CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Thursday, June 6, 2013
The summer is underway, and as usual, there's a mixed bag of results and performances that both answer and ask the questions consistently plague Jurgen Klinsmann's team.
There were valid concerns over Klinsmann's choice for two high profile friendlies in the days leading up to the trio of World Cup Qualifiers that could cement a World Cup run in Brazil, or sink the ship before it leaves port. There was always going to be a big game to celebrate the 100th anniversary of US Soccer, but the extra game beforehand could have caused more harm than good, as any number of regrettable events could have taken place, from injuries, to embarrassing defensive lapses leading to cringe-worthy results.
Despite the concerns, in all it was probably a good move, giving plenty of extracurricular opportunities to stay game fit, get some more playing time together, and in some cases, revealing themselves and their abilities in exhibition games. With the friendlies behind us and Jamaica, Panama, and Honduras looming ahead over the next two weeks, the games against Belgium and Germany have given reasons for optimism, but also included plenty of grounding moments to temper that optimism, and to remain skeptical.
We'll start with the reasons to be optimistic, and they are numerous; Stuart Holden making his first national team appearance in over two years was as much a highlight as anything else in an otherwise disastrous outing against Belgium, and though his time and touches were limited, there was careful competence in his game that lead us to want more.
Starting in the same game and carrying forward is the continued stellar play from Clint Dempsey, with three goals in the pair of the friendlies pushing him to second in the National Team record books, ahead of Eric Wynalda. The penalty against Belgium aside, Dempsey's goals were terrific for a number of reasons. His first against Germany, while admittedly exploiting a lazy defensive moment, was a spark of class between the two most important cogs in Klinsmann's offensive machine, with Jozy Altidore providing a perfect moment of composure on the ball, followed by tactical awareness to lift his pass into Dempsey's path. A more stringent defense would have made the play a lot more difficult to complete, but gifts are occasionally had even at the World Cup level, and they must be converted to keep the team moving along.
Dempsey's second of the game was a thing of beauty, showing the individual confidence with the ball and his own ability that has made him such a dangerous player through his career. The casual drag back with his right foot to free up a step of space, and the shot from distance with his left foot was a classic Dempsey move that we've seen dozens of times in England and with the National Team, and you would think that defenders would have him figured out by now. However, it still works, and that is itself a testament to Dempsey's quality.
Naturally, the next optimistic revelation is Altidore, who finally broke his goal scoring drought, putting away a volley to open the scoring up. Altidore's struggles with the National Team have been documented enough to not have to bring up again, but suffice to say that this was his first goal since 2011, and it came in one of the first games that there was a legitimate wing threat on either side of the field. Fabian Johnson, Graham Zusi, and DaMarcus Beasley provided enough of a spark up the flanks in the first half that Altidore did not have to be counted on as a single, back-to-goal striker. With the support he needs to succeed, Altidore showed how valuable he is.
Brad Evans was a surprising pick for right back, and nobody would have batted an eye if he was shredded up and down the flank in the unfamiliar position. However, Evans put in a high quality effort and stemmed numerous attacks, with the only real blip in his game being on Germany's third and final goal, where he was caught ball watching. You can make the excuse that he was in an unfamiliar position and somewhat lacks the tactical know-how of the position, but no professional soccer player should ever be caught ball watching, especially in the box, no matter what position playing. Aside from that blip though, Evans had a solid game and with Steve Cherundolo's durability wearing down, he could make a surprising but legitimate backup to Timothy Chandler. Considering the depth of the midfield pool right now, that is pretty much Evans' only chance for making a competitive roster, and he's probably okay with that.
A final point of optimism before moving on to reasons to remain skeptical, is Klinsmann's long-awaited choice to use Johnson in the midfield, instead of pinning him on the back line. Johnson was only able to show for the first half, but it was enough of a taste to see that there are positions he can competently play on the field, and positions where he excels on the field. It would serve Klinsmann well to keep him in a position where he excels, because the slight defensive drop of having Beasley at left back is worth the quality that Johnson provides upfield.
