My Kingdom for a True Left Back
Klinsmann wouldn't be Klinsmann if he didn't leave us scratching our heads about his starting left back. We knew the options for Friday were very limited once the roster was unveiled, with DeAndre Yedlin the only player called in who actually plays fullback at the club level. The obvious choice on the left side would have been Fabian Johnson. Instead, it was FC Dallas midfielder Kellyn Acosta getting the start.
Granted, the position shift wasn't totally out of the blue for Acosta at the international level. He'd played there often for the U.S. U-20s as well as during Olympic Qualifying. Listed as a defender on the current roster, we knew Klinsmann's intent. And Acosta did fine vs. St. Vincent. It was a fairly low-risk assignment against the Caribbean minnows. He was perfectly adequate defensively and showed his ability to get forward here and there. But this was an occasion where it seemed apparent that the best possible XI would feature Johnson at LB, allowing another strong attacking midfielder on the pitch. Fabian is a better winger than a fullback, but the USMNT lineup is stronger overall with him pushed back.
Maybe Acosta will find that left back is his true calling and Klinsmann will be proven a genius. It's a bit of a USMNT tradition after all, converting midfielders into left backs. From DaMarcus Beasley to Jose Torres to Brek Shea to Johnson to Acosta, we're used to these experiments. For whatever his reasons, Klinsmann doesn't find the current crop of club-level fullbacks to his liking. Eric Lichaj failed to impress enough for a return call. Injuries have plagued the promising Greg Garza, and what does Jorge Villafaña have to do for a call-up? This is life under Klinsmann, for better or for worse.
Kicking Down The Door
So here's how it's going to work. Christian Pulisic isn't going to wait patiently while Jurgen Klinsmann gently eases him into senior team minutes over the next couple of years. Christian Pulisic is going to force his way into the lineup, with his play, NOW. Yesterday. Every time he takes the field. He's going to do great things every time he plays, and Klinsmann is going to be left with no choice. The kid is ready and he belongs in the lineup.
On Friday vs. St Vincent, Pulisic got a run-out of about 25 minutes, his 7th appearance with the USMNT. And once again, he was brilliant. He scored his second international goal just 5 minutes after entering the game, making a smart run found by Sacha Kljestan and put home with a clean finish into the corner.
GOOOOOAAAAL!@cpulisic_10 nets a fourth for @ussoccer. 0-4. #Russia2018 https://t.co/ZciAVHb7o0— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) September 2, 2016
In stoppage time, Pulisic would make it a brace on the day, getting open at the top of the box, and calmly passing the ball inside the far post under defensive pressure. It was a goal borne of maturity and professionalism. Yet it came off the foot of a player who still doesn't turn 18 for another two weeks.
GOOOOAAAAL!!@cpulisic_10 with a brace and @ussoccer's sixth. Game ends! 0-6 #Russia2018 https://t.co/eQiiuof1Zy— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) September 2, 2016
Oh, and in between, he added an assist on Kljestan's 78th minute goal for good measure.
It won't be long before Christian Pulisic claims a spot in Klinsmann's XI. His play will insist upon it.
Are We There Yet? Are We There Yet?
Almost. Almost certainly. But not *quite* officially.
Four countries have officially booked trips into The Hex: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, and Trinidad & Tobago. The United States joining them appears a mere formality now. The only scenario in which the U.S. would not advance would be if ALL of the following occur:
- United States loss vs Trinidad & Tobago
- Guatemala win vs. St Vincent
- Guatemala overturns goal differential of -12
Simply put, that isn't happening. The U.S. will advance.
So what now?
Klinsmann indicated earlier this week that if the U.S. had already clinched advancement, that some of the younger players on the roster would get opportunities. How does he approach this particular scenario of "thru but not 100.0% thru?" Rubio Rubin, Paul Arriola, and Caleb Stanko are waiting in the wings. Jordan Morris and Pulisic could earn extended minutes. Darlington Nagbe didn't play on Friday.
Compounding the decision will be the unforeseen absences of DeAndre Yedlin and Matt Besler. Yedlin is suspended for the match after receiving a yellow card on Friday. Matt Besler has left the team following the birth of his daughter early Friday morning. Michael Bradley also returns from suspension and figures to get the start.
There's also the intriguing aspect that finishing 2nd in the group may actually be preferable. The group winner will open The Hex with two difficult opponents in November: home 11/11 vs Mexico, then away 11/15 vs. (probably) Costa Rica. Yet Klinsmann has said he wants to win the group, and I take him at his word. But hey, if the U.S. played to a draw on Tuesday, avoiding Mexico in the opening game wouldn't be the worst thing to happen.
Put the kids out there, Jürgen. It's a perfect opportunity to do so, really. It's a game that technically matters, but matters so little that the risk is almost nonexistent. Make it happen.