BRIAN SCIARETTA - Thursday, September 8, 2011
The US National Team finished the September window for international play, and now three games into the Jürgen Klinsmann era it is clear that the team still has a long way to go.
During these three games, the US has suffered two 1-0 losses against Costa Rica and Belgium to go along with a 1-1 draw with Mexico. The team has shown at times a solid possession game and good defense but has offered very little going forward.
It can be said that results matter little at this point and the real benefit is that Klinsmann has learned more about players in his pool and conversely that the players have a better understanding of Klinsmann's system.
With that said, let's look at where the team currently stands. First and foremost, it's a good start to lay down who has played well and who has not. With that in mind, we can suggest other players who should get looks moving forward and what the team will look like in the four remaining games of 2011.
Despite the winless three games there were still players who have done well the past few games. The most glaringly obvious pick is Brek Shea who is looking like a rising star for the US National Team and could very well be the next player to receive multimillion dollar offers to leave MLS.
Shea is a naturally left footed player and if used properly can be a nightmare to defend with his size, strength and skill.
FC Nürnberg's Timothy Chandler has also impressed in his two outings and should be able to do more when he has proper wingers in front of him. His biggest strength is moving forward into the attack and this was limited with a struggling Robbie Roger in front of him for most of the Costa Rica game.
The experiment of Chandler at left back worked well for the most part but it is one we are not likely to see much more moving forward. He is a rising star in the Bundesliga because he is able to get forward with pace and deliver quality balls into the box. However, when he is on the left, his ability to deliver a final pass is limited.
In his two starts, Chandler's performance was solid but not exceptional. Still, his performances in the Bundesliga since January clearly put the 21 year-old as a top American player for at least the 2014 cycle.
Chandler's positive showings for the US team and Nürnberg will also undoubtedly bring along the touchy subject of when to begin phasing out long-time veteran Steve Cherundolo. The Hannover captain is still playing well at 32 but Klinsmann will want to make a change before he begins to fade, not after.
It's for that reason we will likely see Chandler take an increased role sooner than later. Cherundolo has such a long history with the US team, he can always pick up where he left off at a later date. Chandler is the player that needs minutes with the USMNT more.
Juan Agudelo has also played well in each of the three games as an attacking option off the bench. In the two most recent games, he has even outshined assumed starter Jozy Altidore. The 18 year old is likely to continue to coming off the bench as Klinsmann will probably be reluctant to give such an important role to an unproven player.
Jose Francisco Torres has earned positive reviews for his play and he has done a good job helping the US with its possession game. Still, when the US creates as few chances as it has in the games with Torres in the driver's seat, questions must be asked.
Torres can help the US team but his best role will probably be emphasized when he plays deeper in the midfield similar to where he plays for Pachuca. If he is continues to be deployed as a traditional number 10, the US won't generate the number of scoring chances it needs.
Torres' big problem will come from the pending return of Stuart Holden. If Holden can return to his pre-injury quality, Torres probably won't start for the US team.
As expected, when a team goes winless in three games and scores only one goal during that time, weaknesses will become apparent.
Edgar Castillo had a good first half against Costa Rica but then struggled in the second half. He moved forward into the attack but his final ball was lacking and he had too many turnovers. When he was scratched against Belgium in favor of Chandler who never played left back before, it was probably a telling sign that Klinsmann will continue to look at more left back options.
Michael Orozcol enjoyed a strong performance against Mexico but struggled against Costa Rica. His distribution looked uneasy coming out of the back and he is not earning consistent minutes at San Luis. When Clarence Goodson replaced him against Belgium, the defense in the middle looked sharper.
Robbie Rogers had a very good 15 minutes against Mexico off the bench but his two starts against Costa Rica and Belgium were not good. His speed and this ability to use both feet are still to his advantage but he probably will have to show more at the club level to be used in the future.
The fact that Tim Ream and Teal Bunbury did not see any action despite making the original roster is not good news for either player's status under Klinsmann moving forward. Ream has now been part of both camps under Klinsmann but has yet to see the field and Bunbury did not make the trip to Belgium.
