Thursday, February 7, 2013

Off on the wrong foot

Not fatal, but frustrating. Not devastating, but disappointing. Not crushing, but concerning. Anyone who sat through the United States' 2-1 loss at Honduras to open the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying shouldn't have been too surprised that the Americans struggled away from home. Concacaf is a tougher region than most pundits give it credit, and it's not as though Team USA has a glorious history (soccer or otherwise) in Central America.

However, it was the ways in which the United States struggled -- some obvious, some less so -- that provide cause for concern. Inattentiveness, a lack of invention and a puzzling absence of fitness combined to leave US fans what kind of Brave New World awaits under Jurgen Klinsmann's management. Almost 18 months after the German took over, it's still hard to tell.

Among the biggest talking points of the match was Klinsmann's youthful back four of Fabian Johnson, Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron and Timmy Chandler. Some people questioned his leaving veteran center back Carlos Bocanegra on the bench and exposing the youngsters -- two of whom appeared in a US competitive match for the first time -- to a hostile away atmosphere in a crucial World Cup qualifier. It's hard to blame Klinsmann for taking a chance like this. Bocanegra has been a reliable force in the US defense for more than a decade, but he's 33 and his powers are clearly on the wane. As much as an away qualifier in Honduras isn't the ideal place for a new defensive unit to develop chemistry, and as much as you might wonder about the wisdom of throwing all four into the cauldron at the same time, it was going to happen eventually. Better for the future of the US defense to get its nose bloodied while there's still time to grow, correct mistakes and still qualify.

That said, as experiments go, this one was pretty much a failure. One of the lessons drilled into me early in my career covering soccer -- the lessons of my playing career can pretty much be summed up as "stay in your lane" and "don't hurt anybody" -- was the importance of not turning the ball over in your defensive half. If you need a reminder why, see: Trezeguet, David. Whether it was because of nerves, poor technique, a bumpy surface or any or all of the previous, the US back line had more giveaways than a new semi-pro basketball team trying desperately to fill a gym. By my unofficial count, the United States had 17 turnovers in its own end, 11 of which came in the first half. That is nowhere near acceptable and, if not for wayward crosses and shots by Honduras and alert goalkeeping by Tim Howard, the scoreline could have been much worse.

The first Honduras goal came from just such a giveaway. Michael Bradley shanked a clearance high into the air and toward his own end line, leading to Chandler's turnover in the corner which resulted in a corner kick. The corner was miscleared, allowing Honduras to collect the ball deep in the far corner. Gonzalez neglected to chase the man with the ball and Johnson took his sweet time in closing out, allowing an unimpeded cross to find an unmarked Maynor Figueroa who chested the ball to Juan Carlos Garcia, who performed the acrobatics that sent the Estadio Olimpico into rapture. The BeInSport crew of Phil Schoen, Ray "Innocuous" Hudson and Cobi Jones impressed upon viewers that you can't defend a goal like that, but the build-up was anything but unstoppable. These kind of giveaways and breakdowns were prevalent throughout the match, and teams better than Honduras will severely punish any such continued US sloppiness.

Another area of concern was the players' sluggishness. To some extent that can be excused by the conditions -- a hot, humid mid-afternoon kickoff in Central America. Conserving energy only makes sense in such conditions. What was worrying was just how quickly US players appeared to tire. The commentators noted after just 20 minutes how the visiting players were breathing hard and taking small breaks to "adjust their shin guards." This would make sense if, like in Klinsmann's January camp, the roster was stacked with Major League Soccer talent still ramping up for the start of the season. Only six of the 23 players who traveled to Honduras were based in MLS, though, and of those only Gonzalez and Eddie Johnson started while Graham Zusi was a second-half sub. The rest of the roster is based in Europe or Mexico and well into their seasons. How did these professional players get so tired so quickly?

