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.