The international break ended with a mixed bag of emotions for American fans, who saw their new manager Jurgen Klinsmann win his first match Saturday as USMNT manager, but just three days later it saw Klinsmann’s squad fall again, this time to Ecuador. This latest loss brings Klinsmann’s record to 1-3-1 as USMNT manager.
The match Saturday night against Honduras was a rather even affair between the two sides. While the Americans enjoyed a few chances in the opening minutes of the match, Honduras had the first real opportunity of the game when Jerry Bengston found himself clear in on Tim Howard. Howard was forced to make a low save and the ball was played out, but the defensive lapse showed the squad’s lack of cohesion. The USMNT quickly regained control of the match and it was Clint Dempsey’s well placed left footed strike that gave them the 1-0 lead that would hold up for the remainder of the game thanks to some very nice saves from Howard and a shambolic miss from Brek Shea.
Tuesday night’s match against Ecuador began in a similar fashion, with Klinsmann selecting an identical squad, with the exception of Oguchi Onyewu starting at center back in place of Michael Orozco Fiscal. Timmy Chandler was given the arduous task of marking Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia, and performed the task admirably, with Valencia being ineffective for long stretches. The first half of the match saw the United States display some of the early game promise that is becoming a trademark of the Klinsmann era, however like most Klinsmann era games thus far they were unable to take advantage of their scoring opportunities.
As the game went on, Ecuador became comfortable settling three midfielders in front of the four defenders and with 7 behind the ball, the US had trouble coping with the overwhelming defense. Clint Dempsey became lost in the swarm of defenders while others took their shooting opportunities from distance, yet were unsuccessful.
After halftime the United States had changed to a 4-4-2 formation rather than the 4-1-3-1-1 they had been playing after making a number of substitutions. Klinsmann appears to be using these friendly matches to experiment with different formations and tactics, but so far they don’t seem to be working. The halftime changes had little positive impact on the Americans and their best opportunity to score came from an outside shot by Demarcus Beasley that was directly at keeper Maximo Banguera.
With their leading playmaker Valencia being contained on the right side by Timmy Chandler the Ecuador attack focused on the left side of the pitch where Steve Cherundolo was repeatedly exploited for his lack of pace. Ecuador’s goal came off a quick throw in on the left side which was crossed into Jamie Ayovi who was able to beat Tim Ream to the ball and head home the game’s only goal. This positioning mistake by Ream was just another to be added to the list since he has joined the USMNT as a squad member.
So as the United States suffered yet another defeat, these first five matches should serve as a bit of a wakeup call to American fans. While Ecuador may not be a team to be trifled with having made two of the last three World Cups, the USMNT is not seeing the results that fans have come to expect of him. With no competitive matches until World Cup qualifying begins in June, Klinsmann still has some time to find his preferred tactics, but what those tactics are going to be remains a question.
One common thread between the friendlies is that the USMNT looks to attack from the opening whistle, which has yielded a number of scoring chances early in matches, but as opposition adapts and begins to absorb the attack, the US has looked unable to cope. The American attack under Klinsmann pushes higher up the field than under Bradley, but it leaves them vulnerable to counterattacks and has only seen the US score two goals in total.
The midfield in the last two matches was anchored by Kyle Beckerman who covered ground well, but his passing left a lot to be desired, the same can be said for Maurice Edu who had a poor first half performance yesterday. Beckerman anchoring the midfield makes sense if America would be playing in a major competition this coming summer, but the Real Salt Lake captain will be 32 when the USMNT travels to Brazil in 2014.
This stretch of friendlies seems like it should be the perfect opportunity for Klinsmann to give playing time to the younger squad members in hopes that they can come together as a unit. As much of a treat it is for MLS fans to see Kyle Beckerman or former LA Galaxy striker Edson Buddle take the field for the USA, in the long run it doesn’t serve much of a purpose as both are not likely to feature in upcoming major competitions.
Something that has become increasingly apparent under Jurgen Klinsmann is that he is dealing with a major obstacle that no other nation is dealing with. American collegiate soccer is that obstacle and it is likely the leading factor contributing to the long-term underachievement of the USMNT. While the rest of the world’s 18-23 year old footballers are playing professionally, American players compete in leagues that are largely poorly coached, poorly attended, and players are compensated only with a college scholarship. While US Soccer does its best to find the most talented youth players and train them accordingly, this gap in development clearly shows why the USA can boast the world’s leading youth soccer programs, but fall far behind when it comes to the senior squad’s success. Hopefully Jurgen will be able to create new ways for some of the 18 million youth player to break through.