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Lost in Transition



"It's just like pulling off a Band Aid." -- Cop with a Mustache, There's Something About Mary

***

Everybody got their pitchforks and torches on standby?

This could get ugly ... for Jurgen Klinsmann, anyways.

Safe to say based his Klinsmann's roster selection for Friday's vital CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica it hasn't been the best week of all-time for the German. Then when you throw in some articles that have painted a picture of the German-born coach, to quote the English terraces -- YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING -- the level of rancor from the usually staid American soccer media (and fans) is growing increasingly toxic.

It's not Rafa Benetiz at Chelsea level, yet, but if the U.S. doesn't beat Costa Rica and gets embarrassed at the Azteca on Tuesday by Mexico people aren't going to be too happy, regardless of how many cool stories about Klinsmann flying helicopters are leaked by the Pravda department of the U.S. Soccer House in Chicago.

There's a lot swirling around at the moment so let's access some facts, first:

* The U.S. lost it's first of 10 "Hex" games last month at Honduras.
* Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Jose Torres, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams, Jonathan Spector (anyone else?) were all unavailable for these two matches, through injury, sickness or personal wanderlust.
* Former U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra was dropped entirely by Klinsmann, opting for a defense with a combined 12 World Cup qualifying caps.
* In 23 games in charge of the U.S. Klinsmann has never used the same starting XI in consecutive games.

Skewing all this are the lingering doubts -- despite high-profile results in friendlies -- that the U.S. hasn't taken the strides forward everyone expected when Sunil Gulati axed Bob Bradley in the summer of 2011 and hired Klinsmann.

Get to the choppa!

Let's first start with the Bocanegra issue, which was almost a Catch-22 for Klinsmann.

For one, let's pretend Bocanegra wasn't pinned to the bench for a team in the relegation zone in the Spanish second division and was playing regularly at Racing Santander. It's not like over the last year or so Bocanegra hasn't lost a step -- this is common knowledge for U.S. fans. We've all seen this. We all knew it would be beyond risky to try to coax another World Cup campaign around a 33 year old defender -- two years ago. This isn't a new revelation.

So if Klinsmann picks Bocanegra and he shows the form and declining speed we've seen and gets torched in either game, we all get pissed off. ... Why would you play Bocanegra? I can see the fork sticking out of his back from space!!! Per Mertesacker could beat him in a foot race!!!

For whatever "leadership" Bocanegra would bring to the table, let's not try to build him up into Fabio Cannavaro at the 2006 World Cup or something on that par. Bocanegra was an excellent player for nearly a decade for the U.S., but his time is up.

The real issue here is Klinsmann's done a lousy overall job -- especially in the defense -- of transitioning the squad from the team that's been almost unchanged at the core at both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups (Donovan, Dempsey, Onyewu, Bocanegra, Howard, Cherundolo) to something new. Coaxing all these international games for over a decade with almost all the same key players isn't exactly a recipe for success, is it?

Playing Devil's Advocate, suppose Gulati never hires Klinsmann. Bob Bradley likely leads the U.S. into Brazil -- with ease -- using the same core team who all know their roles. Once the team gets to Brazil, we're facing the same questions if the U.S. has made progress, if it can compete with the elite of the world, can it get past the Round of 16? It's not very exciting. There's not likely any qualifying drama, but the payoff is minimal. We're all probably be bored, too.

Part of this whole transitional mess isn't entirely Klinsmann's fault, considering Omar Gonzalez was out injured with a torn knee for nearly a year, but a lack of preparation leaves the situation where Tony Beltran, Matt Besler and Justin Morrow -- journeymen in MLS -- are the only viable alternatives in defense thanks to a plethora of injuries.

Still, had Klinsmann started the process transitioning into a new-look squad a year ago full-bore, instead of in earnest, we might not be where we are today. It's hard to cook up a scenario, bar every U.S. defensive regular visiting the Springfield Mystery Spot at the same time, where we're in the boat we are now with Goodson being the elder defensive statesman for an American defensive unit.

I'm burned out, bros.

