Well, no one can accuse U.S. soccer of being boring the last couple weeks at least. I intended to write about the aftermath of the Mexico match but couldn’t bring myself to rewatch the game at the time. Then, after the shellacking delivered by Costa Rica, I wanted to wait until the dust had settled and it was clear what the fallout would be for Jurgen Klinsmann. So, now seems like as good a time as ever to review the state of the program, particularly with new head coach Bruce Arena installed.
First, it’s important to ask, how did we get here? Joe Prince-Wright over at NBC Sports has an excellent piece detailing the last 18 months of the Klinsmann era and the downward spiral it entailed. Some might argue it started even before then. Total Soccer Show recently interviewed MLS Analyst Matt Doyle, who suggested within months of Klinsmann’s hiring there was buyer’s remorse. It’s also hard to forget Brian Strauss dropping his article in 2013, wherein he suggested the players were unhappy, factious, and that Jurgen’s now trademark tinkering was a major problem back then, too. As they say, though, winning fixes everything. After losing the opening game to Honduras that prompted the article, the U.S. went on to beat Costa Rica in the famed snow game and amazingly drew at Mexico in Estadio Azteca.
Nevertheless, the signs were remained. As Prince-Wright points out, following the U.S.’s elimination from the 2014 World Cup at the hands of Belgium, Klinsmann has had a somewhat less successful record. His squad was embarrassed in the 2015 Gold Cup finishing fourth before losing to Mexico in the playoff game to decide qualification for the 2017 Confederations Cup. Then, this past summer, after a successful run in the Copa America Centenario, he sent out a squad against Argentina in the semifinal with poor tactics and was severely humbled. All of that, then, leads us to this past week.
The Mexico Match
Although it took both of the most recent results to break the camel’s back, the loss to Mexico was the more important of the two. Falling to Costa Rica in Costa Rica is no great sin, but failing to take any points from a game against Mexico in the sacred park in Columbus is a sure way to lose everyone’s faith. So, I forced myself to rewatch the first 45 minutes of the November 11th match to get a sense for whether the criticism across the internet was justified. And frankly, although the result is undeniably a disaster, I found the tactics not so easy to throw under the bus.
In fact, although my recollection of the game was that Mexico dominated from the opening whistle, the reality is the very early going was a fairly back and forth affair with decent organization from the U.S. The most glaring issue was the time Mexico enjoyed on the wings, but that is a natural symptom of playing three center backs. You absorb some pressure from the outside but attempt to disrupt play in the middle of the field.
There are, however, some signs of organizational issues, such as a cross into the box from Mexico where Fabian Johnson has to leave his man to catch up to Chicharito, who probably should be more closely marked by Matt Besler. And then, by the seventh minute, Mexico has started to dominate possession since the U.S. is still letting them come up the wings. Again, this is a natural result of Klinsmann playing a 3-5-2 (or 3-4-1-2 or, in truth, a 5-2-3).
The problem becomes the fact that the U.S. players begin double marking Mexican players and losing their defensive posture. You can clearly see players, like Timmy Chandler and Michael Bradley below, actively thinking about where they should be and who they should cover, as opposed to naturally occupying space and marks.
Neither Bradley nor Chandler (marked by bubble number 1) are aware of the two Mexican players behind them as this pass is played across the field. When they turn, they take precious seconds deciding who should step to who and how to shield the goal. You can also see Brooks (bubble 3) pointing to Besler (bubble 4) to slide deeper to his man so Brooks can help rotate. Gonzales (bubble 2) should be moving quickly onto Chandler’s man. Meanwhile, Johnson (bubble 5) is facing away from his mark, who is running in behind. Just after this image, Chandler begins to point to Bradley to indicate which player he should cover. Again, this shift is taking time. Gonzales is slow to his new mark, Brooks is sliding over, and Jones loses his man, who is racing towards goal.
A three man back has to work a lot like good team defense in basketball in that there must be instantaneous rotations and coverage as different players step to the ball, or go wide to meet an incoming attack. The U.S. is late or slow with many, many of their rotations. Jermaine Jones, in particular, is often the last to his man, to step, and has several late challenges that result in fouls. Although this is certainly on Klinsmann for expecting that level of chemistry with a new formation, it also lands on the player’s feet for poor reactions and decision making during the game.
This kind of failure manifests itself again in the tenth minute almost-goal by Jesus Corona, a shot which careens off the post. That he was able to get it on target is a failure by three U.S. players: Bradley, Gonzalez and Chandler, none of whom make a tackle on the top right corner of the box. Look at the image above. Corona is able to go past all three players into the middle of the field. That is hardly a reflection of the system Klinsmann elected, but rather poor defensive effort and strategy from the men on the field.
