Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon
Call it thirty-seven seconds of bliss and an evening of agony if you’re into the poetic. Credit an improved Jamaica side that exploited an American group that was missing two of its finer players and curiously omitted its longtime captain from a competitive match starting lineup for the first time in years a road qualifier, if you like. Credit Tappa Whitmore for dialing up the right mix and pressuring the US midfield into dangerous fouls. Credit Jamaica for converting on two free kicks– one (Rodolph Austin’s) the opportunistic, on-frame variety and one (Shelton’s) simply brilliant. But most of all– call Friday night in Kingston what it is: a setback, and a dangerous one that makes tonight’s redo in Columbus absolutely imperative. It isn’t “must win”- but it’s far closer to it than the United States ever conceived they would be at this stage in World Cup qualifying. And make no mistake– a loss means the Americans will (likely, with some mathematical flexibility and permutations) need two victories in October just to advance to the next round– a rather unthinkable proposition a few weeks ago in the afterglow of the Azteca triumph.
Much has been written about all of the above. Matt over at The Shin Guardian wrote a circuitous and largely effective piece on Tappa Whitmore’s tactical run-around of Jurgen Klinsmann Friday night, and the odd decision by the US to play a deep line despite the fact that the US, deploying higher lines, had created large amounts of pressure on far better teams than the Reggae Boyz in Klinsy’s tenure. (He cites Scotland, France and Mexico– the latter game is a poor example but the remainder is mostly dead-on, and worth building on here…) Player ratings were predictably brutal, with whatever measure of justifce player ratings bring.
The bottom line? Hindsight is always 20/20, which is why you don’t generally see a ton of tactical know-it-all coach bashing on The Yanks Are Coming. It doesn’t take José Mourinho to tell you that Jurgen Klinsmann made some tactical errors in Friday night’s Jamaica match. At this blog we don’t feel the need to bang the drum every time the USMNT manager takes a risk that ends up being a miscalculation, but the clock just struck midnight on Jurgen’s feeling-out period, and it’s time to start hitting the skins in unison like those Chinese dudes at the opening ceremonies four years ago.
Since he arrived last year Jurgen Klinsmann has been preaching possession and width. Two striker sets are now a change-of-pace rarity rather than the constant they were under Bob Bradley. These are positive developments, especially given the personnel strengths of the US player pool. So why then, did Klinsmann opt to play 4-4-2 in Jamaica, and not just neglect the wide areas of the pitch, but start three defensive midifielders along with Clint “I guess I’ll have to do everything myself” Dempsey? And y’know, the error wouldn’t have been so heinous if Bobbo freakin’ Bradley hadn’t already given Jurgen the playbook on how to get it done against Whitmore’s Reggae Boyz. Bradley’s 2011 Gold Cup squad demolished Jamaica in a Washington, DC quarterfinal that was nowhere near as close as the 2-0 scoreline makes it look. After a lackluster group stage, Bobbo switched to a 4-2-3-1 for the quarter against a red-hot Jamaican team, and the US delivered the most Klinsmann-like performance of Bradley’s reign. They found space with almost every pass, and turned possession into useful possession almost every time they gained control of the ball. The latter of which is pretty much the opposite of what we were subjected to watching on Friday night, when each Yanks possession was Calvinistically predestined to end in an ill advised pass-and-pray (at best). So why didn’t Jurgen follow the easy map set out for him? Was this just a case of over-thinking complicating simple matters? Maybe, but the better team shouldn’t have to do that. Being that in this isolated case Bobbo’s playbook and Klinsmann’s USMNT identity were one and the same, Jurgen shouldn’t have strayed. Everyone knows the New England Patriots MO, but I’m pretty sure they’re still gonna throw the ball to their tight ends a lot this year.
What was most irksome was the lack of width because the US dropped deep and tried to stay compact. Execution-wise, of course, it backfired, as an inexperienced back pairing ended up allowing the Jamaicans far too much space in their effort to prevent space. Some of this was because the pairing of Edu and Beckerman played very little to either player’s strengths (particularly the Dred Pirate’s), and part of, we think, was coaching. Herc Gomez, Clint Dempsey and to a lesser extent Jozy Altidore are all capable of getting to the touchlines and giving the US width– none of them did so. One would think given the mental capabilities of these three players- this was gameplan and not poor play. Fabian Johnson offered little getting forward in his worst game in a US shirt. Michael Parkhurst was ok— though he made two overlapping runs in the game (9th and 45th minute)– and a total of zero when the US fell behind. Praising him for stepping up while Jamaica fired aimlessly from beyond the box is simply searching for something to praise.
