After a 3-1 win in Puerto Rico that served as a low-key warm-up for several early arrivals, most of the U.S. national team is gathered in Dallas this week to begin the quick but critical run-up to next month’s Copa América Centenario. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has less than two weeks, along with two friendlies, to fashion a team capable of reaching the semifinals. The manager said this week that the final four is his target.
“The goal is coming out of the group and then obviously, we said after [the 2014 World Cup], we have to learn how to win knockout games. We have to learn how to get in a tournament really to the next level. And the next level is, and at Copa América now, is to win your quarterfinal,” he told U.S. Soccer’s website. “Win your quarterfinal against whoever that will be in order to make the final four. This is our goal, so we want to be in that tournament very long. We want to play six games in this tournament, and we believe that this roster is very, very hungry, very determined and very aggressive going into these games.”
Individually, the 23 men selected for the Copa squad may be hungry and determined. But questions remain about chemistry and the collective.
Klinsmann still hasn’t managed to settle on a center back pairing—or if he has, it’s been denied regular reps—nor has he figured out the best way to deploy Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in midfield. The lack of an established left back apparently has forced Klinsmann to reconsider Fabian Johnson for the role, while the absence of the all-too-frequently-injured Jozy Altidore fundamentally changes the structure of the attack.
Too often, it seems as if the U.S. is starting over as it enters a major tournament. There are several key Americans hitting the Copa in good form. Klinsmann now must fashion the structure that helps those players find success. Lineups change and injuries happen, but a consistent approach and a few key partnerships are vital when playing three difficult group-stage games in nine days.
For the sake of his semifinal goal, Klinsmann must begin laying that foundation on Wednesday in Frisco, Texas, where the U.S. will entertain Ecuador. Unfortunately for the manager, however, circumstances are already uncooperative. He has several issues to confront:
Mixing and matching in back
Klinsmann told reporters on Tuesday that Geoff Cameron, arguably the favorite to start alongside John Brooks in central defense, will miss Wednesday’s game. Cameron has been nursing a hamstring injury.
Klinsmann’s most puzzling Copa cut was Omar Gonzalez, who’s been playing well for Liga MX finalist Pachuca. Michael Orozco and Steve Birnbaum likely were included because of their increased versatility, but neither is in Gonzalez’s class as a center back. That leaves Matt Besler as the likely choice to start against Ecuador. The Sporting Kansas City captain would appear to be a good complement to Brooks on paper, but the pair has almost no experience playing together.
If Besler and Brooks start together and click, Klinsmann will have to decide whether to keep them together or start again if and when Cameron is healthy. Ideally, the manager’s first-choice center backs will get significant time together before facing Colombia in the Copa opener. But unless Klinsmann already had his eyes on a pairing that didn’t include Cameron, establishing that chemistry and momentum during the upcoming friendlies will be problematic.
The left back conundrum
He’s the national team’s best winger. Unfortunately, he’s probably also its best outside back. Deciding where to use Fabian Johnson remains a puzzle.
His preference for midfield, not to mention his performance there for Borussia Monchengladbach, seemed to put the matter to rest for a while. But Klinsmann hasn’t found a replacement for the departed DaMarcus Beasley, and the manager said during a Facebook chat this week that he’s resigned to using Johnson in defense.
“In the left back position that we haven't found the perfect solution yet. We hope obviously for some players to step it up more and more in the future time, but right now as of today it's a little bit difficult for us,” Klinsmann said. “That’s where we see [Johnson] probably coming into Copa América. We see Fabian as our solution as a left back position, because we have more options in midfield to fill the roles.”
He’s absolutely right about that. Johnson the left back plus another midfielder is going to ensure there’s more talent on the field than Johnson the left midfielder plus an alternative left back. And that’s the case even if Johnson is better when deployed higher.
Now the question is whether Johnson is ready to face Ecuador. He hasn’t played in a month.
If he’s not, then the coach will have to improvise—again. That’s not something he should want to do so close to the Copa kickoff or against a team like Ecuador, which is missing injured forward Felipe Caicedo but still can count on the likes of Enner Valencia, Michael Arroyo and Antonio Valencia.
Klinsmann’s corps of outside backs is so thin that non-rostered FC Dallas midfielder Kellyn Acosta was invited join the U.S. ahead of Wednesday’s friendly. Of course, Acosta isn’t a left back either, but he’s played there for the U.S. and very well could be a stop-gap option against Ecuador. Timmy Chandler, who is on the Copa squad, is the other option but he may be held out after leaving Eintracht Frankfurt’s Monday match with a second-half injury. He’ll have been in transit on Tuesday.
Over the past 12 U.S. matches dating back to July 2015, Klinsmann has started Acosta, Beasley, Tim Ream and Edgar Castillo at left back. None of them will play in the Copa. Brek Shea and Greg Garza had their chances last year as well. If Acosta starts Wednesday, it may be a sign that Johnson is close to returning. If a weary Chandler or a stop-gap like Birnbaum or Orozco plays instead, it might indicate that Klinsmann is looking for a longer-term solution.
Mixing and matching in midfield
One wonders if Bradley and Jones are heading toward Steven Gerrard-Michael Lampard territory—they’re gifted and individually vital to their national team’s plans, but somehow their partnership often winds up equaling less than the sum of its parts. Bradley and Jones have played together only once in 2016. They started alongside each other in a 4-4-2 in January’s 3-2 win over Iceland. How Klinsmann chooses to use them on Wednesday and in the Copa will have a domino effect on the rest of the team.
Considering Jones’s offensive exploits for the Colorado Rapids (three goals and two assists in seven games) and the deep-lying role that Bradley’s been playing for Toronto, it might make sense to ask the latter to play as a holding midfielder and give Jones more latitude going forward.
He often takes it anyway, and structure will be critical against teams like Colombia that attack at high speed.
Klinsmann has preferred Bradley as a playmaker for much of the past two years, but now there are additional candidates who can link the forwards to midfield—Darlington Nagbe, Alejandro Bedoya, Christian Pulisic and a withdrawn Clint Dempsey among them.
If Klinsmann decides he wants both Bradley and Jones ranging box to box, then Kyle Beckerman is available to provide the defensive structure. It won’t damage the U.S. midfield, but it might make it tough to field two forwards. That would be a bit of a shame considering the recent form of Bobby Wood, who isn't as effective out wide (or on the bench).
Partnership potential up front
Wood’s strength on the ball, speed and desire to go to goal were evident Sunday against Puerto Rico and should serve the U.S. well, not only as a direct scoring threat but as a combination that will create space for Dempsey. Wood and Dempsey started together in both World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala in March and should get more time to build their partnership this week.
While the remainder of the team remains in some flux—at least through Wednesday—Klinsmann and the rest of us can get an earlier look at the forwards who, for now, appear to be the likely starters.