New players for rest of 2011
The good news for Klinsmann and the US team is that there are several players that are likely to still be included.
Stuart Holden is not a new player but he is one that is likely to have his first experience playing under the new coach this year. Klinsmann is set to visit England to watch Holden in his reserve team matches and if the Bolton standout is close to a full recovery, the midfield will be in good shape.
The uneven performances of Orozco and the failure of Ream to even earn minutes will mean that Klinsmann is sure to give significant looks to several other central defenders. The most obvious picks are FC Dallas' George John and LA Galaxy's Omar Gonzalez who are both enjoying strong seasons.
John is continuing to flirt with the Greek national team but he will likely play with the US team if Klinsmann calls. Gonzalez hasn't played well in his two US national team caps but Klinsmann will likely want to see he how he fits into his system.
Klinsmann has also stated that he is reluctant to bring young players directly into the national team and instead wants to keep them with the Olympic team first before allowing them to make the jump to the senior level. Despite that, Agudelo, Chandler, and Shea have proven that there are young players at the U23 level in the US system that can play at the international level.
The most obvious pick for a first senior call-up is Josh Gatt who continues to start for Norwegian leaders Molde FK. Gatt would bring the element of explosive speed to the US attack and that is something that is sorely missing from the team at the moment. Gatt's ability to track back on defense and run at defenders would give Klinsmann a player who can contribute on both sides of the ball.
Mikkel Diskerud is also ready for the senior team right now. For three years, he has been a solid starter for one of the better teams in Norway and he has consistently done well. He can help serve as a natural backup to Landon Donovan who Klinsmann has suggested he wants to play more centrally in an advanced midfield role.
Fabian Johnson is the final name that will certainly be given a role in the team in the months ahead. He would have played in the last couple of games but is waiting for FIFA to officially approve of his switch from Germany before he can suit up for the US.
The addition of Johnson will be a boost for the US team because he has played at a very high level in the Bundesliga and he can line up in a number of positions. While he is playing at right mid for Hoffenheim, he has experience playing left back. Klinsmann will give Johnson minutes at right mid, but he should also give him a serious look at left back. Instead of playing Chandler there out of position, Johnson would probably make more sense on the left since he has played there.
What to expect for remaining 2011 games
There are several important tasks for Klinsmann to tackle in the four remaining games of 2011.
The first is to get Dempsey and Donovan onto the field together for the first time since he took the head-coaching job. Bob Bradley did a good job building chemistry between Donovan and Dempsey and Klinsmann must continue that. Dempsey and Donovan still remain the two most talented and experienced players in the US pool.
Klinsmann has said that he wants Donovan to play more centrally and while it did not work well against Costa Rica, it would likely work much better when Holden and Dempsey also in the midfield. Donovan is now 29 and is experienced at the international level to the point where he can make plays from the middle.
Michael Bradley was not part of the team in recent games but his move to Chievo Verona was perhaps the best move by an American in the summer transfer window. His game is suited for Serie A and he will shine there.
If Bradley plays every week, he should once again become a crucial part of the national team. He is very important for the US as a central midfielder because he gives the team a much needed goal scoring threat. While Kyle Beckerman, Maurice Edu, and Jermaine Jones have all been given minutes by Klinsmann, none of them have that goal scoring ability of Bradley, which is even more important now on a team which is struggling to score.
Optimal lineup for remainder of 2011
So while the results of the past week were discouraging for the US team, there are plenty of ways to fix the team.
Here is the best starting lineup for the four remaining games in 2011 along with the players who should also make the roster.
Remaining 23 player roster
George John, Juan Agudelo, Maurice Edu, Jose Torres, Steve Cherundolo, Bill Hamid, Omar Gonzalez, Josh Gatt, Mix Diskerud, Kyle Beckerman, Sacha Kljestan, Jermaine Jones
Players who may sneak in there:
Michael Parkhurst, Chris Rolfe, Benny Feilhaber, Zach Loyd, Alfredo Morales.