The curious case of the USMNT friendlies

Last month, I drove up to Jacksonville, Fla., and thoroughly enjoyed watching the U.S. men’s national team bludgeon Trinidad & Tobago 4-0 as part of World Cup qualifying. The Yanks didn’t need to win by that much to continue their quest to play in Russia, but had they lost they would have risked elimination a sickening two years before the tournament.

It shouldn’t have come to that, in other words.

What keeps me on edge about the USMNT under coach Jurgen Klinsmann is that since his hiring in 2011, it often has come to that. In trying to get the Americans to close in on the world’s elites, the former German superstar has worked to change the way we look at the beautiful game. He’s tried to influence where players sign (preferably Europe), how Major League Soccer operates and made stark roster changes (Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore).

As the Yanks enter “the Hex” — for the uninitiated, the last round of Cup qualifying matches — they warmed up with two friendly matches in the last week: an uninspiring 2-0 victory over Cuba on a sandlot and Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with New Zealand.

These games do not project confidence for the Nov. 11 grudge match with Mexico in Columbus or Nov. 15 against Costa Rica.

I don’t claim to be an expert on international soccer. If I were, I wouldn’t watch so much MLS. Having said that, my first thoughts on the USMNT going into those two difficult Hex games are:

1) Switch the formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2. Last night, the Americans couldn’t string together enough passes to control tempo and create chances. Against New Zealand, midfielder Michael Bradley lined up on the right side with Sacha Kljestan in the middle. I assume it’s because Bradley, who normally lines up in the middle, isn’t as creative with the ball as Kljestan.

I would consider making the middle four in the 4-4-2 a diamond as opposed to a line, place Kljestan at the top of the diamond to take advantage of his creativity and put Bradley at the back because he is a conservative-minded passer.

Instead of three forwards cluttering up the front, I would keep Bobby Wood and Altidore up top. They’re simply too good to have one on the bench.

2) Don’t panic about the goaltending. Neither game had the Yanks’ top goalies in net. Klinsmann wanted a glimpse in the future. He got one. Only one goal was allowed.

3) Unless there’s a compelling private reason I don’t know about, Darlington Nagbe needs some tough love.

Nagbe, who has been on the precipice of cracking the starting lineup for about eight months, asked not to play in the last two games. I don’t know why after a search. It could be a family emergency, but that’s guesswork. But if it’s to kick back after playing so much for the Portland Timbers, he needs to miss the hex.

This is different from Christian Pulisic missing the New Zealand game. He plays in Europe and his club needs him for Champions League matches. Pulisic’s playing world-class competition. The Timbers didn’t play at all.

Klinsmann has a history of benching players he doesn’t believe he can rely on, regardless of talent level. Altidore missed games due to being injury-prone. Landon Donovan took an international soccer sabbatical of about a year, and when he came back, Klinsmann said no thanks. I love Donovan. That one stung.

Ultimately, the hope going against two rivals is that these two matches are simply another example of Klinsmann experimenting a little too much for our comfort level.

If I’m wrong and he’s still tinkering in the hex, the Yanks could miss the World Cup.

USMNT reflections: Now that I’m sober

Yesterday, I made the road trip to EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., to partake in some drunken patriotism. 

I like soccer. I love international soccer. Thing is, it’s a wonderful reason to drink heavily and talk so much crap that intellect vanishes. It’s like a death spiral for me. I drink. I’m very funny when I drink, and people buy me beer out of appreciation for the laughs. Then I get funnier. My improv version to the lyrics of the national anthem for Trinidad y Tobago should have gotten me kicked out and the game hadn’t even started yet.

Unfortunately, it also leads to me forgetting to zip my fly after I finish that postgame bathroom scramble.

So now that I’m sober after the Americans’ 4-0 triumph over Trinidad y Tobago in World Cup qualifying, I have a couple of thoughts:

1) Back in 2002, the U.S. opened the World Cup by punching Portugal in the mouth, if memory serves. What stood out in the game was the Americans had this brash teenager who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. So it’s 14 years later, and I see a lot of Landon Donovan in Christian Pulisic. 

Every international team needs a player who just doesn’t give a damn what you think of him. One who knows this game draws the eyes of a planet and still wants the ball. Not that Pulisic could play on Brazil, but if the Americans don’t have that type of player, they won’t get better. Pulisic could play in as many as five World Cups.

In the NBA, people wonder who will be the next Michael Jordan. I think we know who the next Donovan is.

2) I still count myself as a Jurgen Klinsmann backer. Man, that guy tinkers so much in games that it makes you want to spill blood. Having said that, the Yanks have scored 10 goals in their last two games without Clint Dempsey. They pitched a shutout without John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin. The only conclusion to draw is those awkward lineup combos pay off when it’s needed in World Cup qualifying.

3) A shutout is a shutout. Appreciate Tim Howard while you can. It doesn’t matter that neither Trinidad or Tabago can shoot.

4) This is kind of an obvious point: I can’t help but wonder if Klinsmann is rethinking the “let’s move on from Jozy Altidore” thing. Two goals Tuesday. Count me intrigued.

5) I loved the pregame tailgate with the American Outlaws. I respect supporters groups. Having said that, guys, let us know when the march to the stadium kicks off. We’re drunk. Sound off an air horn or something.

Or maybe we could at least send out a search party for Sam’s Army.

6) Anyone else notice Klinsmann avoided talking about Pulisic at halftime and instead heaped praise of Sacha Kljestan? Nice on two fronts: One, his opinion matters more to the teenager than mine. Two, Kljestan’s goal in the first half effectively ended Trinidad as a threat.

7) Very lame of Trinidad fans to get the police to ask the Americans in front, like me to sit down instead of stand. We were excited. We wanted to stand. However, in retrospect I’m glad the Trinidadians — or the Tobagans — had an unobstructed view of their ass-kicking.