On Tuesday night, the United States men's national team lost their second consecutive match and extended their winless streak to four games. Three of those games have been the first three games at the helm for new manager Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German international who had been courted by Sunil Gulati and U.S. Soccer since 2006. He arrived with a bang, proclaiming that his team would play attractive soccer and that he would make a point of getting a Latino influence into the team.
The first three attempts at this new style have been met with mixed results. No one would reasonably expect any manager to completely change the playing style and attitude of a national team in three friendly matches, but there's a little something missing from Klinsmann's teams.
It's not that they're not trying to play a possession style or that most of the players he has are incapable of keeping the ball, but something about his lineups just doesn't feel right. They're closer to being a possession-based side than most of the sides that Bob Bradley fielded under his tenure, but there are still some square pegs that Klinsmann has attempted to shove into round holes, causing the system to be slightly undermined.
The most notable of these square pegs is Jozy Altidore. He doesn't play in a 4-4-2 for his club side, AZ Alkmaar, but he does get much more support. Most of AZ's players have played in the system for quite some time, while the midfielders make more runs into the box than the U.S. national team players do. While playing as a lone center forward for the United States, Altidore is often left isolated up top.
He's not a lazy player, but coming back to get the ball, holding it up, playing primarily with his back to goal and playing dangerous balls to his midfielders is simply not Altidore's game. With enough time at AZ there's a possibility that it could someday become his game, but he does not give the United States the best chance to win games while playing in that position at this point in time.
Playing Altidore in this role despite the currently poor fit might make sense if Klinsmann and his club manager Gertjan Verbeek had the same ultimate plan for his development, but this seems unlikely. In fact, it's quite obvious that Verbeek and Klinsmann each do not care what the other thinks at all. If the two have the same plan for Altidore's development as a footballer, it's down to pure dumb luck.
The other striker who has been a constant in both Bradley and Klinsmann sides, Juan Agudelo, is also not a back to goal No. 9 who is suited for Klinsmann's implied system. That position requires a player who is very tactically adept, and at this point in his career, Agudelo certainly does not fit the bill. Once again, this is not a knock on Juan Agudelo. There just aren't that many tactically adept, back to goal No. 9s who also happen to be very quick and 18 years old.
Both of these players play at their best with a strike partner. So, it would be reasonable to suggest that the two should partner each other up top for the Untied States. It's a workable solution that certainly makes some sense, but there are three major issues with advocating such a solution.
First of all, it doesn't fit with Jurgen Klinsmann's philosophy. That's not to say that it's impossible to play a beautiful, free-flowing, possession-based, Latin-esque system in a 4-4-2. Manchester City pulled it off in their last English Premier League match against Tottenham Hotspur, while Monterrey won the CONCACAF Champions League doing the same thing. Santos FC, the team of Neymar and Ganso as well as winners of the Copa Libertadores also played a variation of 4-4-2.
However, all of those teams have something in common: Technically gifted and creative strikers. Comparing Altidore or Agudelo to any of Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero, Humberto Suazo, Aldo de Nigris, Neymar or Ze Eduardo is downright ridiculous. Altidore and Agudelo would struggle to fit into the systems of Manchester City, Monterrey and Santos FC. Playing a beautiful, fluid, possession-based 4-4-2 setup requires a special pair of strikers. Agudelo and Altidore don't fit the bill.
Second...isn't this why the United States decided to move in a new direction, away from Bradley and towards Klinsmann? Tactical rigidity and over-reliance on a very structured 4-4-2 setup? Bradley's over-reliance on that same system was one of the biggest complaints of United States national team fans during his tenure. To advocate that Klinsmann do what Bradley was repeatedly roasted for simply makes no sense.
Third, and most importantly, playing a 4-4-2 with Altidore and Agudelo takes one of the team's best players off the field. If there's one place where the United States currently has depth, it's in the midfield. They're short on strikers who both have talent and fit the system, while the defense is a revolving door of mediocrity. The midfield, though, is stacked with international quality players. They're not World Cup winners, but they're contributors for solid European teams or superstars in MLS.
The United States will suffer an overall talent disparity against almost any team they could possibly come up against in the World Cup knockout stages. They certainly suffer a talent disparity to Mexico right now. The last thing that Klinsmann should be doing is implementing a system that takes one of his best players off the field. Right now, that is exactly what a 4-4-2 with any two true strikers accomplishes.
Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden are almost certainly the United States' three best midfield or attacking players when they are healthy. Regardless of whether or not they can reasonably fit into the same team, their recent form and experience is on a level above their peers. If the United States is playing with a traditional back four, it is reasonable to assume that Jurgen Klinsmann would want to find a way to get all three of these players into his team.
Now, onto things that reasonable people can argue about. Based on his recent form in Major League Soccer and for the United States, as well as his age and natural talent, Brek Shea should probably be first choice on the left wing. Whether or not one agrees with this might not be relevant if Klinsmann is firmly convinced of this, which might already be the case. He's certainly making it hard to drop him. If we can agree on this sentiment, the aforementioned three players and Shea make up four of the best possible front six.
One of the players in the front six has to be a holding midfielder. Who can or should occupy that position could be the subject of a separate 3000 word column, but it's hard to argue that the team needs at least one holding midfielder. The United States has serious strength in depth in that position, every team in the world plays with a holding midfielder, and the United States defense would be in serious trouble without one. That's five out of the front six positions filled, if we're simply filling out a team based on talent and practicality.
So, who's the sixth player? The final piece in the puzzle? Here's a hint: It's no striker in our current player pool. If Jurgen Klinsmann is trying to play a possession-based style, none of the strikers in the current player pool fit into this team. If the last player should be the most talented and/or accomplished, it certainly isn't a striker. There are 10 or so players that both deserve a place and fit the system more than any of the strikers in the current player pool.
For the sake of this argument, let's say that the final player in this hypothetical team is Jose Fransisco Torres. This is not because I have any particular affinity to him or because I think he is necessarily the best player available. However, like Shea, Klinsmann seems to have an affinity for him and he certainly fits Klinsmann's desire for a possession-based team and technically gifted players. Personally, I'm a Mikkel Diskerud guy, but what are you going to do?
This leaves the USMNT with...no strikers. In a team that fits the most accomplished players into the side, makes room for Klinsmann favorites, and only utilizes players that fit Klinsmann's ideals, it doesn't make any sense to fit any of the current USMNT strikers into the first XI.
Agudelo and Altidore have had their chances and neither has played effectively in Klinsmann's system. Yes, Agudelo has shown flashes of his talent, but is that going to win games in the Hexagonal? It may seem silly to be thinking about the Hexagonal in September of 2011, but if Klinsmann really is trying to install a new system and change the mentality of the team, it's important to start working towards that now so the team is a well-oiled machine, not a work in progress when the Hex hits.
Whenever the question of how to address the striker problem is brought up, none of the options that are presented are particularly great. The player pool is loaded with MLS journeymen, has-beens, and guys who don't quite fit the system. Even the guys who don't fall into any of the three categories don't constitute 'international quality'. The country is light on great strikers. It's not really anyone's fault, it just happens. This should be fixed over time with MLS academies producing more talent every year, but it's a long way off. Klinsmann has to play the hand he's currently being dealt.
Bringing in Edson Buddle, Brian Ching, Chris Wondolowski, Teal Bunbury, or Herculez Gomez is not going to solve the problem. All of these players are either very limited or do not currently fit the system. Of this group, the only one that has a good chance to be an international quality, back to goal striker by the 2014 World Cup is Teal Bunbury. He isn't that right now. These guys are not a solution to the problem.
I absolutely love Herculez Gomez. He comes off as a great guy and I enjoy watching him play in the Mexican Primera. Having said that, if you think Herculez Gomez is the answer for the United States national team, it's very likely that you are asking the wrong question.
There aren't any strikers that fit the system and that are currently international quality talents. None. Trying to force any striker or strikers into this system takes a very talented player (or two) off the field while undermining Klinsmann's stylistic ideals. So, it makes more sense to play no strikers if possible. If possible is the key, there, but it is possible. The United States can play effectively without any true strikers.
Wondering if this would work? Well, for 30 minutes, it did. The USMNT has tried playing without a true striker in a competitive match against a very good team. They were ultimately creamed, but their start was spectacular. They outplayed Mexico for half an hour. After being criticized for tactical rigidity for four years, Bob Bradley was finally canned after his most adventurous tactical endeavor. What a cruel twist of fate.
A lot of people have talked about taking positives from Klinsmann's first three games in charge and looking and what he might have learned from those matches. Why not take a look at what Bradley did in the Gold Cup final, why it went wrong, and how it can be improved upon? Jonathan Bornstein and the central midfielders weren't the reason that the United States lost the game, but it's a different match with Stuart Holden and Timothy Chandler in the team. The 4-2-3-1/4-6-0 worked. It just needed better personnel and a few adjustments.
