By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 24, 2016) US Soccer Players – Guatemala City is no welcoming destination for the US National Team, especially when the home team’s World Cup hopes are hanging by a thread. Yet Jurgen Klinsmann has a healthy range of choices at his disposal as he negotiates the typical rigors of a Central American qualifying trip.
The objective quality of the United States’ player pool is of course a source of near-constant debate among fans, and Klinsmann has at times given the impression of dissatisfaction with the depth at his disposal. The group called in to Miami this week ahead of two meetings with Los Chapines offers him a range of diverse individual attributes and tactical approaches, however, even with regulars Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson and Jozy Altidore removed or limited by suspension and injury.
Here are a few of the most notable decisions on Klinsmann’s plate.
Guarded fort, or guns blazing?
“It’s extremely tough down there. The pitch isn’t the greatest. The lighting is not the best. The fans are extremely excited for the game and are really involved in pushing Guatemala to fight harder and play harder.”
Those were the words of Kyle Beckerman to ESPN this week, describing the difficulties that belie the Central Americans’ 95th slot in the current FIFA World Rankings. This trip has become a hallmark of the USMNT’s World Cup road – amazingly, these two countries have met in every single qualifying process of the past quarter-century, aside from the USA’s automatic entry as hosts in 1994 – and Klinsmann will remember the taut 1-1 draw at Estadio Mateo Flores at this stage four years ago.
Guatemala epitomize the equalizing power of CONCACAF. Their player pool is limited. Their flow of exports to bigger overseas leagues has slowed in recent years. They generally remain wedded to grinding, attritional tactics with a healthy sprinkling of simulation and gamesmanship. On paper. this should be an eminently manageable win for the Yanks. Yet we all know how quickly and routinely road qualifiers veer way, way off paper in this region.
So does that bring out Klinsmann’s natural conservatism? If so, expect to see a workmanlike 4-4-2 focused on stability and staffed by experienced faces. Reports out of the USMNT camp suggest that Kyle Beckerman and Michael Bradley are likely to start in central midfield, and fielding defense-first options like Michael Orozco over attacking-minded ones like DeAndre Yedlin or Edgar Castillo at the fullback spots would expose the coaching staff’s priorities.
If Klinsmann & Co. are feeling bullish and prefer to sweep aside an inferior foe proactively, we might see creators like Lee Nguyen or Mix Diskerud included in the starting XI. Anything of that sort would be a striking statement of intent – just the sort of statement that the head coach has often reflected in his words, but rarely in his game day lineups.
Flood the midfield, or two up top?
Formation alone will not reveal the tactical mindset in either of these games. Yet Klinsmann has an admirable range of shapes at his disposal, and veterans capable of handling multiple roles. Is width a priority? Or might the narrow midfield seen so often over the past 18 months be more reassuring? Might the USMNT coaching staff consider Guatemalan schemer Marco Pappa dangerous enough to merit some customized man marking?
Clint Dempsey is back in the fold and likely to see time as a second striker in a 4-4-2. Dempsey could also drop deeper in a five-man midfield for purposes of winning the engine-room battle. Bobby Wood’s red-hot scoring form in Germany provides the young striker with crucial momentum in this window. With Jozy Altidore’s status clouded by recovery from a hamstring injury, Wood could feature as a lone striker, or with Dempsey in tow.
Alejandro Bedoya is finally back to full health and top form. He could play on the right flank or (less likely) in the hole. Gyasi Zardes was one of the team’s most trusted players in 2015 and can work out wide or up top. Michael Bradley has at times occupied a deeper role for Toronto FC this season, so the USMNT may wind up reprising the “empty bucket” look that was common under his father Bob’s tenure. Talk of Johnson and his sore groin playing a role in Guatemala seems like misdirection, but with Klinsmann, you just never know for sure.
Darlington Nagbe represents another versatile presence who’s uniquely comfortable in possession, though an ankle injury sustained in the dying moments of his Portland Timbers’ 2-2 draw over the weekend may restrict him to the sidelines for now. He and Nguyen are the fastest-rising newcomers, but it’s possible that their lack of road qualifying experience works against them in this one.
Brad, or Tim?
In marked contrast to the proactive announcements of the past, Klinsmann has refused to name his starting goalkeeper ahead of time this month.
“There’s a reason we brought four good goalkeepers to this camp,” he told reporters in Miami. “And that reason is the future. We want to see our younger goalkeepers grow. We want them to make an impression.”
That said, it would be stunning if David Bingham or William Yarbrough leaped ahead of Brad Guzan and Tim Howard into the starting job at this stage. A neck-and-neck competition between Howard and Guzan has unfolded since the former returned from his post-World Cup hiatus and with both veterans experiencing some down times at their English clubs of late, it’s hard to guess at how this decision gets settled.
Ready to trust the kids?
One way to interpret the tumult of the past 18 months or so is that Klinsmann has been cycling through a volume of personnel, formations and approaches in order to set himself up with the depth and flexibility he now has at his fingertips. He called in a plus-sized squad of 26 with the explicit aim of amping up competition for places, and has the additional opportunity of moving players back and forth between the senior team and the U-23 group which is also in Miami, preparing for the Olympic playoff vs. Colombia.
While it’s relatively unlikely, that means the likes of Jordan Morris, Jerome Kiesewetter, and even teenage phenom Christian Pulisic. Out of the squad through illness, Pulisic could recover in time for the return game next week in Columbus. This scenario becomes more likely if the USMNT wins on Friday night, with Guatemala seen as a far less daunting proposition on northern soil.
More options, more choices, more depth. These are good dilemmas for Klinsmann to have. Now we’ll wait and see if he’s confident enough to invest his faith in any of the more adventurous avenues.
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