United States national team depth chart: Finding a second choice behind Clint Dempsey at attacking midfield

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Five U.S. matches over the last month has generated significant movement on the U.S. depth chart – perhaps more shuffling than in any month-long stretch in Jurgen Klinsmann’s time in charge, which is now approaching two years.

Over A few days we’ll continue to examine the U.S. depth chart, making our best educated guesses at how things stack up on Jurgen Klinsmann’s big board inside the manager’s Southern California offices.

Next up: SECOND FORWARD / ATTACKING MIDFIELDER

Looking for a reason the upcoming Gold Cup could be important, why the tournament could be quite influential in next year’s selection of a World Cup roster? Just look at the United States’ “second forward” spot, what could also be the attacking midfielder position with a minor tweaking of roles.

This is Clint Dempsey’s spot. We all know that. The current U.S. midfield construction in is largely about putting a couple of individuals in their best roles, namely Michael Bradley and Dempsey. (We talked about Bradley and his linking midfield role here.)

Dempsey is not a classic creator; he’s closer to a second forward who is licensed to freelance, to find the spaces on a given day, sometimes further out wide, sometimes closer to Bradley or sometimes closer to first-pick striker Jozy Altidore. Largely, it’s all about Dempsey being hard to find so that his slashing and dashing and arrival into goal-scoring position lands with maximum offensive impact.

How someone else might attack the role is presumably up for interpretation.  And there’s the rub: there is no clear “someone else,” although there are certainly some intriguing choices.

So many U.S. supporters badly want to see Stuart Holden folded into the attacking mix, and he might indeed become a legitimate second option here. But …

Holden still must demonstrate progress in this long recover process. That’s where the Gold Cup comes in, obviously. Besides the obvious opportunity for assessment, a healthy and productive Holden could be better served coming in from wide areas. Or he could become the ultimate, utility midfield substitute, capable of effective function at any of the interior or exterior roles.

Either way, a “change of pace” man would be nice, eh? Someone who could provide something different in midfield if Dempsey needs to move further upfield, closer still to Altidore.

So, bring on the Gold Cup!

(MORE: Gold Cup notes ahead of Thursday’s roster announcement)

Is Joe Corona ready? Can Graham Zusi create from those central areas? (Although we are less likely to see that in the Gold Cup.) Can Jose Torres re-shape his image in the national shirt? Klinsmann keeps asking Torres to be more assertive, to kind more ways to impact the game, but the Tigres has continually fallen short.

Is Benny Feilhaber still any kind of option? Can Sacha Kljestan be useful in that specific midfield position, himself a “utility knife” type.

(MORE: Benny Feilhaber left off SKC’s latest 18-man squad)

And, yes, there is the Landon Donovan factor. Reports are out now that Donovan will, as we all expected, be part of the Gold Cup roster. Left to be seen is whether Klinsmann wants Donovan to work the wings or the interior – the national team’s all-time leading scorer has toggled successfully between both spots throughout his long career, in league play and internationally.

Best guess: Donovan’s role is tied to Holden’s progress and where Klinsmann sees the Bolton man’s best fit.

Can we just say it again … Bring on the Gold Cup! Important questions are begging to be answered.

U.S. SECOND STRIKER / ATTACKING MIDFIELD ordering

  • 1. Clint Dempsey
  • 2. Landon Donovan
  • 3. Stuart Holden
  • 4. Joe Corona
  • 5. Graham Zusi
  • 6. Jose Torres

In review:

U.S. goalkeepers

U.S. right backs

U.S. left backs

U.S. center backs

U.S. holding midfielders

U.S. linking midfielders

U.S. right-sided attackers

U.S. left-sided attackers

Coming up later today: strikers

 

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina squad

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Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.

And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:

“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.

“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”

Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.

That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

AP Photo / Ricardo Mazalan
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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”

Croatia smashes disheveled Argentina

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
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Ante Rebic, Luka Modric, and Ivan Rakitic have Croatia in the knockout rounds and Argentina on the verge of World Cup disaster.

Croatia scored a trio of second half goals, one aided by a Willy Caballero howler, in a 3-0 win in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday.

Argentina will enter its final match against Nigeria on the outskirts of the knockout rounds regardless of how Nigeria-Iceland ends on Friday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Ivan Perisic forced a big save out of Wily Caballero for an early Croatia corner kick that came to nothing.

Messi had a chance stopped inside of 10 minutes, then started a play that Dejan Lovren blocked for a corner in the 13th.

Enzo Perez missed an open goal off a poor Croatia giveaway in the 30th minute.

There were a pair of fouls not out of place on a red card lowlight reel, one for each team, but neither resulting in a sending off.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

Croatia took the lead through Caballero’s gaffe and Rebic’s smash in the 54th.

Argentina nearly answered moments later. After a mazy Messi dribble, Argentina regained possession in the 64th minute, spearheaded by a Gonzalo Higuain run that led to a corner.

Croatia came close to making it 2-0, as Mario Mandzukic couldn’t turn a flick on frame and instead saw it glide into the outside of the goal.

Then Modric put the match to bed as the clock hit 80, an absolute beauty. Another huge defensive mistake allowed Mateo Kovacic to cue up Rakitic for the third.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

WATCH: Caballero blunder punished as Rebic rip puts Argentina on ropes

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Willy Caballero has made one of the bigger blunders in recent World Cup history.

His Argentina side needs at least a point from Thursday’s match-up with Croatia, and the match remained scoreless into halftime.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

But 10 minutes after the break, Caballero flubbed a clearance in a big way.

The Argentina goalkeeper then could only watch as Ante Rebic kept his composure to blast a side volley into the goal.

It was a fine finish, to be sure, but not possible without such a terrible gaffe.