For starters, perhaps Donovan was the wrong choice as the false nine? Clint Dempsey seems to fit that role much better. He's played it a few times for Fulham, but it's not his normal position. Still, when thinking about the qualities that Dempsey has and the qualities that a false nine must have in general and to play with the United States, they're very similar.
Think of what is demanded of a striker in Klinsmann's hypothetical ideal system. Work rate, pace, size, tactical acumen, first touch, ability to hold up the ball and off the ball movement are all incredibly important. There's no player in the USMNT side that can say they have all of those qualities to the degree that Dempsey does. He's never been a striker for more than a game or two at a time, and yet, is there a striker in the player pool that would make a better striker in a possession-based setup with five or more midfield players? There's no way.
What would this look like? To the ubiquitous chalkboard.
Pictured above is a bit of a 4-3-3/4-6-0 hybrid, but the formation or what you call it is not what is important. What is important is getting the most talented players onto the pitch in a coherent and sensible way, as well as their individual roles.
In this setup, Brek Shea is a traditional winger, while Landon Donovan cuts inside. Timothy Chandler, who is right-footed, can play left back in this situation because providing width down the left flank going forward is not his primary (or even secondary) function. On the other side, Steve Cherundolo gets forward and provides width on the right hand side to make up for the fact that Donovan will pinch inside. Stuart Holden, a two-way midfielder, should provide some cover if Cherundolo is caught up the pitch.
Meanwhile, the major creative outlet and ability to keep possession comes from Dempsey and Jose Fransisco Torres. Torres is one of the most creative and most technically adept players in the United States pool, but his defensive abilities and positioning sense are questionable. With Holden back in the team, these deficiencies will be masked. He'll bomb forward from the center of midfield while Dempsey will come back from his "striker" position, playing more as an attacking midfielder. Hence, the term "false nine".
I know, I know, Dempsey is not a striker. At least half the people reading this probably abhor the idea of Dempsey as a striker, especially as the "lone striker" in a "one striker system". I may have caused thousands of USMNT supporters to vomit all over their keyboards, or at least the ones who didn't scroll down when they clicked on this and decide it was a tl;dr scenario.
But, this kind of thing is not without precedent. It's not like no one has ever successfully taken one of their best attacking midfield players and played him as a striker, simply to get their best talent on the field. Japan did exactly that at the 2010 World Cup with Keisuke Honda, despite the fact that they had better depth at striker than the United States does. That decision ended up being an effective one. Portugal has, on occasion, asked Cristiano Ronaldo to play as a lone striker. Ghana had winger Jordan Ayew up top alone against Brazil on Monday. It's not an absurd suggestion.
The best part about this suggested setup? It's a realistic solution. It takes into account Jurgen Klinsmann's preferred style of play and players that are currently in his long-term plans, or so we think. Obviously, there are a select few people on the face of the earth aware of Klinsmann's long term plans for Jose Fransisco Torres and Brek Shea, but his selections and their performances suggest that Klinsmann sees them as the future of the team right now.
It's a team tactically balanced between attack and defense, focused on creativity and keeping possession while still aiding the defense. Only Clint Dempsey is being forced to play out of position in a setup that gets talent onto the field while fitting the system, and based on his time spent as an attacking central midfielder for Fulham, it's only a small adjustment positionally speaking. Torres' defensive liabilities are accounted for. The team has width and numbers in the center. The three-man center of midfield is not reliant on specific players and could change easily based on form, fitness, and opponent.
Is the argument here that these changes would make the USMNT world beaters overnight? No, absolutely not. The only things that are going to cause the United States to significantly progress in international competitions and raise their standing in the world are time and better players. However, this system does give the team a chance to win some tough games now while sticking to Klinsmann's ideals, which should be the ultimate goal at this point.
A lot of people are dissatisfied with Klinsmann's team so far. A good deal of fans don't believe in him and believe that hiring him was a mistake. While that may or may not be true, Klinsmann will have his job until the United States is eliminated from World Cup qualifying, or until the United States is eliminated from the World Cup itself. Advocating his firing doesn't really do anything to advance the discussion of the team, their current progress, tactics, or anything that could be considered either interesting or productive.
Every traditional striker that Klinsmann currently has at his disposal is a square peg that he will struggle to shove into his roundish, technically and tactically adept striker-shaped hole. Clint Dempsey isn't a perfect circle - the exact piece that Klinsmann needs - but at least he's an ellipse.