrontation, how and when they take attacking risks, and the tempo with which you play.
The latter two will be more key for the US in Brazil because Ghana and Portugal feast on mistakes and flipping around the attack on transition. The US won’t–or likely won’t–be able to maintain possession–something the diamond is intended to do–against either of those teams.
The most important think for the US is to solve their consistently poor possession management out of the back against a defense set-up in a high block.”
“I love this question—and these answers—because I think it lends itself to a more rarefied discussion of tactics than we traditionally get when asking “how should the USMNT line up?” The reality is that where the US has failed in locking down a consistent formation, it has succeeded in learning to employ different postures for different occasions. Not all of that is formational—a lot of it is equally down to who presses and who holds, what side the ball is being brought up on, how much leash Gonzalez and Besler are given, who is playing up top, if Dempsey is allowed to drift wide to find the ball, if Bradley is typically filling space in front of/behind/level with the other center mid, who the other center mid is, etc. etc. To analyze formation in a vacuum is a recipe for myopic analysis and, similarly, the aforementioned observations I’ve presented shouldn’t be probed in isolation, but assessed alongside an understanding of how the US lines up spatially.
Now, since I have totally not answered the question, I’ll boil this all down to a single tactical expectation to start the tournament that I feel could define the US’s success in Brazil.
For Ghana: I don’t see a diamond here necessarily, but I do see Jones lying deeper than usual and roving coast-to-coast as a modified #6. As Matt has so often pointed out, Maurice Edu is in many ways the team’s best speedy, tracking central midfielder that can thrive in fast-paced games where the US may struggle to keep a defensive lid on things. I don’t see him being thrown in here, but I do see Jones being tasked with that same responsibility. Contrary to popular belief, a yellow card here may very well be the point of Jones’ existence—he doesn’t need to play all three games, but he needs to play this one with a level of physicality and tracking responsibility off the other team’s counter that was not there in either ‘berg (Nurem- or Rusten-).”