Klinsmann’s stated purpose of the formation was to free Christian Pulisic in the middle of the park. And when Pulisic had occasion to make a run in the middle, it was devastating. Mexico was burned on at least three occasions within the first eleven minutes simply by Pulisic having the ball at his feet, and he finished each run with a smart pass that could have led to a goal. Unfortunately, not everyone else was as effective in the early goings. Watch this thirty seconds of action, where you will see Pulisic’s run in the eleventh minute. He ghosts past a Mexican defender, but Jozy Altidore and then Bradley make poor passes shortly thereafter to kill the attack. A key issue throughout the first half is sloppy passing from the USMNT, especially in the final third. The U.S. had many opportunities that went wayward because the last pass was so far off, weak, or poorly timed.
The true end of the Klinsmann era is the 20th minute goal by Mexico, which actually comes on the back of one of the USMNT’s chances. After a Johnson cross finds Altidore in the box, he sends a weak header towards goal that is easily saved. Mexico immediately get the ball back to the U.S. box and Johnson, having made the run, is late to get back. This allows Mexico time to swing the ball just as they did on Corona’s early shot, except this time Bradley actually gets stuck in successfully. Unfortunately, the ball pops out and Miguel Layun is there to take a touch and a shot, which is deflected into the net. 1-0 Mexico and the end of dos a cero.
It was also was the end of the three man back line for the game, as Bradley and Jones use a break in the action shortly thereafter to convince Klinsmann to go back to a 4-4-2, with Johnson sliding to the right midfield, Pulisic on the left with Chandler and Besler underneath them. The remainder of the half is largely the same, with a few chances either way.
So, was it really Klinsmann’s fault that the U.S. conceded in the first half, setting up Rafael Marquez’s eventual winner? Formations are often times superficial in soccer. Klinsmann had the team come out in a 3-5-2 (what he called a 3-4-1-2). Of note is that Pulisic was the primary central hub, Johnson and Chandler were on the wings, and Bradley and Jones had to run A LOT. And the fact is, Pulisic was not bad in that central role. In fact, he was downright good when he got the ball. The trouble was, Johnson and Chandler were often pinned back, creating more of a 5-2-3, because Mexico had the space on the wings and exploited it to full effect.
Later, when they switch to a 4-4-2, Johnson and Chandler are still on the wings. And Bradley and Jones still have to run A LOT. The two things that fundamentally changed? The U.S. suddenly presses higher up the field and therefore the pressure on Mexico is better. This results in more U.S. possession and more mistakes in the Mexican half. The other change? No one expects Chandler and Johnson to run up and down the field on gut busting runs, while simultaneously getting back. Instead, Chandler sits into his role on the defense and Johnson isn’t exposed when he fails to get back quickly from a forward position.
It’s worth noting here that, from a larger perspective, the combination of Geoff Cameron’s injury and the U.S.’s lack of true quality depth on the defensive wings had to have played some role in Klinsmann’s election to go with a back three. And if you think of it from that viewpoint, it isn’t illogical. The centerback choices were, at least from a theoretical perspective, reasonable. Brooks is an extremely talented young player who will likely lead the backline for years and both Besler and Gonzalez have previously shined versus Mexico. Letting Johnson play in the midfield, his preferred role, isn’t that controversial. And if the happy benefit is getting Pulisic into a central role, also all for the better.
That being said, can you take issue with the fact that the Klinsmann sent the USMNT out in a new formation that had been barely used in real games? Absolutely. The slow rotations were at least partly a result of unfamiliarity with the system. But, the lineup was not the total disaster it was made out to be and did not result in such a great imbalance of play. Pulisic clearly has a future in that central role and more practice with a back three may actually suit the personnel that we have. Rather, the team was sloppy early and while the switch helped them be more comfortable, they also had just finally settled into the game.
To me the greater issue throughout Klinsmann’s tenure has always been the personnel choices. In my preview I said Klinsmann should deploy in a 4-4-2, with Sacha Kljestan in a central role and Alejandro Bedoya on one of the wings. In addition, I pushed for DeAndre Yedlin at right back. Those same players could have fit into a 3-5-2 (or whatever you want to call it) with better results. By having Yedlin on the right, you add much greater pace than Chandler provides and a sort of perfect role for Yedlin who is something of a right back/right midfield tweener anyway. As for the midfield, Bradley and Jones have been notoriously difficult to pair and swapping in Kljestan would have created a better partnership for Bradley, as well as an adept passer.
