Working on the USMNT defense

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By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 5, 2014) US Soccer Players – Nobody should discount the off the field issues when trying to tease out meaning from Wednesday's Ukraine - USMNT friendly. USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann can talk about opportunities being open, but that 100 day countdown currently stands at 99.

It's an even shorter window for World Cup coaches. They have to settle on a training camp roster by May 13 and then reduce it to the final 23 players on June 2. Some are further along than others, and Klinsmann isn't making it clear where he is on that scale.

It's fair enough to think he already knows the bulk of the squad. It's also fair to say his options remain open. There's the feeling, and he's pushing that feeling at every opportunity, that players can still make their case. That's exciting, but the time frame doesn't exactly help sell that scenario. 

Unfortunately for Klinsmann and the players looking to show against Ukraine, the atmosphere worked against them. Ukraine's political situation overwhelmed this friendly. The setting was as close to a closed door game as we're likely to see at full international level. The locals in Larnaca didn't respond with much enthusiasm for a hastily rearranged game that didn't involve their country. Go figure. 

To borrow from an earlier USMNT coach, this isn't a teachable moment in any meaningful sense. Group G isn't likely to see disruption from domestic turmoil and relocating games to another country. Anything could happen, but great teams don't waste their limited time planning for absolutely anything. They focus on their game first, then the opposition at its best. That's the sporting definition of taking nothing for granted, not working through worst case scenarios in the hope it produces some slight advantage.

For the USMNT, the big questions are only going to repeat. Klinsmann needs to stabilize the back line, and again that limited time continues to count down. Defenses, especially the center back pairing, need time to come together. 

Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu's partnership was a reliable benefit for the USMNT. The two of them built a familiarity that changed games in the USA's favor. Add in Bocanegra's long-time USMNT roommate Steve Cherundolo on the right, and the USMNT built off a strong and stable defense. 

Age and fitness changes that for Klinsmann. Rebuilding a prior strength is tough for any coach. There's a set expectation and the hope for better, not struggling to get the defense back to a previous level. Some of that is bad luck. The financial collapse of Rangers disrupted Carlos Bocanegra's career. Cherundolo's recovery from injury didn't go as scheduled. Onyewu didn't get the playing time he expected at club level until another move in January. 

The attention shifted in qualifying to another group of players, several MLS based. Where they play their club soccer is almost irrelevant. All of them can do the job, but the question is where. It's positional as well as settling on starters. The solution is tactical, not just personnel. That compounds the almost perennial problem of who plays left back for the USMNT. 

On Tuesday, former USMNT goalkeeper Brad Friedel received unwarranted criticism for saying in an interview that the back line was an issue for the USMNT. Everyone knows it's an issue. There's a World Cup to win, and every team the USMNT faces in Brazil is looking for that path of least resistance towards goal. 

For Klinsmann, one of the jobs is complicating that for the opposition. Who picks up the marking assignment against some of the best attacking players in the world? How does the midfield link up? What does the American public expect from a team that's several World Cup cycles removed from putting players behind the ball and hoping for an advantageous counter attack?

Unfortunately, the friendly in Cyprus didn't point to any unavoidable answers. Klinsmann's public statements insist he has plenty of work to do. There's no reason to doubt him.


J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at jhutcherson@usnstpa.com.

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2 Responses to Working on the USMNT defense

  1. Mike O'Malley says:

    What’s disturbing is that it’s not the level of talent but the lack of ability to communicate.

    • The lack of crowd and ESPN using the field level microphones highlighted that in a way that’s not normal. As Klinsmann said, it was a new back line that needs time.