As World Cup qualifying nears for the United States men’s national soccer team, supporters hope the multitude of questions that came to the forefront following the defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica last month will be answered. The U.S. is in the midst of their longest home losing streak since 1997.
Changes, or at the very least a refocusing of the program over the next few months, is imperative as the cupcake teams the U.S. will face here in the next week or so turns into serious competition for spots in Russia.
Manager and technical director Jurgen Klinsmann’s seat has not been hotter than in recent weeks, even after early summer wins over traditional European powers Germany and Holland. Questions over team selection, style of play and the lack of development of young players have come to the forefront as struggles have persisted at both the senior and under-23 levels.
The U23 failed to qualify automatically for the Olympics last month, losing to Honduras on home soil. A playoff between the U.S. and a strong Colombian U23 side for one of the final spots in the Olympic field will take place in March.
In the two most recent defeats, to Mexico and Costa Rica, the lack of organization and cohesion has been apparent. The passing game Klinsmann wants his sides to play has be absent recently.
We know the passing style works. Long spells of productive possession against Germany and Holland this past summer turned into beautiful goals. Mix Diskerud’s goal against Germany following a wonderful display of possession – 30 total passes in a sequence where every player on the pitch for the Yanks touched the ball – is exactly what Klinsmann and the supports want.
The problem is that implementation of this passing game – one that he helped to install in Germany that turned them into a world power – hasn’t come to fruition just yet.
The team still relies heavily on counterattacking and set piece goals to win games. Recent struggles from Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore haven’t helped, as their holdup play is vital for the team’s success.
The revolving door of players and overall lack of consistency in team selection has led to the system suffering.
The year or so after a World Cup is a time to find who will be relied upon for the next four years. It’s typically a time to phase out older players while bringing in the next generation of talent, so some struggles are typically expected.
The worrying part is that these struggles have come with a bunch of 30-somethings that won’t likely play a large part in the next World Cup, instead of a bunch of 20-somethings that will likely be in the prime of their careers by 2018. While Klinsmann has preached about bringing younger players in, his selection hasn’t reflected this.
The likes of Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman are talented but likely won’t be the first options come 2018. Thus far, only Gyasi Zardes, 23, and DeAndre Yedlin, 21, have been given the opportunity to show that they could be impact players in the future.
This can all change.
For this weekend’s qualifiers more young players will likely be given the opportunity to shine. 23-year-old forward Jordan Morris, 25-year-old midfielders Miguel Ibarra and Darlington Nagbe and 20-year-old defender Matt Miazga have been called up, the latter two for the first time. Morris and Miazga are two of the brightest young stars in the U.S. system right now.
With these four, along with now mainstay youngsters Mix, Bobby Wood, Yedlin and Zardes, Klinsmann may be finally turning the corner on phasing out the older players.
In the press release that came with the announcement of the squad, he even addressed the fact that Dempsey was left off by saying that it was time to give the younger players a chance.
This is a huge step in the right direction, but can’t be a one time deal. It is imperative that these young players get serious game time in the coming months to gain comfortability and confidence against these lesser opponents before the much tougher second round of qualifying takes place.
There are still questions of where midfielder Michael Bradley fits best into the team and who plays alongside him in the midfield.
With only Jones and Beckerman in the squad at the holding midfield spot and a lack of creative central midfielders, we are likely to see Bradley once again in his roaming playmaker role.
Three young central players that need to see callups soon that could have big places in the 2018 World Cup squad are advanced playmakers Gedion Zelalem and Emerson Hyndman and holding midfielder Wil Trapp.
Hyndman captained the U20 team that lost to Serbia, the eventual champions, in the U20 World Cup this summer.
Zelalem also played an integral part in the team, while Trapp captained the U23 team in their campaign to qualify for the Olympics this fall.
Playing a 4-2-3-1 with Bradley and Trapp sitting deep with either Zelalem and Hyndman ahead of them could give not only more defensive security but with the passing rage of the four and the pace on the wings with Nagbe and Zardes in the wide midfield and Yedlin and Fabian Johnson at the fullback positions, the U.S. could be very formidable in attack.
Getting back to basics for Klinsmann will help to ensure that this young crop of players can make a sustained impact for the national team.