By Charles Boehm – COLUMBUS, OH (Nov 14, 2016) US Soccer Players – It’s understandable for USMNT fans to feel angry and frustrated by Friday’s last-gasp 2-1 loss to Mexico in Columbus. USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann made some risky decisions that didn’t work against El Tri. Namely, his sudden and ill-fated switch to a 3-5-2 formation. That gamble ended with a mid-game switch to a 4-4-2. A costly late marking letdown allowed Rafa Marquez a free run at a corner-kick delivery on his game-winning goal.
Look closer, and you’ll find reasons for hope amid the heartbreak.
“It’s growing pains,” USMNT forward Jozy Altidore said. “We have a young team with a lot of young guys that will learn from tonight and move forward. A lot of talented guys, but these are some of the growing pains you go with. You switch off for one minute and give up that soft goal.”
Marquez is 37. The key player in that newfangled US system (Klinsmann called it a 3-4-3, though most observers saw a fairly orthodox 3-5-2) is 18. So much of our outlook on these big games depends on the final result. In that light, this turns into a victory for experience over youth.
It’s true that World Cup qualifiers are hardly the ideal place to test out new tactical wrinkles or unproven new faces. Concern over Friday’s loss may soon multiply with the daunting trip to Costa Rica for a Tuesday night tussle with Los Ticos, undefeated in home qualifiers vs the Yanks.
The worst-case scenario is not all that far away. That would trigger several winter months of hand-wringing and second-guessing. We can remind ourselves that the Hexagonal is about as forgiving a qualification format as any in the world. That’s cold comfort if you find your team near the bottom of the table.
But pan out your viewfinder just a bit, and that 18 vs 37 comparison starts to look better – a lot better. After so much talk about the USMNT’s reliance on aging legs in recent years, a truly promising batch of young talent is not only on the squad and in the lineup, but playing pivotal roles in big games.
Pulisic is Exhibit A. Just weeks ago many observers were debating whether he was old enough to be starting US games regularly. Then he quickly proved why he deserved to be a key cog in the attack. On Friday, he started the game as a true #10. Pulisic was the central playmaker in an attack-minded formation intended to maximize his substantial abilities with two strikers in front of him and wing backs on both sides.
“Just really disappointed not to come out with at least a point,” said a downcast Pulisic post-game. “It’s always exciting to be part of this team; getting the start, I was happy about that. But I didn’t do enough to help us get the three points. It just took us some time to get into the game. We were really, really good, strong in the second half. It was a really good performance, and not deserved to see that goal at the end.”
It’s hard to think of too many 18-year-olds in US Soccer history playing such a big role in any game, much less a Hexagonal clash with Mexico. Pulisic showed why with some brave, menacing runs that brought the Columbus crowd to its feet. His skill, creativity, and confidence was remarkable, even if not every idea came off.
“A kid that’s fearless, that has all the ability in the world,” said Altidore when asked about Pulisic. “I thought he was terrific tonight. It’s not an easy game to come in and start, especially at that age, and I thought he handled himself really well.”
El Tri’s experience-laden squad reaffirmed the danger he posed by racing over in packs to close him down whenever he took possession in the attacking half. They came crashing in to deliver physical contact at every possible opportunity.
Said Klinsmann: “I think Christian handled it very well. He’s trying to find his openings, find some areas where he can explode and take people on. And he did very well. He had the freedom to roam – especially in that first half in that system of a 3-4-3, he can go either way, left, right, middle, and he can play off of the two very strong strikers. And I’m definitely sure that you’ll see that once in a while, that system, because it actually suits us.”
The problem with the formation, reappearing since a brief flirtation with a 3-5-2 vs Chile in early 2015, showed up at the back. The coaching staff had only a few days to work on the many defensive tweaks that come with a shift from a four-man defense to three in the back, from rotations, to cover, and much more.
Following the game, Mexican players admitted surprise at the US shape. Yet they were quick to recognize and exploit it. Perhaps because they’ve used a similar one so often themselves.
El Tri’s clever, skillful attackers flooded numbers into Timmy Chandler’s area on the right flank and forced the Yanks to make tough decisions at high speed. Costly. seams opened up here and there. Miguel Layun netted the opening goal. Tecatito Corona and Carlos Vela hit the woodwork.
It could be a compliment to the players that Klinsmann believed they could absorb all that new information and put it into practice without losing the slightest bit of fluidity or cohesion against an elite rival. In practice, it was simply pie in the sky to think that every player would be able to play their best, most effective game amid such an significant adjustment.
Maybe it was simply the right set of ideas at the wrong time. That’s on Klinsmann, whether he wants to take responsibility for it or not. What that doesn’t mean is giving up on young players playing the crucial roles for the USMNT.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
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