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Talking Tactics

A Tactical Wish List for the United States in 2013

With 2012 in the books and the final step to World Cup 2014 qualification coming fast, ASN tactician Liviu Bird takes a look at what was and what could be for Jurgen Klinsmann’s side.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
January 04, 2013
6:00 AM
Jurgen Klinsmann and the United States national team walked through fire in 2012, finishing on top of their World Cup qualifying group but not before a few tense moments. Among other aspects of the team’s maturation under Klinsmann is a tactical transition from old to new.

U.S. Soccer’s newfound desire to institutionalize the 4-3-3 at all levels of the game has yielded some growing pains at each step, including the Under-23s’ failure to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics. A big part of the problem is the player pool’s unfamiliarity with it—only a handful of teams in Major League Soccer uses the formation, and of the overseas contingent, only Jozy Altidore plays in the 4-3-3 haven Eredivisie. Still, a lot of American players have the tools to succeed in the system. Some lineup continuity in 2013 would go a long way toward building momentum as a team. To this point under Klinsmann, the U.S. lacks a consistent, concrete style of play and a Starting XI, although some of that is due to injury.

Conundrum of a Consistent Lineup
Looking back, the games in 2012 reveal a different style nearly every time the Yanks took the field.

In the 3-1 win over Guatemala in October, Clint Dempsey ran the show from just underneath Herculez Gomez; the wingers stayed fairly wide. In Jamaica the previous month, however, width was nonexistent in attack. Against Russia, the last match of 2012, all wingers and outside backs were—for the most part—in fine form.

In the midfield, Klinsmann rotated between one and two defensive midfielders. Danny Williams, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Clint Dempsey all found playing time in the triangle. All showed promise, but only three can earn permanent starting spots.

Jones needs to be the odd man in this situation. Williams showed the most promise at the holding spot, more as a disruptor than a creator, and Bradley floated in the middle of the triangle, working from box to box. Dempsey’s genius in attack needs no further explanation to American fans—the Guatemala home game serves as a reminder of what he can do.

Together, those three offer a balance among individual styles that allows for team success.

Changing of the Guard
Bradley is the new American breakout player. A move to Italy brought new tactical acumen that fits in perfectly with the system Klinsmann is trying to instill.

True to his personality, Bradley’s playing style is quiet but uniquely impossible to ignore. Of the midfielders in the player pool, he has the highest upside as a playmaker, Landon Donovan version 2.0.

As it was with Donovan, it is Bradley’s technical mastery and simple distribution on the ball, juxtaposed with the vision to find the opposition's soft spaces, that makes him a player to watch. He locates pockets and pulls strings in the attack the way Donovan did circa 2010.

The future of the U.S. national team is contingent on Bradley. Conversely, heading into 2013, Donovan is the big question mark in Klinsmann’s plans. If he comes back into the fold, he, Bradley, and Dempsey would become the three prongs to every American build-up. This would put a heavy emphasis on the right side of the field, as the most logical spot for Donovan is his old right-wing position. It's comparable to his wide role in Los Angeles Galaxy's 4-4-2. Donovan’s inclusion would add the ability to pick out final passes from the middle and wide spaces, which the team doesn’t always have with its recent crop of wingers.

Herculez Gomez has been the team’s best wide man, and he needs to be in the lineup whenever possible. He doesn’t make enough of an impact as a lone striker, but his speed and ability to run at defenses with the ball at his feet make him a natural to counter Donovan’s more cerebral style on the right side.

Defensive Decisions
Finally, the mother of issues for the U.S. at the moment is its porous defense. Sorting out the holding midfield position will help take a bit of pressure off the back line—think Osvaldo Alonso’s impact for Seattle Sounders FC—but it will still come down to the men in front of Tim Howard to keep the opposition out of the box.

The wide spaces are straightforward enough, with Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, and Steve Cherundolo showing they can all take the responsibility of offensive-defensive balance that modern outside backs must maintain. Even Geoff Cameron has shown his ability there for his club team, Premier League defensive master Stoke City.

The middle is another story.

Cameron, Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, and Clarence Goodson have all proven competent at various points in central defense, but nobody has grabbed the position by the throat and dominated that territory when given a chance. Half of that group—Besler, DeMerit and Gonzalez—hasn’t received its opportunity to impress Klinsmann yet, but all three deserve a look in the January camp. They run the show for MLS playoff clubs, and without them, all three of those clubs have collapsed at various times.

When DeMerit left the Vancouver Whitecaps’ play-in game against the Galaxy with an injury, Los Angeles took over and won the game. Gonzalez carried his team in the Galaxy’s MLS Cup Final win, contrasting sharply with their early-season woes. Besler failed to start in just three 2012 league games for Sporting Kansas City, in which it won once, tied once, and lost once.

But selection isn’t the whole issue. Those players who have gotten their chances haven’t been near their top form for the red, white, and blue—a fact that needs to change for the U.S. to have success in the hexagonal round of qualifying.

Predicting a Lineup
Moving ahead, based on current form and favor and the federation’s desire to cement the U.S. as a 4-3-3 nation, here is the strongest starting lineup for the national team (back to front, left to right): Tim Howard; Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Clarence Goodson, Timmy Chandler; Danny Williams, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey; Herculez Gomez, Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan.

Howard is still the only viable starting goalkeeper, although Brad Guzan’s form has been impressive since he took over the No. 1 job at Aston Villa. The back line is subject to change, seemingly, on a day-to-day basis. The midfield and attack have several rising stars, but the usual suspects have not been displaced from their top spots yet.

With the final round of World Cup qualifying coming up, Klinsmann and his boys must find some continuity in player selection, tactical execution, and leadership from within the pool. Big results in 2012 were important, but they don’t tell the whole story.

The path has been set, and an effort has been made to follow it as closely as possible so far. The crucial juncture in the United States’ path to Brazil 2014 looms large—yet the next 12 months could define not just the current cycle but others to come as well.

It is no longer time to tinker and try different formulas; the time for player identification and giving those on the fringe an opportunity to play a larger role is over. Execution is the name of the game in 2013.

Without it, 2014 doesn’t exist.

Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle who contributes to the New York Times Goal Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @liviubird.

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