It's hard to entirely blame Klinsmann, too, for Donovan's existential spirit quest. Donovan might be past the age of 30, but he was still figured to be a key figure in the run toward what would be his fourth World Cup. For whatever pressures and burnout Donovan has felt (and it's understandable to a degree) he's not the all-time leading scorer for Germany or Argentina or even a place like Norway. It's doubtful in any other soccer country the international leading scorer deciding -- in his prime -- to blow off crucial qualifiers for a holiday in Cambodia would go down too smoothly. It might be taxing being "face of American soccer" for a decade, but let's be honest in the general sports consciousnesses, Donovan has gotten a huge pass. Chances are people will tune into ESPN2 on Friday and Tuesday and have no idea he won't be there, or more importantly why he isn't.

Donovan staring into the sporting abyss and deciding what looks back at him would've been an issue for Klinsmann or anyone on the U.S. touchline.

Maybe it all boils down to this: very few American fans want to think about or admit, the U.S. might be in a down cycle for players. As said before, you can't keep trotting out the same guys year after year at the international level and expect it to maintain. Think about it this way, beyond Michael Bradley which American player can you feel truly comfortable about as a key player who was new to the roster at the 2010 World Cup moving forward toward the 2014 cycle?

You can go down all the usual roads: MLS, youth development, college soccer, guys in Europe, guys not playing in the Champions League, etc., but the hard truth is the old guard of U.S. players has gotten older, more injury prone and haven't been replaced adequately.

Yes, Fabian Johnson and others have shown some promise in spots, but it's not like a brand-new, no doubt Starting XI has emerged from the American player pool. By the same token Klinsmann could have picked a team and stuck with it, supplementing here-and-there instead of the radical adjustments we've seen match-to-match, but we've watched these games. Who would you pick from the player pool, as it sits, with regularity. It's easy for the players to condemn the tactics when they don't work, but at some point the players have to take their share of the accountability for floundering for long stretches in matches, which usually result in the U.S. digging themselves a big hole.

And it's not all the manager's fault -- something anyone reading this knows I've been harping on for years -- America has't produced a decent wide player or winger in years, if ever. Brek Shea? That's a bit of a reach given his consistency  Klinsman, again has compounded the issue, playing a weird system in recent matches where Dempsey and Eddie Johnson (yes, remember we've had to bring him back into the fold which isn't clearly not a sign of how desperate things are) in modified wide-forward spots.

This sort sort of bad feelings happened once before in recent memory at the 1998 World Cup when the U.S. bottomed out as Steve Sampson tried to use the bulk of players from the 1990 and 1994 squads, billowed by a few promising players like Brian McBride and some completely forgettable scrubs like Chad Deering. There was a lot else going on with the 1998 squad, namely a 3-6-1 formation and the extracurricular going on between John Harkes and Eric Wynalda.

It's not the best comparison  but it's the closest I can recall when there seemed to be this much internal turmoil simmering in the USMNT camp. The upside of finishing last at France 1998 was the Federation hired Bruce Arena, who used some young blossoming talent in MLS to propel the team to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals.

We're not there, yet, but without a win vs. Costa Rica on Friday and a representative performance (even in a loss) at Mexico, the rancor among the fans -- and sadly the players themselves -- is only going to mount for Klinsmann and Gulati (a package deal at this point).

Above all, with all his tinkering, baffling tactical decisions, blind spots for Jermaine Jones, etc. Klinsmann certainly hasn't helped himself. He's been dealt a tough hand with the injuries, transitional roster, Donovan situation, etc., which most can understand, only the German seems to make matters worse either thorough his cavalier attitude, strange formations or most damning: the lingering sense that the "Emperor Has No Clothes." By now you can clearly question that Germany's success (and only a third place finish) in 2006 was a product of assistant Jogi Low and the more representative Klinsmann was his ill-fated spell in charge of Bayern Munich.

When he was hired Klinsmann tried to promise the U.S. the moon: a change in philosophy, a fun, attack-first team. Instead we've gotten a team that, for the first time in a while, looks like it's going to qualify for a World Cup by the skin of its teeth -- if that.

The worry here, too, is over the years the U.S. -- certainly under Bob Bradley -- provided it's best results when everybody had written it off. One of these days, that backs against the wall, us against the world, ethos is going to wear off. That's not to say it'll happen Friday night in Denver vs. Costa Rica, but it's hard to remember a time there were so many dark clouds and red flags handing over the heads of everyone associated with the team.

