The friendlies are over with and now it is time for the matches that matter -- World Cup qualifiers. Progress and improvement don't mean much anymore. All that matter for the United States now is the results. They're in a four-team group and have to finish in the top two to advance to the final round of qualifying, which will be a six-team group that they need to finish in the top half of. Get it done and book a spot to Brazil and the U.S. has done the job.
Will the U.S. get the job done, though? That's the question at hand right now. They have played 11 friendlies in Jurgen Klinsmann's 11 months in charge of the team and are coming off of three: a win over Scotland, a loss to Brazil and a draw with Canada.
What is there to take from those results? Which players need to step up in qualifying? How should the U.S. play? What would make the first two qualifiers a success? Kevin McCauley and I chatted about it all ahead of the Americans' Friday qualifier against Antigua and Barbuda and Tuesday's qualifier at Guatemala.
Ryan: The United States played three friendlies last week and came away with a win, a loss and a draw, which is hardly what Jurgen was looking for in that start to his five-match tournament. How would you grade the U.S. those three friendlies and how much stock do you put into them?
Kevin: Because of how much the results varied, I want to put very little stock in them, but the Canada match scared me as a fan of the USMNT. They finally got Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey on the same pitch, but the results were terrible. Everything about the United States' attack in that Canada match was horrible. Beating Scotland badly and losing by three goals to Brazil were par for the course and told us nothing, but the Canada match might have been indicitive of a problem. If we're doing letter grades, I give them a "C".
Ryan: A "C" is a fair grade. I don't think the team is any better than I thought they were before the friendlies. The Canada match was atrocious, but what worries me most is center back. Is it really going to be Clarence Goodson and is Geoff Cameron really out of it? I don't know how Oguchi Onyewi got 90 minutes against Brazil then got to come back against Canada. That's mind-boggling to me and at the weakest position in the team, they are exactly were they were 10 months ago -- screwed.
Kevin: I don't think Goodson is a long-term answer at center back, but then again, neither is Carlos Bocanegra. I can accept that those two might make the United States' best central defense pairing for the hexagonal and the 2014 World Cup. I'd prefer to see Cameron start, but I won't throw a fit if Goodson is first choice. If Onyewu keeps getting chances, though? I might have to find Jurgen. We'll need to have words.
Ryan: Are Goodson and Carlos Bocanegra the players the U.S. needs most to play well in these next two friendlies then? Obviously Clint Dempsey is the center of the attack, but good play from Dempsey is expected so is it the center backs who they need most to play well?
Kevin: Yes, simply because goals should come against Guatemala and they'll certainly come against Antigua. Whoever plays in the back needs to start building some chemistry and put together two great performances in preparation for Jamaica and the hex. If the United States is still shuffling their back line when the hex rolls around, they're in trouble.
Ryan: Put aside Antigua and Barbuda because the U.S. gets three points there no matter what or I find a bridge. This is all about Guatemala and going away, I think the most important player is Jose Francisco Torres. I don't rate him and wouldn't start him, but Jurgen still loves him and he will play. He's turned in consecutive awful matches and it was hardly his first ones at the international level. If he can't make an impact with his passing, as has been the case on several occasions, the U.S. is basically playing 10v11 because he doesn't contribute in any other way.
Kevin: He's occasionally very good at turning away from defenders and shielding the ball, but yeah, he essentially provides two things to the United States. He can shield the ball and he completes accurate short passes. Against Brazil and Canada, he was not doing either of those things effectively. And he doesn't defend well on the wing or put in crosses, and he's not fast. Starting Torres as a winger mystifies me.
Ryan: Which is why, if I'm Jurgen, I drop him. Assuming Fabian Johnson is healthy, he and Steve Cherundolo provide enough width that I would play a 4-1-2-1-2 with Maurice Edu deep and Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in front of him. Dempsey can play underneath Donovan and either Joy Altidore or Herculez Gomez, which gets the best XI on the field and keeps Dempsey as a number 10. I think the two most important things are giving Jones, and especially Bradley, freedom in the midfield and keeping Dempsey as a number 10. This would do both without sacrificing a top player.
Kevin: I think that the United States can flirt with using something like this provided that Johnson and Cherundolo are both 90 minutes fit, and honestly, they could probably pull it off with Edgar Castillo and Timothy Chandler, if Timmy ever realizes that he's not getting called up by Germany. It certainly makes sense given the lack of wingers in the team right now, but I'm open to a lot of things.
Anything that doesn't involve both Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones as holders is cool. Anything that involves Torres not being in the team works. I can see either Altidore or Gomez playing with or without a partner. Basically, I'm open to everything that is not Jones and Bradley holding while Torres plays on the left wing. That's just wrong.
Ryan: So here we are on the verge of the Americans' first match of consequence under Jurgen. He's had 10 months to implement his system so how do you feel about the the team and the direction it is going under the German?
Kevin: I've been trying to keep myself from taking shots at Klinsmann, or showering too much praise on him when he does something I like. I'm not sure how I feel about the team, and I'm leaning towards believing that he's failed to do what he's set out to do so far. I'm still giving him the benefit of the doubt. But if the United States looks bad in a competitive match away to Guatemala? It might be torch and pitchfork time.
Ryan: Fair enough. He still hasn't played a match that matters so he still has some rope. What I'll never agree with is that there is a "right way" to play and that is some passing, possession something or other. There is no right way so I won't ever agree with that, but if he can get results then the way he has the team playing is "right". That's where we are now: it's result time, regardless of style.
Kevin: Absolutely, and I think that he can play the way he wants to play and get results. Obviously you, me and Klinsmann disagree on how to set the team up to do that at the moment, but it's possible for the United States to play a possession game and get results. We'll see if his way actually gets it done.
Ryan: And for me, "getting it done" means getting three points from each of the first two qualifiers. Antigua and Barbuda, get three points or disband the team. Normally I would say a draw at Guatemala is fine, and if it happens then I won't be irate. But with three players suspended for possible match-fixing and that Guatemala team not as good as it has been in the past, the U.S. really should get a win there.
Kevin: Guatemala's actually a decent team at the moment. The United States absolutely should win, even on the road, but they did just beat a full strength Costa Rica team at home in a friendly after losing 3-2 on the road to the same side. They're no joke, but they're still not a hex-worthy team. Anything less than a stomping of Antigua and a win of any margin over Guatemala will be a disappointment.
Ryan: So that's it. Forget the friendlies, forget the players, forget the style. It is all about the results now and the U.S. should get six points. Simple as that.