For a lineup that had so many uncertainties before kickoff in Commerce City, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann sure seemed to get a lot of things right last night. From the patchwork backline, to the formation, to the midfield alignment to the forwards, everything seemed to work, as much as a roster missing so many of its regulars can work.
Let’s start at the back
Brad Guzan was fine for the most part, but that was the easy one. With Tim Howard out, the Aston Villa No. 1 was the obvious choice, and while some early second half forays away from his line drew some gasps from the American faithful, Guzan was otherwise reliable. He was sure-handed, confident. He was expected what everybody expected.
We knew Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron would start at the back. The question was where. Gonzalez was going to start in the middle, but electing to go with experience instead of injecting Tony Beltran, Klinsmann pushed Cameron to right back. It’s not a spot he’s used to with the national team, but he plays there with Stoke.
It was a safe choice, one that allowed Clarence Goodson to start a left-center half. It also allowed Klinsmann to get his most experienced defense on the field.
In truth, Cameron wasn’t that good. His distribution was poor and he did little to prevent Bryan Oviedo from being Costa Rica’s most dangerous player. Part of that was the weather, and part of Oviedo’s success was on Graham Zusi, but it was still a patchy performance from the Potter.
But there we no major errors. For a team protecting a 1-0 lead for most of the night, that was the biggest thing. Those Oviedo crosses could have proved painful (especially a first half ball that fell for Bryan Ruiz), but ultimately, Cameron’s growing experience outweighed his errors.
The revelation at defense was DeMarcus Beasley, who was having trouble getting called in at all before starting at left back. His night looked like it would end early when he went face-to-head with Omar Gonzalez, but the Puebla midfielder recovered to have one of the States’ better nights. Whether he holds up at Azteca is another matter entirely, but after for one night, DMB gave U.S. fans reason to think he’s got left back covered.
And he also revitalized his chances of getting to cap No. 100. In all likelihood, Beasley will reach appearance 99 Tuesday at Azteca.
With Danny Williams out, Klinsmann could have inserted Kyle Beckerman or Maurice Edu and maintain his tendency to select three players who normally play deep in midfield. But in a must win game at home, it was no surprise that Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones (right) were asked to do the job by themselves.
The slight surprise may have been the depliyment. We think of Michael Bradley as the midfielder most capable of getting forward, and on Clint Dempsey’s goal, he showed how he can contiribute without ever touching the ball. But for most of the night, Bradley was the deeper of the two, sitting deep to act as a fulcrum.
Jones was allowed to do what he does best – roam, disrupt, use his strength and athleticism to be as annoying as possible. In attack, that gave the U.S. a player to act as an outlet just inside the final third. In the buildup, it allowed the U.S. to patiently kick it around while the Costa Ricans trudged through the snow.
Add in Clint Dempsey’s contributions dropping into the void above the pivot, and the midfield struck a perfect balance. That perception was aided by the early goal, Costa Rica’s five-man defense, the field conditions, home field advantage, and the U.S.’s inherent edge in midfield talent, but the result’s enough to bolster opinion that Klinsmann needs to stick with two, not three, defensively-inclined midfielders.
Attack did enough
Jozy Altidore had one of his better nights of the Klinsmann era. His holdup play was excellent, and Costa Rica seemed to lack the willingness or personnel to compete for the long balls coming out of the States’ end. With a strong work rate and improved off-the-ball movement, Altidore is starting to improve on the qualities that made him an iffy fit before.
Herculez Gomez got the call on the left ahead of Eddie Johnson, a decision that’s more difficult to judge. Gomez was fine, and his experience seemed valuable as he shunned the weather and got to work. On set pieces and with the ball at his feet, Gomez offers a bit more, and his work rate is always among the team’s best. But it’s not difficult to image Johnson being as effective, if in a different way.
On the other flank, Graham Zusi (right) was a non-factor in attack and a detriment tracking Oviedo, but it’s hard to fault Klinsmann for this selection. In what the coach had labeled a must win game, Zusi’s recent successes were always likely to earn Klinsmann’s nod. Gomez could have started on the right while Johnson played on the left, but on a day when possession was going to be important, you can see why Zusi got the call.
On Tuesday, however? It’s hard to feel that confident about that right side matching up against Andres Guardado and Jorge Torres Nilo, particularly when Mexico scored each of their Friday goals while attacking the defense’s right. Klinsmann may have no better defensive option than Cameron, but for that flank to work, Zusi will have to be better running back toward goal.
And then there’s Dempsey, who was never not going to start, but the main issues with “Deuce” as a No. 10 had been his ability to keep the play moving. For both club and country, there’s been a tendency so slow play down outside the final third rather than build momentum. Positionally, a supporting striker’s role allows Dempsey to do the kind of penalty area poaching that made the difference last night, but when that role requires a No. 10’s flare in a 4-2-3-1, Dempsey’s limitations are exposed.
In the snow of Colorado, those limitations were equalized. Everybody became a player who had trouble building momentum. It wasn’t even worth trying. Smart, well-hit passes that actually got to your teammates became more important, and in that environment, Dempsey’s strengths stood out. Putting him in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 proved a valuable focal point for a team that needed to hog the ball.
Credit the coach
Nobody was surprised by Friday’s selection, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t significant choices to make. And it looks like Klinsmann made all the right ones. The right side could have been better, but you could see the coach’s logic. And in the choice of formation, midfield selection, promotion of Beasley, and putting Dempsey (back) in a No. 10’s role, Klinsmann seemed to get it right.
Not a bad a frying pan performance for the scrutinized boss.