By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 11, 2016) US Soccer Players – The US National Team’s January camp is a quirky, often contentious creation, as might be expected from something that is at its core a compromise. It’s a workaround solution to North America’s lengthy winter offseason.
Yet it survives year after year, through multiple coaching regimes, because it remains useful. Even if fans and players alike aren’t completely content with the match performances against Iceland and Canada that capped the month-long gathering in Carson, California, coach Jurgen Klinsmann is justified in painting a rosy picture as focus swivels to next month’s World Cup qualifiers.
“I think we achieved the goals,” he said in a Q&A with USSoccer.com this week. “We looked after the Olympic team, preparing them toward the Olympic qualifiers at the end of March, and also got them closer to the senior team. I think having these two groups both together and feeding off each other really worked out well.… The spirit and atmosphere of the camp was very positive because everybody was looking after each other.”
Up next: Back-to-back CONCACAF qualifiers against Guatemala, at Estadio Mateo Flores in Guatemala City on March 25 and at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio four days later. Positive results in both of these occasions – especially taking all six points, a very realistic goal – would effectively book the USMNT’s place in the Hexagonal round, the final stage on the road to Russia 2018.
With that in mind, what can we take away from the past month? Here are a few thoughts.
Reading the tactical tea leaves
The “name brand” of opponents like Iceland and Canada may not have quickened the pulses of neutral fans. They may turn out to have been handy preparation for Guatemala, however, who remain pronounced underdogs, yet fundamentally tricky opponents for the US.
A slow-trickling talent pool means Los Chapines are still likely to turn to grizzled striker Carlos Ruiz next month, even as the program’s all-time leading scorer approaches his 37th birthday. That only adds to the asymmetrical nature of this matchup, and should prompt a grindingly defensive and attritional approach in both games. Guatemala dropped three crucial points at home in their stage-opening loss to Trinidad & Tobago, their main rivals for advancement out of this group, and will be desperate to make up for it against the US.
The USMNT are well accustomed to facing cautious, packed-in adversaries in CONCACAF play, though they haven’t always produced the necessary inventiveness to pick the locks; recall the frustrating 1-1 draw at Estadio Mateo Flores at this stage of the 2014 cycle. So it was encouraging to hear Klinsmann speak in detail about the value of “between the lines”-type players capable of carving open packed defenses and creating danger in tight spaces.
“The trick is there you’ve got to find space in between those two lines, the back line and the midfield line,” he said after the 3-2 win over Iceland, who defended stoutly with two banks of four and chose wise moments to break out on the counter. “Obviously the more they drop, the more difficult it becomes, because there is literally no space any more. But then if you then get into these areas, then you need a player [who is] very skillful, easy turns, easy to connect people.”
These are qualities that the US developmental system struggles to produce in large quantities. Yet Klinsmann now has intriguing options in the “schemer” category. He’s recently lavished praise on Lee Nguyen and Darlington Nagbe, who could provide the central playmaking presence currently filled by Michael Bradley despite his better suitability for a more withdrawn position.
Out on the flanks, incisive wingers can discomfit bus-parking opponents as well. Jerome Kiesewetter and Ethan Finlay made good use of the opportunities presented to them during this camp, and seem to have given the coaching staff some welcome choices when the time comes to select the March roster.
How the job, and squad, might change next month
The usual rigors – and gamesmanship – of a trip to Central America lie in wait too, of course. Life on the road in CONCACAF is famously devilish and Klinsmann will probably not bring too many players who are unfamiliar with those challenges.
Nearly five years into his tenure, he readily admits he’s gained an appreciation for such factors, and a corresponding realism about the group he’ll gather for March. And he sounds ready to prioritize club form, perhaps more so than usual.
“Now it’s really crucial that we see everybody getting in the best shape possible, everybody getting into a rhythm and making statements,” he said this week. “Is that exactly then the roster that you want to see at the end of March the same one as Copa America? Probably not. Because we always look at who is what point in that time period when we hit certain dates. End of March comes early for MLS players, and brings you in a full swing the European players and also the Mexican players, because they started already a month ago with Liga MX, the Clausura. So we’ll monitor them now all over the place.”
It’s safe to say that guts and grit will also be crucial ingredients.
“To have that drive and that willingness to push it until the very last second of a game to get then the result speaks really for the spirit of this group,” said Klinsmann after late comebacks in both friendlies. “They didn’t let go. They said no, ‘sooner or later we’re going to break them down and we’ll get that necessary goal in order to win the game, and this was really fun to watch.”
Replacing Jermaine Jones (for now)
Even at age 34 and with a lack of clarity about his club home this year, Jones remains at the heart of his coach’s plans. He’s a trusted midfield “warrior” who’s also willing to take uncomfortable assignments like the emergency center-back tasking handed to him vs. Canada after Brad Evans and Michael Orozco returned to their clubs. (Note Klinsmann’s use of the phrase “locked in,” both in terms of Jones’ depth-chart primacy and veteran presence.)
But Jones, by both his and Klinsmann’s admission, presently finds himself in an awkward position. His six-game disciplinary suspension from the New England Revolution’s playoff loss to D.C. United last MLS season must carry over to whatever team – in whatever league or country – signs him. He was able to take part in the USMNT’s winter friendlies because that suspension won’t kick in until he joins a club. But Klinsmann – despite his own misgivings about the harshness of the penalty meted out by MLS – signaled that he wants Jones to find a landing spot soon by ruling him out of next month’s clashes ahead of time.
“Obviously we had an eye on Guatemala already, when we try things out, if it’s different midfield variations, if it’s different attacking variation,” said the USMNT boss. “We moved pieces a bit around, we brought Jermaine Jones back as a center back – still, we’ll be playing him usually in midfield, but he unfortunately with his six-game suspension won’t be available for the Guatemala game.”
That opens up a key spot in central midfield, and several suitors will do their best to stake a claim over the next six weeks or so.
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