Klinsmann eventually did substitute on Yedlin for Chandler, but it was too little too late. The more curious choice was bringing on Michael Orozco for Besler, in lieu of an attacking player like Kljestan, Lynden Gooch, or Julian Green. Similarly, against Costa Rica, Klinsmann made odd choices by subbing out Pulisic for Gooch, failing to use Green, and sticking with Jones in the starting lineup. Despite the good run of form he had during the Centenario, Jones was coming off of a serious injury and should not have been utilized to the extent he was by Klinsmann, or perhaps at all.
That stubbornness, to utilize players out of position and to stick with players for too long, (*coughWondolowskicough*) is Klinsmann’s great downfall. He even alienated good players, like Darlington Nagbe, who could have been a great resource in these matches. I hesitate to say he was a failure, given our relative success at the 2014 World Cup and this past summer’s Centenario, but he certainly made odd choices at the worst times. And now, he’s out. Replaced by Bruce Arena, who gets another opportunity to lead the USMNT.
Good news! Despite two losses, the team can easily qualify for the 2018 World Cup given the relative weak competition and the fact that the top three teams (plus the fourth in a playoff) qualify. And, the U.S. player pool is actually in a pretty good place, too, headlined by Pulisic, Bobby Wood, Altidore, Brooks, and hopefully some newcomers after the January camp. This should provide a beacon of hope that, despite the rough start, World Cup qualifying is not too tall a task for Arena. Add in his wealth of experience in navigating the Hex and most U.S. Soccer fans should feel better by the end of March about where the program is in terms of qualification.
What might not be better, at least immediately, is the overall health of the program. After all, Klinsmann was not just the coach but also the Technical Director of U.S. Soccer, a position that allowed him to influence the beautiful game at all levels in this country. It was, perhaps, a job he was better suited for having come from Germany where they have an excellent youth development program. For better or worse, that position is to be filled in the immediate future by Tab Ramos, formerly Klinsmann’s number two. Ramos must continue the development of players in this country, as it is priority 1A next to qualification.
Another issue to consider from Arena’s appointment are his poor comments from 2013 where he suggested foreign born players should not play for the U.S. and do not represent U.S. soccer progress. He was half right. Anyone who wishes to play for the USMNT and has a U.S. passport should be considered, and he thankfully has said so himself the day he was reappointed. Yet, the success of John Brooks or Fabian Johnson is not a reflection of the success of U.S. soccer development. These are players who were trained and grew up abroad, experiencing an altogether different environment that fostered their skills. That they are two of the best outfield players in the USMNT player pool does not mean we have suddenly become good at developing players. Klinsmann was a great recruiter of such players and that should be continued, but not relied upon.
On the other hand, Christian Pulisic is a better story. He was born and raised in Hershey, PA, and played for the U.S. Youth National Teams growing up, where he was eventually scouted and acquired by Dortmund. That story lends itself to some small measure of congratulations. If we can produce another Pulisic, another Jordan Morris, or another Bobby Wood, we will be a world class team before too long. These are players that can contribute at the international level and push us forward toward being competitive. That, combined with the practical coaching, lineups, and formations Arena will provide, will get us through to Russia in 2018. But those players, combined with exceptional coaching, lineups, and formation will lead us to being truly competitive and successful in Qatar and beyond.
Like many have already observed, Arena seems like a temporary solution. Baring incredible success in Russia, he will not be retained beyond the next World Cup. U.S. Soccer knows that to continue to progress, we need new ideas and new inspiration. That will only come from having excellent managers who can lead the team forward in coherent ways. Managers like Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp, and Pep Guardiola are only available infrequently and with much patience. They have their pick of where to manage. Laying a groundwork that demonstrates we can succeed ought to be tempting to those same managers.
With that in mind, U.S. Soccer’s focus needs to not just be on the immediate problem, qualification, but on the long term problem, developing players. The solution to that problem is more complex that the appointment of Arena, Ramos, or any other one person. It takes a concerted effort, an injection of resources, and smart people at every level. It also takes a certain amount of luck. I have no doubt the U.S. can find all of the above.
In the immediate future, we can look forward to the January camp where Arena will bring together his first group of players since retaking the reins. It will be important for him to bridge any divides that exist between himself and players, as well as among the players themselves. Although much has been made about the potential faction between the German-born dual nationals and the other contingent, I think that divide is not nearly as wide or contentious as some have made it out to be. Just check social media if you want a clue at some of the relationships. Better still, January is usually a couple of easy games for Arena to enjoy before qualifying resumes. That vacation will be over before he knows it and he will need to right the ship. It’s time to get back on the road to Russia.
Photo Credit: Matt Dunham / Associated Press