Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
They went to Antigua in search of three points, and as far as the ultimate task was concerned, Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. Men’s National Team accomplished that on Friday night.
The Americans didn’t just earn a vital victory. They also found a new scoring threat in Eddie Johnson, who made an impressive return to the national team fold, and repaid Klinsmann’s confidence in the process.
As encouraging as Johnson’s performance was, and as important as securing three points was, it was tough to come away from Friday’s 2-1 U.S. victory feeling very encouraged about the American team’s performance. Yes, you can point to injuries, and you can certainly point to awful playing conditions, and even to the painfully narrow playing surface that squeezed everything into a crowded and slippery mess of a field, but excuses like those for poor play by the U.S. have been worn out throughout this qualifying round by a team that has managed just one very good half of soccer in five matches.
No, style points don’t really matter in the final standings, and the U.S. team’s struggles in this qualifying round are likely to be forgotten as soon as the team dives into the Hexagonal round, but the team’s continued inability to find a rhythm and really show improvement is a cause for concern as an even more difficult challenge awaits in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
The angst being felt by a good portion of American fans isn’t about the close call on Friday, or even about the fact the Americans won’t secure their place in the Hex until the final match day. The worry is born out of unmet expectations by a team that was supposed to blossom under Klinsmann.
Much the same way players can be criticized, and even dropped for poor play (Jozy Altidore anybody?), Klinsmann can certainly face some criticism for a team that just hasn’t played well. Friday’s conditions were extreme, to be sure, but there were as many questionable decisions made by Klinsmann as there were good ones.
Calling up and starting Johnson obviously looks like a stroke of genius. He deployed him essentially as a left forward in a three-forward attack and Johnson punished Antigua with back-post runs. Klinsmann also brought on Alan Gordon as a second-half sub, a move clearly worked out as he set up Johnson’s winning goal.
Those were the positives for Klinsmann. Now let us consider Klinsmann’s mis-steps on Friday:
He turned to Carlos Bocanegra to play left back rather than Michael Parkhurst and Bocanegra struggled with Antigua & Barbuda’s pace.
He started Clarence Goodson at centerback instead of Bocanegra and Goodson spent the night looking like Bambi trying to walk on ice. He was muscled out of the way on Antigua & Barbuda’s goal and never looked all that confident despite facing a team that never got much of the ball.
He inserted Jermaine Jones for Danny Williams in the second half and Jones promptly struggled. Bad passes, clumsy challenges and a yellow card that will keep him out of the Guatemala match on Tuesday were all Klinsmann had to show for bringing in a player who probably should have been rested after coming into camp with an injury.
These transgressions didn’t wind up costing the USA because Johnson delivered two goals, but they are mistakes Klinsmann must learn from and eliminate once the Hex begins, because there will be tougher opponents and less margin for error.
More worrisome than questionable moves by Klinsmann on Friday is a continued overall sense that this U.S. team just hasn’t improved all that much since he took over. Historic friendly wins against Italy and Mexico in 2012 have helped boost Klinsmann’s profile, and provided some sense that progress is being made, but those results have also distracted from the fact that the quality of soccer being played by the U.S. has been far from impressive.
There have been plenty of excuses given for the rash of subpar qualifying performances. Bad weather, injuries, poor officiating, terrible field conditions and even plain bad luck. Hearings these once or twice is one thing, but after a while excuses like those start to ring hollow.
To be fair to Klinsmann, he isn’t the first U.S. coach to have trouble with CONCACAF qualifying. Twelve years ago Bruce Arena led his team into the final match of this same group stage needing a win to secure a place in the Hexagonal. The Americans won that match handily, went on to qualify for the 2002 World Cup and reached the quarterfinals of that tournament.
As underwhelming as the U.S. has been for the majority of this qualifying round, they still head into Tuesday’s group stage finale against Guatemala in good shape to reach the Hex. Both Klinsmann and his team have picked up some lessons along the way and it will up to both to learn from them and improve.
Klinsmann does deserve some credit for not being afraid to try new things. He knew the team hadn’t been good enough in qualifying and set out to shake things up with the selections of Johnson and Alan Gordon (and the snub of Jozy Altidore). His decision to not only call in Kljestan, but bring him into Friday’s match with the game on the line, showed us a coach who is willing to adapt.
The real question is when will this U.S. team start playing like the team we thought we would see when Klinsmann took over? Perhaps we can get a glimpse on Tuesday against Guatemala. The field won’t be narrow, and the grass at Livestrong Sporting Park will be well manicured. There will still be some American players missing due to injury, but there will be more than enough talent available to finally register not only a victory, but an entertaining and confidence-building display of soccer.
Yes, securing the result needed to qualify for the next round is what will matter most for the U.S. national team, but after a group stage filled with lackluster performances, Klinsmann’s team need a convincing victory for a variety of reasons. Not only to provide momentum heading into 2013, but to give U.S. national team fans a reason to believe better days lie ahead for the Klinsmann era.