Ignore for a second that Jamaica and Panama’s combined FIFA World Ranking is 92. Discount the fact that the temporary turf was playing the part of sniper to Panama on Tuesday night. And let’s also overlook the minute detail of the Germany match only being a friendly against a threadbare squad missing most of its best players.
For the last 270 minutes or so, the US Men’s National Team has looked a legitimate football team.
Yes, the competition hasn’t been the best: Jamaica is winless in six and dead last in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, Panama are just ahead of them with a single win, and a Germany squad lacking the fire power of their Bayern and Dortmund stars. (And that’s not even mentioning the battering we suffered at the hands of Belgium prior to these games.) But there are so many positives to take away from the run of good form, I’m willing to look past a few measly facts. Wild optimism is my mantra around here these days.
The win in Kingston on Saturday? Definitely not our best performance. A last gasp winner might have been how the story ended, but theme of that story is undoubtedly “improvement”. The last time we traveled to Jamaica’s National Stadium, we lost. In fact, the win delivered by Brad Evans deflected shot in the 92nd minute was our first ever win on the Caribbean island. So while we didn’t blow them out or anything shocking like that, overcoming the adversity of blowing an early lead to reclaim all three points on the road in the Hex shouldn’t be discounted. Never mind that the goal provided us fans the kind of “LD just scored against Algeria and I just wet myself” moment that we haven’t had since that match in 2010.
Similarly, the shootout win in US Soccer’s Centennial friendly against Germany at RFK showed that this squad just might possess the mettle and conviction to persevere. It’s a characteristic our national team has long lacked, as I’ve seen us roll over after going down more times than I care to recount.
And as for the Panama match… well it was probably the best we’ve seen the National Team play under Klinsmann’s reign. We dominated both tactically and technically, had a balanced squad, and made few of the errors that we’re normally susceptible to committing.
So the question becomes, are these the results of the stylistic changes Klinsmann promised back when he took over? While many interpreted his promise to mean that Jürgen would have us playing Spanish tiki-taka by 2014 — a fantasy goal that every sane person should know was impossible given our lack of truly technical players — I actually think Klinsmann has partially kept that promise. It’s just not in the way that everyone thought it would go down.
Instead of implementing an entirely new style, Klinsmann has simply fine tuned the USMNT’s long-standing stylistic preference: the counter attack.
Long reliant on the traditional 4-4-2 under Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena before him, many expected the Jürgs to push the increasingly popular 4-3-3 upon us. Which he did, to varying degrees of success. But over the last three games, we’ve seen a hybrid of the two system used to great effect: a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1. Dempsey roves behind Altidore up top, sometimes playing as a striker, other times playing as midfielder. And a pair of holding midfielders (Jones/Cameron and Bradley) sits behind, spraying it quickly out to wide players higher up the pitch.
Without a doubt, the headline of this run and formation change has clearly been Jozy Altidore’s own resurgent form, and deservedly so. However, the reason behind it has a lot to do with chance and formation/player selection.
First, the chance. While Jermaine Jones playing his best football in US colors has helped, our best display actually came when he was out injured with a concussion. Geoff Cameron came in to deputize in midfield, a role he’s played before on several occasions for club and country, but not necessarily his best position. But by playing a more traditional defensive role and staying at home in front of the back four — unlike the double pivot that Jones offers — Cameron provided Michael Bradley the freedom to push forward and play the creative role at which he’s so adept.
(The impact Cameron’s appearance had on the game is why he was my man of the match last night, but let’s make no mistake about it: Michael Bradley is the best player on our team by a pretty considerable margin. And yes, I’m taking Jozy’s red-hot goal scoring form into account, as well as Clint’s consistent performances over the last year in a US kit.)
Second, is formation/player selection. Jozy finds himself in the goals all of a sudden, after 19 months without a goal for his country, due in large part to vastly improved wing play. Graham Zusi is legitimately the first solid winger, capable of providing service on the wings since… well, I don’t know who. It’s literally been that long. Solid performances on Tuesday from Fabian Johnson and Eddie Johnson meant Jozy was provided with more of the same.
Couple those offensive tweaks with a much stabilized and balanced center back pairing of Gonzalez and Besler, and you’re looking at a team that suddenly looks capable of way more than I thought this national team was capable of just six months ago. Will things continue on this way? We’ll find out as soon as Tuesday against Honduras.
Whatever that result, I’m fairly confident that Klinsmann has finally seen the light, and that the boys have too. And that is: we have a style already, and it can work just fine. Sometimes the most elegant solution is the one that already works… it just needed a little fine tuning.