As fans, we were mostly ready for a transition back in July 2011. Except instead of tearing away the Band Aid right away, we've found ourselves in a fine mess -- much like zipping up our privates into our prom pants, like Ben Stiller in "There's Something About Mary." The U.S. roster issues and Klinsmann's decisions -- the bean and franks, if you will -- have left us all in a position fraught with peril.

We all knew this might be coming down the road. Nobody expecting getting out of this position, however, to be this painful.

Miscellany:

* Good news: Both the Costa Rica match on Friday and the Mexico match are on channels almost all Americans already have: ESPN2! (Way it's going, let's take the positives wherever they exist.)

* The way everything's shaken out, Brad Guzan (likely) starting in goal is the least of the U.S.'s concerns. Who'd have thought that?

* Still there's there's a place for Sacha Kljestan to make an impact for the U.S., but much like a lot of guys in this lineup puzzle, there doesn't seem to be a ready-made spot for him the way Klinsmann sets things up. Either him or Zusi at the tip of a midfield trio, backed by Bradley and Jones seems like a solid idea. Somebody needs to be an offensive catalyst.

* Wrote earlier in the month about Jozy Altidore's goal-scoring form for AZ and how it may or may not apply to the U.S. So read that.

* File this away: Terrance Boyd will make an impact coming off the bench as a second-half substitute.

* Costa Rica is unbeaten in nine matches, dating back to a loss to Mexico at the Azteca in September.

* Based on his continual mental lapses for the Red Bulls, the U.S. gameplan should be to attack wherever the Ticos line Roy Miller up in their defense.

* Will Arsenal on-loan youngster Joel Campbell be in the mix for Costa Rica? Alvaro Saborio and Bryan Ruiz are both dangerous players, but aren't exactly speed-merchants. Something to keep an eye on.

* Costa Rica has a midfielder named Yeltsin Tejeda in the mix. Wonder if he enjoys Borscht?

Lineup Guess:

If you can figure out Klinsmann's methodology, buy lotto tickets, too. This isn't what I'd pick, but more in line with what Klinsmann's done lately.

GK -- Guzan

DEF -- Cameron -- Edu -- Gonzalez -- Beasley

MID -- Bradley -- Jones -- Zusi

FOR -- Dempsey -- Gomez -- Johnson

Closing Thought:

For whatever doom-and-gloom scenarios that might go through people's heads over the next 90 minutes, it's hard to come up with a situation where the U.S. -- with four more home games -- can't at least coax a way to finish fourth in CONCACAF, which means a playoff with New Zealand. Remember, unless it's going poorly, few people dwell on what happens in the qualifiers.

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3 Responses to “Lost in Transition”

  1. # Blogger Schlom

    I'm with you on the Bocanegra thing - I can't understand why a player who isn't even playing for a near last place 2nd division in Spain should be starting for the US team. If they think that the National Team can't even compete in the Spanish 2nd Division than there are bigger problems than lineup selections.  

  2. # Blogger Luton13

    I fear a Bryan Ruiz wonder show. He is more creative than our combined starting 11. The addition of a wobbly back line I fear the worst.

    Bocanegra should not be a part of the national team talk. He served his purpose and maybe should have up his boots and see if coaching is in his future. Although he is still pretty legitimate in FIFA 13.  

  3. # Blogger HBO2003

    First off props to Brian Straus (Sporting News). He wasn't on my radar and he scooped the entire US soccer media. It was nice to see a rarely reported infighting story.

    The choice of Dempsey as captain over Bradley or Jones( nice twitter joke Mike) seems like the safest bet. It's hard for the fraction of either the young Germans or the Americans to question his results for country and club. Bradley would have been a fine choice too, but Dempsey's age fits better if the veterans do find their way back on the field later in qualifying.

    It's cruel that the one time the attack actually seems in form and has some depth, the US may not be able to play the ball out of the back ever. One thing I wish Klinsmann could tactically figure out ( according to Philip Lahm a big wish) is how to maximize Bradley's passing. Some center mids link the defense to the attacking mids and swing the ball back and forth (Busquets, Lucas Leiva) while others play direct balls (Pirlo). Since the US can't rely on anything creative from a wing player or this game overlapping outside backs, the center mids have to distribute to the attack somehow.  

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