Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Glimmers of Hope

So what are we to think about the U.S. Men's National soccer team headed into the Copa America (or Copa Centenario, if you prefer)?

Consecutive wins against South American opponents in the past week? Good.

Those wins coming against traditional CONMEBOL minnows Ecuador and Bolivia? Not so good.

Four straight wins and a 6-1 record so far in 2016? Good.

The loss being in World Cup qualifying to Guatemala in a dismal 2-0 performance? Not good at all.

The introduction of new, exciting players like Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic, and Steve Burnbaum? Good.

Continuing to rely on old, and old guard, players like Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, particularly in the demanding role of center midfielder? Not very good.

Obviously the upcoming Copa America will give us more information on where the national team is, and where it might be going, in World Cup qualifying and, hopefully, the 2018 World Cup itself. The recent wins have certainly quelled, for now, the anti-Klinsmann drumbeat that reached a crescendo after losses to Jamaica in the Gold Cup and Mexico in the play-in for the Confederations Cup last year.

While they are far from a guarantee for success in the upcoming Copa America, which will be against stiffer competition in a more meaningful setting, the Americans' luck appears to be turning after a dismal 2015. And not just on the field.

The U.S.'s opportunity to participate in the Copa, and indeed the entire tournament, was cast into doubt by the indictment or arrest of many top CONMEBOL and CONCACAF officials last summer and additional indictments for Traffic Sports, a major player in organizing (and skimming graft from) both the Gold Cup and Copa America. The importance of the tournament as preparation for the next World Cup cannot be understated, particularly after the ignominious denial of the chance to play in the Confederations Cup, participation in which was long touted by Klinsmann as essential to success in Russia, until it wasn't.

But whether through sheer will to actually celebrate the 100th anniversary of the competition, or the unappealing prospect of losing millions of dollars of revenue from the target-rich U.S. soccer market, the tournament will go on (although perhaps without Argentina).

While Klinsmann has talked about bringing new or younger players along slowly (hence not starting Nagbe or Pulisic against either Ecuador or Bolivia), this tournament seems the ideal opportunity to start determining whether they will be able to withstand the pressure of top flight competition in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, particularly once it moves to the final stage (known as The Hex because of its six teams, the top three of which will qualify for the World Cup, and the fourth place team of which will advance to a playoff against the fifth place team from Asia).

The back line seems set with John Brooks and Geoff Cameron (assuming he's healthy) in the center of defense and Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin on the wings. Bobby Wood, Gyasi Zardes, and Clint Dempsey appear ready to play up front in some combination (particularly with the surprise exclusion of Jordan Morris from the squad) with Pulisic likely to come off the bench and Chris Wondolowski available to poach a last minute goal in a pinch. 

Pulisic celebrates his goal against Bolivia, which made him the
youngest goalscorer for the U.S. Men in the modern era.
(photo from

That leaves three players to man the midfield (although Zardes could play wing or Dempsey as a withdrawn forward or attacking midfielder at the top of a diamond). Michael Bradley is a shoo-in, of course. Alejandro Bedoya was, for my money, perhaps the Yanks' best player against Bolivia and seems unlikely to be left out of the starting 11 (as long as Klinsmann doesn't insist that he play in the back).

There has to be some bite, which Jones normally provides. Klinsmann could go with two defensive mids with Jones and Beckerman, but that seems unlikely, particularly given Beckerman's lack of mobility. Equally unlikely is abandoning the defense altogether and playing both Nagbe and Bedoya along with Bradley.

While Jones is an acceptable choice this summer, it's hard to see him as capable of being one in Russia. I'd like to see Klinsmann try Bradley at the bottom of a diamond with Nagbe and Bedoya the linking midfielders and Dempsey at the tip. But that's unlikely to happen since Klinsmann has insisted for more than two years now that Bradley's best position is up the field leading the attack, and for the most part Bradley has proved him right.

Another option would be to recognize that Dempsey may be too old by the time 2018 comes around and put Bradley at the top, with Nagbe and Bedoya behind, Cameron in the defensive/deep-lying mid position, and Burnbaum or Matt Besler in the center of defense with Brooks.

Given the heat that Klinsmann took last year over the team's performance it's understandable that he is reluctant to sacrifice results for experimentation in the Copa. But, in the long-term, that may be exactly what this team needs. Regardless, it's nice to talk about the options available to him, which seemed in very short supply last fall.

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