By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (May 20, 2012) US Soccer Players – The United States National Team has long had an odd relationship with its own left flank. As with many national teams, the supply of quality left-footed wide players has ebbed and flowed over the years. That’s probably an inevitable reality, given that lefties constitute 10 percent or less of the general population. It also poses some knotty questions for coaches.
The left back and midfield roles have been something of a revolving door over the past year or so. The fullback spot, a classic bugaboo going back many years, has a solution in Fabian Johnson. Yet the German-based pro’s injury issues have necessitated several alternatives, with veteran winger DaMarcus Beasley pressed into emergency service for the most recent World Cup qualifiers.
With coach Jurgen Klinsmann deploying a range of 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 formations during his tenure, we’ve seen a host of different approaches to the left side of midfield. Brek Shea and Brad Davis have been tried as more traditional options, Eddie Johnson and Herculez Gomez – strikers played out of position – have occupied the spot and freer “left mid in name only” roles have been handed to the likes of Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and even Jermaine Jones. Obviously, Klinsmann has put his tactical shoehorn to work in many of these cases.
Now he appears to be taking a “throw the kitchen sink at it” mindset with his latest roster, announced on Thursday ahead of the USA’s consequential run of five games over the next month.
Aside from the notable exception of Donovan, all of these players are in camp. So are Edgar Castillo, Joe Corona, Stuart Holden and Sacha Kljestan, all viable, if widely diverse in terms of skill set, options on the left wing.
That’s almost too many possibilities to count, especially when you consider the fact that all of the specialist left backs on this list are relatively comfortable moving up to a more advanced placement and have done so for their clubs.
“Having Fabian Johnson back, coming off a really difficult year with Hoffenheim, means a lot to us because he has tremendous qualities. Edgar Castillo is coming from a very positive and strong season, winning the Apertura with Tijuana and now playing in the Copa Libertadores, which is tremendous experience that he can gain. Then obviously we have DaMarcus Beasley, who did an outstanding job in the last two qualifiers,” said Klinsmann in a roster-release Q&A with ussoccer.com. “We are loaded in that position now and it’s looking pretty good.”
So how will Klinsmann staff his team’s port side in these matches? It’s likely that he’s not 100 percent sure himself, and that’s by design. This teeming mass of potential starters will vie for his attention over the course of the camp, and there are the friendlies against Belgium and Germany to run through scenarios.
Still, some of his call-ups suggest that he may have some subtle preferences in mind. Shea has struggled to fully heal from a foot injury and seen limited minutes at Stoke City as a result, while Davis actually moved all around the midfield during his only start of the year, the unconvincing 0-0 draw with Canada in January, as the Yanks labored to break down their northern neighbors’ massed defense.
Yet they’re both in the picture, and they, along with Beasley, would arguably be the textbook solutions for the left side of a packed 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 midfield where balance and width is paramount.
Inverted wingers remain a hot trend, and one that Klinsmann has dabbled in, which would add someone like Graham Zusi to the discussion. More to the point, we’ve seen the Yanks boss go to some lengths to build his team’s shape around the personnel he knows and trusts, rather than the opposite.
If this remains a decisive influence, Gomez or Johnson are frontrunners, especially in light of the three rangy fullbacks available, all of whom need little prompting to get forward on the overlap. That could prove useful in June, where Jamaica – who remain the David to the USA’s Goliath – Panama, and Honduras (the latter two being home games for the Yanks) may elect to sit deep and concede possession.
Here there are consequences to consider. Even the fittest, fastest fullback must always mind the space behind them, where counterattacking sides often find their best opportunities pulling center backs out of position. For example, Castillo’s over eagerness to attack has gotten him into trouble in previous international appearances and Beasley initially looked like a weak point in March’s games, before Costa Rica and Mexico discovered that he was up to the challenge.
Compared to the threadbare options on offer at that point, it makes sense that Klinsmann would give himself multiple options. These latest left-sided decisions are more than just plugging holes. They will affect, and reflect, the fundamental outlook of the entire team.
More from Charles Boehm: