For a moment, let’s not discuss the roster selection. The last thing we need when assessing Jurgen Klinsmann’s work inside the World Cup is to pretend Landon Donovan would’ve been in Chris Wondolowski’s cleats on top of goal, during a free kick Landon Donovan would’ve been standing over if Landon Donovan were in the lineup and Julian Green were not (the latter scored, you know, and is now a vested American player forever).
But how did Klinsmann fare in selecting his Starting XI and subs? He certainly wasn’t perfect, but there’s enough evidence to indicate the future is bright for the German as a match day manager.
Match 1: Ghana, W 2-1
Who knows how the States would’ve performed under Klinsmann’s original plan, as the manager was forced to take off his best striker after 23 minutes and his most consistent center back after 45. Klinsmann had to use two subs before the second half began, and went with Aron Johannsson for Jozy Altidore and John Anthony Brooks for Matt Besler.
In the latter case, there were questions as to why Klinsmann didn’t turn to Omar Gonzalez in place of Brooks (more on him later). The coach’s final move was to pull of Ale Bedoya for Graham Zusi. Hindsight is always 20/20, but Zusi sent in the ball in that Brooks headed home for the game-winner. Poor marking or not, that’s what we can a ‘feather in the cap’ of Klinsmann.
Match 2: Portugal, D 2-2
Forced to reconsider his striker usage, Klinsmann surprised by using Clint Dempsey alone up-top. This allowed him to move Zusi and Bedoya out wide, while changing his midfield four to a tight triangle with Kyle Beckerman lending some safety for Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley to each probe forward.
He keeps his defense in tact, and Geoff Cameron rewards him with an all-time US flub to set-up Nani for the first goal. But the Dempsey move pays off, as the Texan is a major source of pressure on the beleaguered Portuguese back line.
Klinsmann’s sub of DeAndre Yedlin for Bedoya pays off within nine minutes, as the Seattle Sounders youngster kickstarts the play that led to Dempsey’s equalizer. Cristiano Ronaldo works a bit of individual magic to find Portugal a point late, but most people would’ve accepted any result if it means Ronaldo would’ve only bested the US once over 90 minutes. The Cameron flub is ultimately what cost the three points, and ultimately it’s hard to fault the coach for starting a man who played in more Premier League games than all but nine players in 2013/14 (three of whom were goalkeepers).
Match 3: Germany, L 0-1
“Why is he starting Gonzalez?” was the cry from many, as Cameron exited the lineup after a tough run against Portugal. Klinsmann also plugged in Brad Davis for Bedoya, the latter of whom was ineffective overall despite many chances (see Belgium analysis).
Davis would end up leaving after 59 minutes in favor of a return from Bedoya. This is where those who believe Donovan would’ve made a big difference — I don’t — have a big argument. Clearly, Klinsmann wanted to use this formation with a two men out very wide but could not find an option he loved. We knew this was a problem when Brek Shea continued to get mentions despite doing very little in club ball. Flat out: Klinsmann could not find the man he needed for this position, but is it fair to say it’s because that man was unavailable to his nation?
Whatever the case, the States needed to limit German goals in order to advance. They did that, and Gonzalez was strong. It’s hard not to call this a success.
Match 4: Belgium, L 1-2 (et)
The formation went bonkers, as Klinsmann went a little ‘mad scientist’ with his set-up. It’s clear he wanted to get Cameron back on the pitch without sacrificing what he saw as an in-form Gonzalez (and let’s face it: when Omar’s been good, he’s been very good).
Cameron on the outside would allow the dangerous Fabian Johnson to take more chances, while Klinsmann hoped Graham Zusi could handle more central responsibilities in the process (that didn’t work so well). But in doing so, Klinsmann had to pull Kyle Beckerman from the lineup, removing a player who had done yeoman’s work in the tournament. It was a questionable button to push.
It’s clear Altidore was a smokescreen, though he’s also not the sort of player I personally fancy as a sub. You want him out there wearing defenses down for the second striker or swift little attackers.
And here’s the biggest problem I had with Klinsmann the whole tournament: it’s clear Green, while green, has a skill set others on the roster do not have. There’s a little bit of early-Donovan to his game, with the cool to collect that late goal. At age 19, perhaps he would’ve been roasted on the defensive responsibilities that Klinsmann gave Bedoya and other wide players… but maybe not? That position was a big problem for the U.S., and Green slotted home on his first touch (which may be a World Cup record).
For the record, Klinsmann was right about stoppage time. There were a sub and a goal in the second period. That’s rarely, if ever, one minute.
Conclusion: All-in-all, the States were outclassed by Belgium. In fact, they didn’t hold much of the play at all until Eden Hazard subbed out of the match. Frankly, the US may have had the least talented roster of any team that played in the group, but whether it was their mettle, how Klinsmann organized them or, likely, a combination of both factors, the States progressed out of an incredibly-tough group and are a stoppage time finish away from moving on to Argentina.
As an aside on all the Wondolowski-miss hullaballoo, I was around a group of pretty respected coaches for the game and — after an initial cursing bout — most agreed that Thibaut Courtois played the chance very well and probably could’ve stopped an on-target chance. Don’t know if I agree, but…