The USMNT soundly defeated archrival Mexico 2-0 in Columbus, Ohio on Tuesday evening, ensuring its place in Brazil next year. The Americans’ depth was tested with stalwarts Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore out due to injury and suspension, respectively. Replacements Kyle Beckerman, often a target of derision in fan circles for his play in a national team shirt, and Eddie Johnson performed admirably, with Johnson scoring the game-winning goal early in the second half. This round of qualifiers resoundingly answered any questions about the team’s depth, but also posed potentially worrying questions about Klinsmann’s tactical decisions, at least in Costa Rica. With that said, nothing should detract from the team’s (emphasis added) seventh consecutive qualification for next year’s Finals (with two matches left to play, no less).
Friday night’s match in Costa Rica was always going to be difficult, and that was before midfield star Michael Bradley twisted his ankle during the pre-match warm-up. As discussed here last week, the Costa Rican’s were anxious to "repay" the Americans for, what was in their view, an unfair result in Colorado back in March. The finest examples of Costa Rican hospitality are demonstrated here. Losing Bradley, a cemented starter at AS Roma and widely considered the team’s most important player, was going to make getting a result away from home a very difficult task. Jurgen Klinsmann made achieving this goal no easier, however, when he opted to replace Bradley by moving presumed right back Geoff Cameron forward into a defensive midfield position, with center-back substitute Michael Orozco debuting at the right back position. Moreover, deploying Clint Dempsey as a lone forward in his 4-2-3-1 formation made even less sense.
Solidity at the back has been an important attribute of the UMSNT for a long time. Much of this strong play can be explained by American defenders’ physical superiority relative to that of the rest of CONCACAF’s forwards. The American backline has had imposing presences ranging from Alexi Lalas and Eddie Pope to Oguchi Onyewu (look no further than his infamous stare down of Jared Borgetti) and now Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler. That defensive solidity also relies upon consistent appearances and familiarity. One can reasonably suspect that, with Brad Evans out injured, Geoff Cameron spent most of last week in training deployed at right back, where he plays for his club, Stoke City. It is equally unlikely that Michael Orozco, who has only played at center back for the USMNT (although he does play at right back at club level, like Cameron), spent much time there in the build-up to Friday’s match. Cameron may be a Swiss-Army Knife-type player for the USMNT, but his best position Friday night was where had trained, and where common knowledge assumed he would be deployed: right back. Moving him forward into the midfield, and calling on Orozco on short notice, created a defensive line that lacked the requisite familiarity for such a difficult match. It showed, as the first 20 minutes of the match saw Costa Rica repeatedly bomb down the American right flank, leaving Orozco exposed. (Orozco did make one exceptional goal-saving play in the first half. Unfortunately, it was his one redeeming moment.) If the USMNT has depth in one area, it is the center of midfield. Why not bring in Kyle Beckerman, who acquitted himself well against Mexico? More importantly, why not call in reserve Michael Parkhurst at the outset, rather than waiting? Although Bradley’s injury left the team in an incredibly difficult position on short notice, one would hope (and honestly expect) Klinsmann to better prepare his roster both initially and, more importantly, going forward.
Klinsmann’s lineup issues were not limited to the backline Friday evening. Rather than deploying Eddie Johnson as a lone forward in his preferred 4-2-3-1, Klinsmann opted to play Clint Dempsey in that position, with recently-recalled Landon Donovan below him. Without belaboring the obvious, Dempsey is many things to the USMNT, but a lone-striker is not one of them. Dempsey struggled to sustain possession against Costa Rica’s three center backs, and ultimately Donovan and Dempsey switched positions, with Dempsey dropping into his more natural role in behind the striker. Again, why didn’t Klinsmann play Eddie Johnson there from kick-off? As Tuesday night showed, Johnson is capable of holding possession with his back to goal (or at least more capable of doing so than Dempsey or Donovan). Additionally, Johnson is crafty enough to operate in the channels of the offensive third when the situation calls for it. Perhaps an ideal "front four" in Costa Rica would have been Donovan, Dempsey, and one of Graham Zusi or Alejandro Bedoya, with Eddie Johnson operating above them. For some reason, it took until midway through the second half for Johnson to appear. No news of a niggling injury, like Jozy Altidore, appeared to prevent Johnson from playing 90 minutes in Costa Rica. If anything, his start against Mexico Tuesday night serves to disprove that theory. Klinsmann not only miscalculated his defensive line against Costa Rica, he made the exact same mistake offensively, forcing Dempsey to play out of position and rendering him largely anonymous (his goal on a penalty kick proved an exception).
There may be a temptation to excuse Klinsmann’s poor lineup choices Friday night with the abrupt nature of Michael Bradley’s absence. That temptation is understandable, but ultimately unacceptable for this team. The USMNT has plenty of depth at nearly every position at this stage of the World Cup Qualification process (left-back is notably absent from that discussion) and Klinsmann should have been more willing to give his reserves a chance to prove themselves rather than trying to force seemingly-established players into new positions. Certainly, the win against Mexico Tuesday night augments the existence of the team’s depth. But that begs the question: why didn’t Klinsmann use these players, particularly Eddie Johnson, earlier against Costa Rica? Although the team has cemented its place in Brazil next year, these questions will inevitably reappear between now and then. Let’s hope Klinsmann provides better answers, because there may not be a rebound game the next time around.