Photo: Gilbert Bellamy / Reuters
One of the primary complaints about the U.S. Men’s National Team during the Bob Bradley years was the coach’s insistence on using two defensive-minded midfielders in the middle of his 4-4-2 formation. The likes of Michael Bradley, the coach’s son, Rico Clark and Maurice Edu were charged with winning balls and then just getting them away from the U.S. goal by any means possible. There was no one to play the role of a Number 10, a player to pull strings and orchestrate attacks with incisive passing, a trait the team has lacked since the retirement of Claudio Reyna.
When Jurgen Klinsman took the reins of the side, we were promised a more pro-active, possession-oriented style. No longer would the U.S. team be the hard-working, athletic sort. There would be technical ability, a free-flowing style from back to front.
In Kingston, Jamaica on Friday night, the Americans lost to the host nation 2-1 in a World Cup qualifier. The loss drops them into a tie for second–with Guatemala–in their four-team group, three points in arrears of the Reggae Boyz, with the return fixture coming up tomorrow in Columbus, OH. Halfway through the semifinal round and the U.S. is tied for the second and last qualifying spot for the Hexagonal.
The team that took the field in Kilinsman’s preferred 4-3-3 included not two defense-only central midfielders, but three. Three! Michael Bradley, who has become arguably the team’s most important player, was out with a hamstring strain, so viewers were treated to the three-headed monstrosity of Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman and Edu as Klinsman’s midfield triangle.
Oh what a sad sight it was. The set-up followed the CONCACAF qualifying blueprint, that of playing for draws on the road and take three points at home. Klinsman hoped to jam the middle and keep the pacy Jamaicans from opening up the game. Realistically, we couldn’t look at that midfield nexus and expect them to be able to spray the ball around. They did not disappoint us. Their play was an endless procession of failed passes and cranking balls into oblivion.
The final–and painful–joke in all of this is that it was their defending which ultimately undid the Nats. The trio, whose only true worth to the side is to break up tackles (and in Jones’s case, garner yellow cards, which he did in this match as well), failed to deal with the Jamaican attack, Rodolph Austin in particular, and the game turned on two step-late tackles by Beckerman and Edu respectively. Each led to a free kick in dangerous territory, both of which were converted.
Perhaps the worst news is that Klinsman really doesn’t have any options going forward. Jose Torres has not shown himself capable of being that creator in the middle, constantly squandering his chances to seize the position. Joe Corona and Mix Diskerud are still too young. Bradley has improved his passing, but he is still a guy who is better making the runs, rather than feeding them.
Tuesday offers a chance for the coach to make the necessary adjustments. Aside from finding more possession, the U.S. also needs to find some width and look to play down the flanks. Maybe switching back to a 4-4-2, where Clint Dempsey tucks into the middle, allowing the backs to break forward, is the play. Whatever the adjustment, the game is a vital one for the Nats. A win and that three points will bring them right back into the qualifying picture. Anything less and they will find themselves struggling to get out of qualifying. In the semifinal round. I doubt Klinsman has a plan in place to save his job if that happens.