One of the tasks for the manager or head coach of any team in any sport is to put their players in the best possible position to win. One of the most basic ways to do this is to put your players into their best roles on the field based on their experience and skill set -- and that's not something that United States men's national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann has been doing.
Of course, Klinsmann disagrees.
Klinsmann: "I'm not playing anyone out of position." #USMNT— Andrew King (@AndrewKingMLS) March 28, 2016
But the evidence suggests otherwise.
The USMNT's loss to Guatemala on Friday was the latest example of a recent trend in Klinsmann's tactics, and it's not a promising one. That starting lineup featured a pair of players in Tim Howard and Michael Orozco who essentially don't play for their club sides -- Howard hasn't played for Everton in two months, and Orozco hasn't spent a single minute on the pitch for Club Tijuana in Liga MX during their Clausura campaign. Orozco was forced into the lineup by the late injury to John Brooks -- and Klinsmann playing two other defenders out of position -- but starting Howard in goal, a position in which players need regular playing time to establish form more than any other, was asking for trouble.
Of the other nine starters, only four started in natural positions and roles -- strikers Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood, central defender Omar Gonzalez and left back Edgar Castillo. Even midfielders Mix Diskerud and Michael Bradley were taken out of their natural roles, as both are best and most adapted to playing specific roles in three-man central midfields -- Diskerud as a slightly deeper playmaker, and Bradley as a supporting player who floats between the lines, filling defensive and attacking holes as needed. Playing them in a two-man central midfield as Klinsmann insisted on and forcing them into all-action roles only serves to minimize their strengths and emphasize their weaknesses as players. Diskerud's shaky defensive positioning and Bradley's tendency to get suckered into covering the wrong attack leaves the U.S. defense perilously exposed, and both are better at supplementing an attack rather than driving it. This is something their club coaches appear to understand much better than Klinsmann -- neither Bradley nor Diskerud plays in a midfield two in MLS.
Then you look at the other three players in that USMNT starting lineup, and you wonder just what the heck Klinsmann was thinking. Geoff Cameron, arguably the best American centerback after the injured Brooks, was played at right back. That's a position he's capable of playing, but it's far from his best spot on the pitch -- and it's one that he's played just twice all season long at Stoke City. You know who actually is a right back? DeAndre Yedlin, who's been showing steady improvement there for Sunderland lately -- but who was started at right wing, where he's played just twice all season.
The last starter, left winger Alejandro Bedoya, has literally not played that position all season for his club side. Bedoya has always been clearly much less effective on the left than he is playing centrally or on the right, and yet Klinsmann insisted on starting him there on Friday as he has on several other occasions in the past. If anything, this one decision most exemplified the mystifying and disadvantageous nature of Klinsmann's lineup decisions -- but again, that was just one of a number of bizarre choices in the match, and this match's curiosities were just the latest in a growing line of them from Klinsmann.
Sometimes the USMNT manager's hand has been forced by injuries or the like, having to shift to a less advantageous lineup because of situations out of his control. But Klinsmann does this kind of thing so often -- playing numerous players out of position and using a tactical setup that doesn't favor who he's selected -- that one has to wonder just what his vision for the side is these days, and how well he understands his players.
The simple fact is this: When this many players are played out of position and outside of roles that they're best functional in, the USMNT struggles. We've seen it time and again, but nothing seems to change in the thought process behind those decisions. There's no point to needlessly hamstringing the team like this, and until and unless we start seeing lineups actually suited to the talent at hand, we're never going to see the national team realize its potential. If that means finding a manager who better understands the team than Klinsmann, so be it.
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