The United States started slowly under Jurgen Klinsmann, but have really picked it up of late. Still, they have not peaked yet and they still have some work to do, which is fine because the matches don't matter yet. They don't matter until World Cup qualifying starts on June 8 and the U.S. has three more friendlies before then.
June 8 isn't too far away, though. These next three friendlies, beginning on Saturday against Scotland, are the final tune ups for a U.S. team that has high expectations under Klinsmann. With kinks still to be ironed out and a team that continues to have its questions, Kevin McCauley and I sat down to chat about what to expect and look for from the U.S. going into these next three friendlies. Here is part one of the two-part chat.
Ryan: Jurgen Klinsmann has largely written off both wins and losses thus far in his tenure as part of the "process" as he builds towards World Cup qualifiers. Now, with just three friendlies left before World Cup qualifying starts, what are the final parts to the "process" that he needs to figure out?
Kevin: Formation and team selection is the most obvious answer. He's used varations of both 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 with different personnel. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey don't appear to have set roles yet, and Klinsmann should probably have a good idea of where he wants to play them when everyone is healthy by the end of the friendlies. Part of the process is also a more cohesive midfield, and that's something that has actually slowly happened under Klinsmann, even as the personnel changes. The players seemed to have a very good idea of what they were supposed to be doing against Italy.
Ryan: Yeah, the midfield has to be the key to it all. Klinsmann wanted to change the way that the U.S. plays. While we don't know whether or not he'll be successful or not, he's clearly working on it and the way to change to the style that Klinsmann wants is through a more fluid, possession-dominating midfield. He's gotten that part mostly done, but it hasn't resulted in actual attacking play yet. For all the possession and seemingly "prettier" play, the U.S. has struggled to create chances from it, making that possession not such an accomplishment anymore. That has to be the next hurdle for Klinsmann.
And yet in all of this "problem" talk we haven't brought up left back, maybe because it is less a Klinsmann problem and more of a decade-long U.S. problem. Timothy Chandler is out for now, maybe forever, and Eric Lichaj didn't get a call in. Is Edgar Castillo the answer or do you agree with me that Fabian Johnson is best off as a left back and not a midfielder?
Kevin: I think Fabian Johnson is much better off as a left back, and his club team agrees. He played left back in every one of his starts for Hoffenheim from February 11 until the end of the season. Edgar Castillo had a surprisingly good season for Tijuana Xolos, but he played a lot of that time as a wingback while his team played with a back three. Neither is a top defender, but Johnson is the better defender and he's probably a better crosser too.
Ryan: This is one of the things that bothers me about a lot of American soccer fans that I think we need to get away from. Many think the best, most talented, skilled players need to be in the center because they can get the ball more, impact the game more, etc. It starts at the youth level and continues even to fans at the professional level Where did this idea come from? It is part of the reason why the U.S. is short on fullbacks and wingers now. Johnson is a good left back who can get even better. Leave him there, let him be good and stop with the "he's too good for fullback" nonsense.
Kevin: Yeah, it's ridiculous. Imagine if someone said that to Cafu or Roberto Carlos? Not that Johnson (or any American player) is on that level, but the point is the same. Some guys just fit at fullback. Johnson is a left back.
Ryan: But not everyone should be left out wide because some players are meant to play centrally. Case in point, Danny Williams. Klinsmann has stuck him out on the right several times and he's been, well, let's call it "lost" to be nice. Williams is a good player, who has played well for Hoffenheim and he's still just 23 years old, but he's been a good player as a central midfielder. I know the U.S. is short on wide players, but can we keep Williams in the center, please?
Kevin: Agreed, he's been poor in his time on the right wing for the United States, which probably has something to do with the fact that he isn't a right winger. He hasn't played there at all for his club, so I'm not sure why he gets pushed out wide by Klinsmann. He's a central midfielder. If Klinsmann doesn't have a place for him in midfield, he shouldn't be called in.
Ryan: Some of the players who have been called in won't be around for the matches, though. There are 27 players in camp, but only 23 will make the match roster. Which four get sent home?
Kevin: I think that Alfredo Morales was just brought in to get some time in camp and I would be surprised if he made the final roster. I think that the same is probably the case for Juan Agudelo at the moment, and he's better served settling in with his new club than he is training with the USMNT. One of Herculez Gomez or Chris Wondolowski will probably get the axe, and I don't think that both of Jose Torres and Graham Zusi will make the team.
Ryan: I agree on Agudelo and I think Torres stays with Zusi out, but I wouldn't be surprised if both Gomez and Wondolowski go so they can keep Morales around and cap tie him. Cap tying seems to be a hot button issue right now and late on in a hopefully beat down of Antigua sounds like a good time to cap tie Morales.
Kevin: Yeah, after what happened with Timothy Chandler I can see why Klinsmann might keep Morales around to get a run-out against Antigua and tie him to the team.
Ryan: Seeing Gomez get cut would be disappointing, mainly because I won't be at training and am really curious if Klinsmann wants him as a forward or winger. The U.S. could use players at both positions.
Kevin: Gomez has done well in the past playing out wide, but I'm not sure how well he'd fit in as a winger in the current setup. It makes sense if Klinsmann is going to play a 4-3-3 with three central midfield players that have some defensive ability and responsibility, it would work fine, but I don't want to see Gomez wide in a 4-2-3-1.