Saturday, June 8, 2013

Job done?

It's becoming abundantly clear that Jurgen Klinsmann is bound and determined to outdo his predecessors as US national team coach in drama, if not in results. Things are just never easy with this bunch. What started out as an assured, professional performance away from home frayed at the edges with bad, old habits rising to the surface before the newest New Hotness saved the day. Brad Evans' stoppage-time goal gave the United States a 2-1 win at Jamaica on Friday, its first World Cup qualifying win in Kingston.

Going by the numbers, the United States is in great shape to make the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. As I've said before, 16 points is the magic number in the final round of Concacaf qualifying. That's been enough to at least secure the Jack Warner Memorial Fourth-Place Playoff Spot (TM) since it came into existence two World Cup cycles ago. The United States is almost halfway there with seven points from four games of the 10-game Hex, and it has four of its final six games at home. In truth, it could stand to draw one of those home matches and probably still qualify with room to spare.

A win at Jamaica and a surprise draw in Mexico have the United States on pace to match its road performances from previous cycles (that snow-bound defeat of Costa Rica in Denver is nothing to sneeze at, either). It earned six points away from home in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup (win at Canada, draws at Jamaica, Mexico and El Salvador), five in 2002 qualifying (win at Honduras, draws at Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago), and seven in 2006 (wins at Panama and T&T, draw at Guatemala) and in 2010 (wins at Honduras and T&T, draw at El Salvador). The trip to Costa Rica in September doesn't look promising as the United States has a worse record there than in Mexico -- not a single point there since 1992 -- but an October trip to Panama in the Hex finale could be an ideal chance to match the national team's record for an away points haul.

Going by the performance, however, there's clearly room for improvement. To be sure, this was a much-improved showing compared to the last US visit to Kingston, a 2-1 loss (the national team's first to Jamaica) in the previous round of qualifying. Klinsmann sent out a narrow, defensive-minded squad then that relied on a half-fit Clint Dempsey and an isolated Jozy Altidore for offense and ultimately got mugged when Jamaica scored on two set pieces. This time, Klinsmann opted for a 4-4-2 with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones holding down the center of midfield and Graham Zusi and Fabian Johnson chugging down the wings, with Dempsey and Altidore reprising their roles up top. It's good to see Klinsmann and his team learning from their mistakes, and this more positive approach paid off when Zusi beat his defender one-on-one and served a great cross for Altidore to head home. That's two goals in two games for the striker large parts of the US fanbase love to hate. Dempsey played a less noticed role in the goal, lurking near the play and drawing the attention of the Jamaican center backs, with Altidore getting goal-side of the other.

The concern, as it has been for much of Klinsmann's tenure, is the defense. Again, it's worth noting that this was the first time in Klinsmann's tenure as US coach that he sent out the same lineup in consecutive games. It's the group he sent out that gives some pause. Young bucks Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler started in the center of defense, while the latest Non-Fullbacks Playing Fullback (TM) were DaMarcus Beasley on the left and Evans, the Seattle Swiss-Army Knife, on the right. This habit of making do at fullback with whomever is hit and playing regularly might get the job done in Concacaf but, as the leaky performances in the friendlies against Belgium and Germany showed, it's a recipe for disaster at the highest level. As for Besler and Gonzalez, the physical talent is undoubtedly there -- it's developing their understanding and ability to stay mentally switched on for 90 minutes that will be key in the run-up to 2014. While there were some hairy moments, those should be able to be ironed out with more time playing together.

As for the Jamaica goal, Jermaine Beckford was pretty clearly offside, not to mention the shove he gave Bradley that allowed him to freely take up that offside position. You'd like to think the referee and/or the linesman would catch that, but this is Concacaf and nothing can be taken for granted. Another goal given up off a set piece, another lead away from home that vanishes -- more bad habits the United States can't afford at the next level. Fortunately for US fans, Bradley Ray Evans popped up to spritz away the stink of disappointment with a bottle of Eau de Added-Time Goal. Bradley and Zusi played a short corner kick (GAH!), from which Bradley slipped a ball into the box for Evans, who was curiously unmarked. The Seattle Slugger had time to settle, turn and curl a shot past Donovan Ricketts for his first national team goal. Quite a finish for a guy who can't seem to decide whether he's a fullback or a midfielder.

In keeping with tradition, even sticking with a settled lineup only brings more questions for Klinsmann. How long can he stick with Beasley and Evans as his fullbacks? For all the speed, work rate and crossing ability he brings to the attack, Beasley is still slight and, at best, a non-negative on defense. Fabian Johnson still has to be the favorite to start at left back when the World Cup rolls around, and moving him to fullback opens up a spot for Landon Donovan to fill whenever Klinsmann deigns to stop his Alpha Dog routine and welcome the country's most talented player back into the fold. Evans, meanwhile, will do a job for you and should secure a World Cup roster spot with his versatility, but with Steve Cherundolo and Timmy Chandler waiting in the wings, he shouldn't expect to start any time soon. There is also talk of Tim Howard losing his place in goal to Brad Guzan, but unless Howard's form takes a serious dip or Guzan starts playing like Peter Schmeichel, Lev Yashin and Patrick Roy rolled into one, there's no sense unsettling the US defense any further.

These next two qualifiers, against Panama in Seattle and Honduras in Salt Lake City, offer the United States a chance to put distance between itself and the rest of the pack. To do so, it must solve another of its consistent bugaboos -- carrying play and breaking down an opponent that defends in numbers and plays for a draw. That will be all the more difficult after Zusi earned a suspension for his second yellow card in qualifying and Jones suffered a concussion, leaving the midfield in flux. Dempsey may be asked to carry more of the creative load, and we could see a return to the spotlight by Stuart Holden, the man who could be just what the national team needs if his knees would stop breaking.

Panama is still unbeaten after four games, and Honduras showed in the Hex opener that it's no pushover. The margin for error in Concacaf is as slim as it's been in years, perhaps ever. The promised land is in sight for the United States, but as ever with this team, getting there will be a bumpy ride. Courage.

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