Under Bob Bradley, the United States often played a conservative, counter-attacking style of football, usually in a 4-4-2 formation. When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the post prior to an August 10 friendly against Mexico, he promised a more possession-based and attractive style of football, repeating on multiple occasions his desire to incorporate elements of a 'latin style' of play into the team.
Four games into Klinsmann's reign and it's not entirely clear what the United States men's national team wants to be or how they want to play. Obviously, Klinsmann has not had an entire first choice squad at his disposal for any of his games in charge, nor is four games enough time to completely integrate his philosophy within the team. While the United States has generally passed the ball better and played more on the ground since Klinsmann's arrival, they're still very much a work in progress.
The win over Honduras appeared to be a positive step in many ways. Brek Shea and Clint Dempsey both had fantastic games, while the team notched their first win with their new coach. With the weather being the way it was - there was torrential rain throughout the match in Miami - it was hard to play a possession style. Still, the problems with the team were the same as the problems with the team in the Costa Rica and Belgium matches.
That problem is that the USMNT is a team in between two philosophies, struggling to figure out how they want to play. Whether or not Klinsmann has clearly outlined the way he wants to approach matches to his team is impossible to know without actually sitting in the locker room, but it's easy to observe that the team certainly is not adhering to one philosophy. The players often do not look like they're on the same page about the pace of play and how direct they want to play, leaving the team to look impressive at times, but a bit disjointed more often than not.
On Saturday night, the main issue with the team and their lack of a cohesive style and pace of play was with the center of midfield. Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman are both very good players and neither played poorly, but their partnership did not suit the philosophy that Klinsmann claims he wants to incorporate. Beckerman is a composed and intelligent player who is very adept at helping a team keep the ball, but he should not be a team's primary creative outlet. Maurice Edu is a very good athlete who is suited to playing in a 4-4-2 or as a defensive midfielder in a three-man midfield, but he was forced into a very forward-thinking role on Saturday. The Beckerman-Edu pairing didn't make for a whole lot of creative passing going forward.
This selection was slightly necessitated by injuries. The two players that are almost certainly first choice for Klinsmann as the more attack-minded player in a double pivot based on previous form and Klinsmann's selections, Stuart Holden and Jose Fransisco Torres, were unavailable. Danny Williams can play that role, but he started on the right wing with Landon Donovan unavailable. Michael Bradley and Jeff Larentowicz, the other two players called into camp, are not as adept of passers or nearly as creative as Torres and Holden.
Bradley certainly fits the bill better than anyone else, though, and he's gotten off to a good start with Chievo Verona in Serie A. While many fans felt that he was unfairly kept in the side after poor performances when his father was the manager, the performance of the center of midfield on Saturday coupled with Bradley's performances in Serie A showed that he needs to be in the team at the moment. He is not Torres or Holden, but he is certainly a better passer and creator than Edu.
Obviously, Klinsmann can't go back and change his team, but it's a bit curious that he didn't opt to search for someone who could possibly replace Torres while he's out for injury, as none of the players called into the team fit the bill at all. Mikkel Diskerud is yet to get a look from Klinsmann, which is extremely curious given his form for Stabek in Norway and Klinsmann's supposed commitment to a Latin, possession-based style of play. Freddy Adu was very good in Gold Cup and is performing well for the Philadelphia Union. Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber are not ideal options, but both are certainly much better than what Klinsmann has in the team as far as creative, forward-thinking, technically sound central midfield players.
Because the USMNT has yet to play a competitive game under Klinsmann, because he's only had four games and because of injuries, it's easy to give him the benefit of the doubt. In fact, he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt. However, this doesn't mean he should go without criticism when he claims his team is going to play attractive football, then seems to switch strategies at random intervals. He shouldn't go without criticism for saying that technique and possession need to be emphasized, then calling in both Edu and Larentowicz at the expense of Diskerud, Adu, Kljestan and Feilhaber.
When Ecuador come to Red Bull Arena on Tuesday, Klinsmann's team will face a tough test, but not one so tough that fans will have no expectations. Coming off of a World Cup qualifying win, they're a big step up in competition from a Honduras B-plus side. They're also a team who is similar to the United States in that they have some technically adept players, but their central midfielders are not creators and they're most dangerous down the wings on the counter. They're deep up top and their central midfielders are probably most adept at playing in a 4-4-2 system.
Ecuador are a very high quality team who will let the United States have numerical advantage in the center. If the USMNT has made serious progress towards playing an attractive, possession-based style, they should be able to show it against Ecuador.
If they can't, there is something wrong. That something could simply be poor performances on the day. It could be that the players selected simply aren't suited to their roles. Or - and this is the worst-case scenario - it could be that Klinsmann isn't up to implementing his vision.
Ecuador is a very good, but not spectacular team that will provide a decent challenge to the United States. They will also be playing the USMNT in New Jersey on a chilly night. Both the great pitch at Red Bull Arena and Eduador's formation and personnel will allow the United States to play the way fans expected the team to play under Klinsmann. Should the team fail to perform, it's indicative of something missing and not just growing pains.
Klinsmann will still get some benefit of the doubt until he loses a competitive match, but if the United States fails to perform on Tuesday night, it's time for the kid gloves to come off and for Klinsmann to take a little criticism.
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