Neil W. Blackmon
The United States played New Zealand to a 1-1 draw last night in Washington, DC. Julian Green scored for the United States in the 27th minute, with Monty Patterson grabbing New Zealand’s equalizer in the 73rd minute of play. A paltry crowd of 9,012 paid to see it.
In truth, the match more a final chance for fringe players to leave an impression than a dress rehearsal for the final World Cup qualifying round Hexagonal, which begins November 11 with the US playing Mexico at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
Here are four final observations from a game that was at times strange, at times dull, and always about moving forward towards “The Hex.”
First, it isn’t a great result but the US played an experimental formation, New Zealand are improved, and playing this type of opponent served a purpose.
So that’s more than one thought rolled into point one but they function together.
“We wanted a win, not a draw,” Jurgen Klinsmann told the press following the match but he was also quick to credit New Zealand for making life difficult. The All-Whites have always been a team that prides itself on compact defensive organization, but Anthony Hudson has the side playing with a higher line and increasing pressure in the midfield zones.
The added pressure forced the US midfield triangle of Perry Kitchen, Michael Bradley and Sacha Kljestan out of position at times and affected the US shape. With DeAndre Yedlin struggling on one wing, the Americans had difficulty at times moving the ball into the attacking third.
New Zealand also surprised Mexico last week with added pressure, and that, coupled with a dominant CB presence like Winston Reid, who was spectacular, made it tough for the US to add a second goal following Green’s opener.
“They’re a very physical team and play in a bit more of the traditional style,” Klinsmann said. “They’re not easy to play.”
It’s even more difficult when you engage in the worthwhile endeavor of evaluating a new formation, which is a good idea in a home game against an “average” opponent and a roster full of fringe players. With players like DeAndre Yedlin being looked at it new positions, and a new midfield combination working out the kinks, some adjustments and wobbles were a certainty.
In the end, this type of match, and the camp generally, served an effective dual-purpose.
First, it allowed Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff the chance to look at some fringe players and get an idea, in a 10 day camp, of who can make meaningful contributions in the grind of a Hexagonal. Second, in playing New Zealand, Klinsmann and his staff could observe these players playing against a team that is well-organized, hard to break down, and waits opportunistically to counterattack. That’s the style deployed by at least two potential opponents in the HEX, making the game value as a live repetition.
Sacha Kljestan was dynamic and appears poised to play a critical role next month.
New Zealand had the better of the chances and play early as the US midfield struggled to adjust to the new formation and triangle. The US lacked a coherent shape and Perry Kitchen and Michael Bradley seemed confused from a positional standpoint in the game’s first twenty minutes.
Fortunately for the Yanks, Sacha Kljestan’s national team resurgence continued while his deeper midfield partners figured things out. Klejstan, playing initially just beneath Jozy Altidore, was the best American player by some measure, and his influence on the game was felt most the evening.
Kljestan was responsible for the best two American chances prior to the goal, and his ability to drop deep and receive the ball and take on a defender or pick out a pass helped the US find fluidity late in the opening half.
Kljestan wasn’t a traditional number ten, but the criticism seems to miss the point. He has an understanding and a level of trust from Michael Bradley that makes the American midfield better, and it is one worth visiting again against Mexico.
Sacha’s an interesting option for Mexico, but I don’t know about this whole No. 10 narrative. pic.twitter.com/gQojgSMkyB
— Will Parchman (@WillParchman) October 12, 2016
The best example of the Bradley and Kljestan belief and trust came on a sequence that didn’t produce a shot, thanks to a tremendous tackle by Winston Reid. Bradley, asked for far too long to create chances higher up the pitch and away from the scrum, where he thrives, received the ball in space behind the midfield line. There was time to play one of his divine long balls, or pick a pass and try to find a shuttler wide or Altidore over the top. Instead, Bradley played a simple ball to Kljestan, who took a touch and played Julian Green through, only to have Reid bottle the play up.
It was an instructive moment, one where Bradley, long critiqued by US fans and media alike for being turnover prone in a US shirt, didn’t try to force things. Turnovers often are borne from risk, when safety, particularly in the midfield zones, is a virtue. Bradley trusts Sacha Kljestan to create. He always has. The difference is it now appears Jurgen Klinsmann does as well.