With every positive comes a negative, and there were plenty of things that took place since Cleveland that temper even the win over Germany. Most notable, the consistently poor play from Omar Gonzalez is worth an extended look from the coaching staff, to decide what needs to be done to help him shape up. He works well with Matt Besler, but Gonzalez has made several poor decisions either with the ball or with his positioning that have led to easy goals. The gaff against Belgium stands out as glaringly obvious, but it can be cast aside as being so blatantly foul, it will likely never happen again. See Beasley's gaff against Brazil in 2009.
It was Gonzalez's lack of physicality and awareness that led to Germany's first goal, and it was that poor defensive play that provokes the most concern going forward. Everyone has a bad touch once in awhile, and sometimes they bring calamitous results, but a center defender being casually muscled around by an opposing forward in the prelude to a set piece, and then failing to stick with that forward as he positions himself in the goal box, that is far more worrisome.
Unfortunately, the other 6'4'' center back option of Clarence Goodson has not proven much better recently, being caught flat footed, out of position, and ball watching on numerous occasions. For years, the battery of Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu made the center back position as strong as it has ever been for the National Team, while the flanks were consistently being exposed. Now the situation seems to have reversed itself, and it's going to be interesting, and likely frustrating, going forward to see how Klinsmann deals with the situation.
Aside from center defense, the other consistent strong point in years past has been goalkeeping. Seems as though it should still be that way with Tim Howard in his prime, coming off of another solid season with Everton, and gearing up for a series of huge games. However, Howard has been a little suspect lately in his handling. He has never had the softest hands, and he's been guilty in the past for giving up bad rebounds, but Germany's third goal was soft, and they could have had one earlier from another bad rebound if the linesman hadn't raised his flag. With defenders being consistently caught ball watching and letting their men move effortlessly through the box while shots are being taken, Howard has to be more diligent than ever in either smothering the ball, or pushing it far away from the goal mouth instead of dropping it right at the top of the six yard box.
Terrence Boyd will be a star striker for the National Team at some point. It would be great if it happened sooner rather than later, but it's not looking good for now. One can cite inexperience, but he's 22-years old and has completed his first full professional season. His problem is not a lack of experience, but a lack of maturity in his mental game. Trying to control the ball instead of clearing it led to a Belgium goal, and his opportunity to take the ball to the corner and kill time against Germany was cast aside in favor of launching a 25-yard shot that may have missed the goal by the same amount, immediately giving possession back to an invigorated side searching for an equalizer. Boyd has all the physical tools to succeed, but his mental game needs to improve, and quick.
Back to defensive problems, we'll conclude with Edgar Castillo, who has been one of the leaders of an incredible Tijuana story over the past year, just losing out on away goals to Brazilian powerhouse Mineiro in Copa Libertadores. Castillo has long had club success that hasn't translated to the National Team, with nerves being cited as the main cause for concern. It didn't seem to be nerves against Germany that resulted in his poor performance, but simply bad play. He was out of position, he flailed at the ball, and he was exposed far more times than Beasley. It could have been that he was tired, sore, and mentally drained from the heart breaking game in Brazil, but whatever the case may be, Castillo is losing ground in the left back race and is losing precious opportunities to make an impression. He clearly has the ability to play there, but his mysterious block is still in place, keeping him from getting the job done once he's in.
In all, the friendlies were both success and failure, because they answered some questions and they left us wondering about others. Going forward to the next three World Cup Qualifiers is going to be the adventure we always knew it would be, and the Belgian beatdown could have knocked the confidence enough to make it a shaky trip to Jamaica. However, beating any German side, regardless if it was A, B, or C, is always going to make the confidence skyrocket and that is what it will prove to have done in a few days time. In the end, it was that final result against Germany, meaningless in its own right aside from the symbolism of winning the 100th anniversary game, that will help the team the most.
Answered questions about Altidore and Johnson, positives taken from wing play and Dempsey's continued dominance in his position, these are great to have in hand going forward, but these can be countered by the questions surrounding the defense. It is a team victory over a world power, regardless of their roster composition, that is the biggest benefit because it proves, at least for today, that there is method to Klinsmann's madness, and the fact that it worked... well, that's a reason for optimism, but let's keep some skepticism handy because the real, meaningful games are just around the corner.