Posted by: mdegeorge | September 7, 2011

Klinsmann era off to a sputtering start

It’s far too early to reach for the panic button on the Jurgen Klinsmann era of U.S. soccer.

But it’s clear after matching 1-0 losses to such soccer powers as Costa Rica and Belgium this week that the hopes of an attack-minded German savior suddenly whisking the program to dizzying heights, heights predecessor Bob Bradley was negligent to the point of deserving termination in not reaching, are slightly misguided.

Brek Shea has been good, though perhaps not the instant starter some think he may be under Klinsmann. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Obviously the results of Klinsmann’s first three matches in charge come with a caveat. These games must be looked at as a means to the ultimate end – success at the World Cup – rather than an end unto themselves, and thus the developmental nature of the squads he has selected. Factor in the small sample size, and it’s easy to blow the ramifications of the losses out of proportion.

Still, another lifeless performance raises the cynicism that those being felt out for possible inclusion in the squad are merely fill-ins.

Time is still the ally of the American team, and it’s entirely possible that players like Robbie Rogers or Brek Shea could make the type of leap in ability that makes their inclusion on squad sheets so tantalizing. Shea especially, with his amazing talents, has impressed during the otherwise lackluster performances.

The matches under Klinsmann, though, have served one main purpose: When it comes to the forward line and midfield, lack of change will rule the day.

In the likes of Rogers, Shea, Jose Torres, Kyle Beckerman et al., can anyone honestly see them supplanting any of the vital midfield cogs that were hallmarks of the Bradley era? Torres provides a new spin on what Benny Feilhaber gave as substitute in the midfield. Shea’s contributions are likely as a slightly better Sasha Klejstan as a creative force (though Klejstan himself is playing like a better Sasha Klejstan these days). And Rogers might at best give what Alejandro Bedoya (who also can’t be counted out) gave off the bench in the Gold Cup.

The United States midfield for the next World Cup – barring injury or what I can safely call an unforeseen jump in ability by a player on the periphery – will look a lot like the ones Bradley named in his final days as manager.

The central midfield spot – or spots, as the case may be – will be decided at the last moment, but the protagonists in that search are quite clear. Michael Bradley, regular football hopefully found at Chievo Verona, Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones, Ricardo Clark, Feilhaber and Torres will be in the mix.

Landon Donovan’s role as a winger is safe, as is Stuart Holden’s projected role in the side if he regains his health and proves one excellent season for Bolton wasn’t a fluke. Clint Dempsey will start in some capacity (it should be as a second striker, but more on that later). And Jozy Altidore will be up front in some configuration.

Before Bradley was dismissed, I lamented his lack of tactical flexibility. Klinsmann has shown an open mind to remedying that situation. But the talent pool has yet to support it. There is hope, yes. But the available talent and system has yet to sync.

Klinsmann seems fond of an umbrella five-man midfield supporting a lone striker. That system seems woefully inadequate without Donovan bombing down the wing, especially when the fullbacks are on the back foot as Timmy Chandler and Steve Cherundolo were at times against Belgium Tuesday. The hope, I presume, is that versatile players among that five-man group such as Shea, Klejstan, Donovan, Dempsey or one of the central pairing candidates (playing an advanced role from a single deep-lying midfield able to hold down the fort solo) can provide the attacking creativity to make up for the lack of a second striker.

That’s a tall order to fill. Klinsmann lacks the benefit of such versatile midfielders, especially those ostensibly playing a central role, like Michael Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger that he had in Germany. After three matches, it looks unlikely that playing this system repeatedly is going to magically generate a player perfectly suited for it.

It’s going to be a long road for Klinsmann’s red, white and blue regime. He may not hear the clock ticking down the days to the opening in Rio yet, but it certainly is.

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