Jermaine Jones has proven he can hang against top flight competition. Kyle Beckerman seems to make Michael Bradley better.
So who should Jurgen Klinsmann start: Jones or Beckerman?
It was only a few years ago that Jones deciding to play for the United States instead of Germany was one of the biggest coups the Americans had ever pulled off, while Beckerman wasn't even in the national team picture. Jones was playing in the Champions League and Beckerman couldn't even get his due in MLS. There was no comparison.
But things have changed, and they started with a change at manager.
Jurgen Klinsmann's hiring brought Beckerman back into the national team picture. The dreadlocked midfielder isn't flashy and even in his first few matches for the U.S., he caught flack from fans. What was he really doing out there? He didn't run that much, his passes rarely went further than 10 feet and he never got forward. Beckerman was the ultimate in basic.
But at the same time, Jones' profile was taking a hit. He may have been rangy, but he regularly got caught out of position. He may have been a more ambitious passer, but he also gave the ball away a lot and he seemed to get booked every other match.
Everything Beckerman wasn't, Jones was, and to an extreme degree. If you could combine the two players the U.S. would have a super midfielder, but as that technology won't exist until the 22nd century, Klinsmann had a dilemma on his hands.
Jones still had the lead early in the year, but Beckerman's performance in April's 2-2 draw against Mexico made the decision even tougher for Klinsmann. Not only did Beckerman represent the safer choice, but he was also the better partner to Bradley.
The U.S. was transitioning to a pseudo-diamond midfield with Bradley at the tip, something that suited Beckerman well because he plays at the bottom of a diamond for Real Salt Lake. Against Mexico, he did the dirty work, protecting the back line, collecting the ball and moving it quickly. None of it was highlight-worthy -- Beckerman ends up on a highlight reel maybe twice a year -- but it was effective, and it freed Bradley to have one of his best matches in a U.S. shirt.
If you're trying to win a starting job, being the guy who enables the team's most important player to do what he does best is a good place to be, and Beckerman had made his case that he was that guy.
When the U.S. met for World Cup training camp, any advantage that Jones had was slim. In less than three years, Beckerman had gone from afterthought to the verge of starting in the World Cup, and Jones was no longer the Champions League player who could take the U.S. midfield to the next level.
But when the U.S. kicked off their sendoff series on Tuesday against Azerbaijan, Jones got the start, even though Klinsmann started with the diamond midfield.
If the U.S. was going to play in the diamond, it made sense than Beckerman would start, but it took all of 10 minutes for it to be apparent why Jones got the nod. The Americans weren't in a traditional diamond, and it was most apparent when they had the ball. Anytime the U.S. got possession, the fullbacks bombed forward and Jones dropped in between the American center backs. The U.S. basically switched to a three-man back line, and that's a system that requires a big, strong and rangy holder.
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It is a system, in other words, that requires Jones.
Azerbaijan was never going to expose Beckerman. After all, they barely tested the U.S. back line, but a good team would have, especially the way the Americans were playing. With the fullbacks joining the attack, the U.S. was attacking with seven, leaving just three to defend the counterattack. Beckerman's lack of pace and ability to cut out plays in open space would have been exposed, whereas that's where Jones excels.
Good teams, and especially fast teams -- which Ghana, Portugal and Germany happen to be -- are going to be salivating at the thought of counterattacking against three. They are unbelievably athletic, and the only way to combat that is with athleticism. For all of the things that Beckerman does well -- and he does do a lot well -- athleticism isn't where he stands out.
Klinsmann has said that the U.S. needs to be able to play a few different ways at the World Cup, but it appears as if this pseudo-diamond, one that sends fullbacks forward and defends with three when they have the ball, is going to be the primary way for the Americans. That means Jones tops the depth chart, for now. When the U.S. changes things, plays in more compact spaces and perhaps adds a third central midfielder, Beckerman will get his chance. But he shouldn't be playing from the get-go.
In three years, Beckerman completely changed the discussion to one nobody could have imagined in 2011. But the traits that made Jones the overwhelming favorite to start back then are the traits that Klinsmann needs most, in this style of play and against the level of competition awaiting the U.S. at the World Cup. This is still Jones' job, barely.