The United States men's national team spent 45 minutes playing some of the most boring, turgid soccer of the Jurgen Klinsmann era on Wednesday night. They could hardly get the ball into the final third against Ecuador, and certainly didn't create any scoring chances. Then Darlington Nagbe and Bobby Wood entered the game, with Michael Bradley moving from a box-to-box role into a deep-lying playmaker one, between the defensive and midfield lines.
Those changes worked wonders. When 17-year-old starlet Christian Pulisic entered, the USMNT started playing even better -- dominating the game, even. Ecuador didn't get much of the ball in the final half hour and couldn't create anything when they did find it. The USMNT's winner didn't come until the 90th minute, but it was well-deserved -- and it was Nagbe who scored it.
Wood, Nagbe and Pulisic made a major case for more playing time. Bradley looked comfortable in his role. And as a bonus, on the defensive end, John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin had performances that were among their best in USMNT shirts. There was a lot to like. And there are two ways you can look at this performance.
Pessimistic Kevin McCauley: OK, the second half was nice. A lot of young players played well, and I can't deny that Bradley, Brooks and Yedlin looked improved too. But did you see that first half? Good god, that team couldn't get a single point from Copa America. And based on the way the USMNT has played over the last year, there's reason to believe that's closer to the real team than the one that played in the second half.
Optimistic Kevin McCauley: I think the reason the USMNT hasn't looked as good in the last year as they did in the second half Wednesday is because we haven't seen that group of players together. Bradley sitting deep, Nagbe keeping the ball, Jones or Bedoya getting forward. A Yedlin-Steve Birnbaum-Brooks-Fabian Johnson back line. Bobby Wood up top with Pulisic flanking him. This was all new. And if that group played well together, why wouldn't Klinsmann give them another chance?
Pessimist: Because he's f---ing Jurgen Klinsmann, that's why. He's a clown. A bum. A fraud. Every single time he accidentally stumbles into a good lineup, he never plays it again. We're going to see Bradley at the 10 again soon enough, behind Dempsey as a lone No. 9. If Gyasi Zardes isn't on the left, it'll be Bedoya even though he's much better on the right or in a box-to-box role than he is on the left, and everyone knows it but Klinsmann. Kyle Beckerman will start again too.
Optimist: But he's given Wood starts up top before. And even then, he wasn't scoring goals for his club team. This time around, he's coming off a great season for Union Berlin and he's earned a move to Hamburg. Klinsmann clearly values guys who go overseas and test themselves. Wood is both that, plus the team's most in-form striker. Why wouldn't he find a way to get Wood in the lineup? He played some wing, and some center forward in the second half, and he was good at both. He'll find his way in the team.
Pessimist: Remember this conversation when Zardes is touching the ball right to Santiago Arias, launching Colombian counter attacks, and then cry like a baby. Plus, even if you're right, you KNOW he won't start Pulisic and Nagbe. He'll hide behind Pulisic's age, and he likes both Jones and Beckerman too much to give Nagbe a real shot in the starting XI.
Optimist: He's not going to care about Pulisic's age. That dude was starting for Borussia Dortmund. That probably makes him the most accomplished guy in the team right now, besides perhaps Fabian Johnson. A guy getting regular minutes on a top Bundesliga team gets Klinsmann excited in the pants.
Also, I think Klinsmann's halftime changes indicate that he's willing to concede Beckerman might not be more than a backup and impact sub player at this point, and that it might be time to try something new. And given how well the Bradley-Nagbe-Jones midfield played against Ecuador -- a very solid team, I might add -- he has to be willing to try it again. The difference between the first and second halves was night and day. Even if Klinsmann isn't a good coach, he had to see that.
Pessimist: I'd like to note that Jones didn't actually play that well.
Optimist: Fine, I concede that, but it was a friendly. Remember how good Jones was at the World Cup? And how he single-handedly transformed the New England Revolution when he arrived there? Have you seen how he's played for the Colorado Rapids so far this year? Jones is a gamer. He'll bring it when it counts.
Pessimist: He's 34. Do we really know that?
Optimist: You're impossible.
Pessimist: Are you ready for James Rodriguez to run circles around Jones and Beckerman?
Optimist: No, I'm ready for Bradley, Nagbe and Jones to become a solid midfield. I'm ready for Wood to supplant Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. I'm ready for Pulisic to prove that he's the biggest talent the United States has ever seen. This team can take seven points from the group, beat Ecuador or Peru in the quarterfinal, not embarrass themselves against Argentina and go into the Hex round of World Cup qualifying looking like one of the strongest USMNT sides ever.
Pessimist: LOL, OK. Klinsmann out.