Kljestan is finding his way into the game & playing well. I'm standing by my prediction that he's starting for the #USMNT against Mexico
— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) October 12, 2016
Kljestan, who earned his 50th cap in the draw, now has a chance to come full circle in his international career. It was against Mexico in 2009, as the partner to Michael Bradley in the double pivot, that Kljestan appeared to have a lengthy and promising senior team career ahead of him. It hasn’t worked out that way under Klinsmann, but now, seven years later, that appears ready to change.
“I had to work really hard to get back here and I’m not going to let it slip through my fingers,” Kljestan told reporters after the match. The bet here is he’ll get the opportunity to start in Columbus too.
Third, the US have some questions to answer depth wise in the back.
Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, playing together for the first time since the US loss to Belgium at the 2014 World Cup, did not look their best as a pairing. Even if that’s down to not playing together for a long time, it still works heavily in Brooks/Cameron favor. And that’s despite the year Omar Gonzalez has put together in Mexico. Yeah, these two are on the depth chart, but the evidence is clear on who the favored starting pairing is, and less clear behind them.
Meanwhile, there’s the curious case of what, exactly, Bill Hamid has done to get to the point where he’s 7th on the US goalkeeping depth chart and not worth playing for a half on his home field. The reality is the US enters the Hex with zero answers about what happens in goal behind the aging Tim Howard and the inconsistent Brad Guzan.
For the first time in a generation, the US enter a critical stretch of qualifying matches without a goalkeeper who commands confidence. Yes, you’d probably pick Tim Howard to start a meaningful game you needed to win. But he’ll be 38 in the spring, when there are still eight Hexagonal matches to go.
As for the starters last night, William Yarbrough has never really had a good day in the shirt. It’s lovely that he can pass the ball from the back. Unfortunately, the US don’t really have CB’s beyond John Brooks that build that type of distribution network, and they’ve not had a fullback consistently link with the midfield since Steve Cherundolo limped off the field at the Rose Bowl in the 2011 Gold Cup Final.
David Bingham wasn’t great either, and could have done better on the New Zealand goal. Despite Hamid not getting in, I think it’s clear he IS on the depth chart. Jurgen understands this, but seems to be challenging Hamid to play abroad, or giving him the MB90/JJ/Lando “earn it” treatment that each of those guys got at some point under the German-American manager. That said, here’s the American GK pool for Qatar 2022 as I see it now: Hamid, Horvath, Steffen, Bingham (?), Klinsmann (?) … but again, who really knows. And Guzan could still be kicking. So the US enter the Hex with zero long term answers at the position that’s been a mainstay strength and few short term ones.
Finally, Julian Green was good and appears to have a role to play moving forward. DeAndre Yedlin has one too, but it isn’t on the wing in the midfield.
Is there an opportunity cost to Pulisic fever? Or maybe a cursory benefit?
If there is, it could be that Julian Green, the 21 year old Bayern Munich product who has scored in the knockout rounds of a World Cup is more an afterthought or curiosity than a guy that “must produce now.” And perhaps it’s partly the lack of pressure to be the American savior that is helping the 21 year old from Tampa make good on his prodigious talents.
Also helping? Green is training harder and better than at any point in time in his career, per the manager. “The way he is training, he is working so much harder,” Klinsmann said this week. “When you train with the Ribery and Lewandowski and Müller, you will get better if you take it seriously. He’s doing that now,” Klinsmann said.
Whether it is enough to get Green in the 23 for the opening games of the Hex may well depend on whether he plays any meaningful minutes for Carlo Ancelotti’s side over the next month. With fellow attackers Jozy Altidore, Alejandro Bedoya, Lynden Gooch, Pulisic, Jordan Morris, Chris Wondolowski and Bobby Wood all playing for their clubs and in the fold, there might not be room for Green next month.
But the Hex is a grind. And Green has shown enough to be called on moving forward.
Meanwhile, DeAndre Yedlin was slotted back in the midfield against New Zealand. It was an interesting deployment given the progress Yedlin’s made defensively in England at Sunderland and Newcastle United.
Yedlin looked lost at times, particularly in the first half, misunderstanding where to be and when and failing to make well-timed runs off the ball.
In Yedlin, the US had found a DaMarcus Beasley type, improving enough defensively to be capable while providing a solid overlapping threat with pace from one of the two fullback positions. The search for a full-time right back has taken several years, as noted above. The US would do well to move the first reasonable answer- Yedlin- back to the position next month.
Neil W. Blackmon is co-founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.