So how does this team proceed?
For the Klinsmann’s USMNT, World Cup Qualifying just abruptly reached the stage of no alibis. It’s time to embrace what we know works for this team; tryouts are over. That means going back to a 4-3-3 or, more likely, an incarnation of the 4-5-1. It means accepting Brek Shea’s defensive deficiencies and counting on one of at least two defensive midfielders in any given starting lineup to cover for him. It means accepting that Graham Zusi has done more in three caps to show that he belongs in the front five than José Francisco Torres has done in three years. It also means finally accepting that Torres is a defensive midfielder or true central midfielder (not a winger or attacking mid), and is a more appropriate fill-in for Michael Bradley than Jermaine Jones is. It’s time to stop the experimentation with players based on the qualities they possess, and time to start playing them at spots in which we’ve actually seen them succeed.
It’s time to stop lauding Jermaine Jones for picking up yellow cards and playing the role of enforcer in scrappy games. The United States always has plenty of scrap– and guys like Michael Bradley and Dempsey offer that too. What we’d like to see is Jones find consistent quality, particularly in matches where he is on-paper superior. And yes, it means Jurgen Klinsmann needs to figure out what he wants to do with the Yanks, and CONCACAF’s, finest player. Dempsey is an elite poacher, an elite late running shooter, a volume shooter and is marvelous at creating his own shot from positions that seem like isolation. He’s effectively a grittier, “want to” version of perennial NBA All-Star Joe Johnson. What he isn’t is a # 10, or a primary link-up player between the midfield and the forward spots. He may be most effective internationally at striker, even if this isn’t the case with his club sides. I think there’s merit to not just tactically, but from a “player management” perspective. Dempsey presses, especially when he feels his team needs him the most. He’s been around long enough to see it before other players too, and he has a great sense for the feel of a game and the moment. This is great, and this is not-so-great. It’s not so great when he’s tactically deployed to press as he did Friday night, where once the US lost momentum, around the 30 minute mark, he dropped too deep, received the ball too deep, and really didn’t get to make his patented late runs or overlapping, find space movements in the attacking third. This is bad for him and it’s bad for US Soccer. Klinsmann’s had a handful of Dempsey games now, and in all but one (Honduras in Miami), this has been his preferred tactical use of Dempsey. It’s probably time to change that up.
And while we’re at– let’s briefly mention omissions. Graham Zusi? On the bench. Andstillon the bench when the game really could have used him. Sacha Kljestan. As per, not in the mix but it’s becoming problematic that he isn’t, especially with Torres getting shot after shot to “unlock defenses”– what’s the joke– “if you only give him time and lots of the ball?” Kljestan is a guy who unlocks defenses and does it in European football. Not to speak of his rapport with MB 90. Sigh. Those omissions are really more opinion based. Here’s a damning one. Coach– Road Qualifying might not be the best place to sit your longtime captain, especially when you’re missing about 300 matches of international experience because of injury in Donovan, MB 90 and Cherundolo.
Klinsmann must end the constant experimentation and above all, he must do better. Forget the reality that the United States simply avoided these types of galling defeats under Bob Bradley (please don’t cite the Panama match– that’s probably a World Cup qualifier). Klinsmann must do better because some results say he can and because now the US have no real margin for error. They are tied in the group now with three to play. Three points away at Antigua and Barbuda seem likely, but to advance they’ll likely need six total. A loss tonight could make eliminate all margin for error. It’s dicey as it is. And let’s stop with the “we told you this would happen” stuff. Not qualifying isn’t funny. There should be no “joy” taken in reporting a correct prediction or a tactical failure. 2014 is only two years away. If the Americans don’t get things fixed in the next two months, it will be the longest two years of a US Soccer fan’s life, and even longer until 2016, when the US would get to try again.