Correct me if I'm mistaken, but isn't fitness one of Klinsmann's main selling points? Apparently that was what took up most of his brief tenure at Bayern Munich. Could he be running the players so hard in their short time together that their legs can't recover in time for matches? While in Indonesia, I saw and heard reports of many coaches who spent most -- if not all -- of training focusing on players' fitness and spending next to no time on technique or tactics, then looked mystified when their teams fall apart after 45 or 60 minutes. But would even someone with Klinsmann's illustrious playing career be able to blag and bluster their way to jobs leading Bayern, Germany and now the United States? As starry-eyed as US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati was during his pursuit of Klinsmann, you'd hope he was at least professional enough to kick the tires and check beneath the hood and not get sucked in solely by a flashy sales pitch.

What do we make of Klinsmann? Are we getting value for $2.5 million a year -- more than three times the salary of predecessor Bob Bradley, whose team won the previous Hexagonal as well as its World Cup group? He's 11-5-7 since taking over in August 2011. His tenure includes some impressive results (beating Italy in Italy and winning in Mexico City for the first time) and some decided low points (losing to Jamaica for the first time, losing the opener of the final round of qualifying for the first time since 1989). Klinsmann's arrival came with much talk of attacking, positive play and reshaping the structure of US soccer, but the product on the field has been anything but attacking or positive. In his 23 games in charge, the United States has scored multiple goals six times -- a 3-2 friendly win at Slovenia, a 5-1 home friendly win over Scotland, 3-1 (home) and 2-1 (away) qualifying third round defeats of Antigua and Barbuda, a 3-1 home defeat of Guatemala to end the third Concacaf qualifying round, and a 2-2 friendly draw at Russia to end 2012. His team has also been shut out six times, twice in soul-crushing 0-0 draws against Canada. A lack of goals doesn't necessarily mean a lack of attacking play, of course, but let's not forget that international soccer is first and foremost a results-based business. It's also worth asking how much of this attacking flaccidity stems from Klinsmann's insistence on fielding three defensive-minded midfielders. Whether out of concern for the back line or a need to spoil the other team's attack, it leaves the US midfield short of width and creativity, Jermaine Jones' silky assist on Wednesday notwithstanding.

Should we panic? Are Klinsmann and the USSF about to throw away a quarter-century of progress by missing the 2014 World Cup? In short: no. Qualifying will be a tough road, but it's still well within reach. After Costa Rica rallied for a 2-2 draw at Panama and Mexico escaped Mexico City with a 0-0 draw against Jamaica, the United States is last in the Hex but just one point out of the qualifying places. The Hex's 10-match schedule -- in which the United States' home games are largely back-loaded -- allows more margin for error than the six-game third round. Three points are a must when Costa Rica comes to Denver on March 22 as points from the US visit to Mexico four days later should be held in hope rather than expectation. A trip to Jamaica waits on June 7 before the United States closes the Hex with four of its last six matches at home.

Judging from the last four qualifying cycles -- i.e. those with a six-team final round qualifying for a 32-team World Cup -- the United States will need roughly 16 points from its last nine matches to qualify for Brazil 2014. In 1998, the qualifiers were Mexico (18 points), the United States (17) and Jamaica (14), with Costa Rica (12) finishing fourth. In 2002, Costa Rica (23) topped the Hex, followed by Mexico and the United States (both 17) with Honduras just in fourth (14). 2006 saw the creation of the Jack Warner Memorial Fourth-Place Playoff Spot, with none other than Trinidad and Tobago (13) claiming the first JWMFPPS after finishing fourth, while the United States, Mexico (both 22) and Costa Rica (16) qualified automatically. Last time around, Bob Bradley's boys won the Hex with 20 points, followed by Mexico (19) and Honduras (16), while Costa Rica (16) dropped into the JWMFPPS on goal difference. A likely two-legged playoff with New Zealand awaits this cycle's fourth-place finisher, and while the All Whites may not strike fear into the hearts of many, it's best not to take chances as strange things can happen when you get into the playoffs.

Take heart and strap in, US fans. This qualifying cycle may be bumpier than others in recent memory, but the promised land is still in sight. This defense will get better individually and collectively, and the midfield will receive a considerable boost when Landon Donovan returns from his sabbatical. "Win at home and steal what you can on the road" still applies, and the rest of the teams will regress to the mean over the course of the Hex. Courage.

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