Jurgen Klinsmann's United States team has struggled to score, a trend that has not gone unnoticed by observers. Questions about the possession-heavy system's ability to create chances at goal, conservative team selection, the search for strikers and compliments, or even heir apparents, to the aging Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan have floated around for months. But while the Americans' inability to put the ball in the goal grabs headlines, there is a growing problem in the U.S. defense.
Despite playing subpar competition, the U.S. has struggled to keep teams from getting chances, and goals. This despite the Americans finding Fabian Johnson, their first reliable left back in more than a decade, and the continued fine play of Steve Cherundolo. The goals keep coming and the defense keeps finding itself exposed, as much a cause of the Americans' struggles as the much more publicized attack.
Defending is not a new problem for the U.S. It has been one ever since October 2009, when Oguchi Onyewu crumbled to the RFK Stadium turf. His patellar tendon torn, Onyewu has never fully recovered. In his absence, the Americans' lack of depth at centerback has been exposed. Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Tim Ream, Michael Orozco Fiscal and Geoff Cameron have all gotten long looks alongside the aging and deteriorating Carlos Bocanegra, with only Cameron proving to be up to the task.
On a team that is very much the sum of its parts, the U.S. can't afford to be so sub-standard anywhere, let alone in the center of defense, which Bob Bradley learned the hard way. Bradley was fired after under the auspice of a lack of creativity and flair after a loss in the Gold Cup final, but Bradley was really sacked because dwindling results that were the the result of a porous defense. His final match exposed that as the U.S. conceded four times to Mexico, end his tenure and bringing about the Klinsmann era.
Klinsmann's possession-based system was touted as changing the American philosophy, but it was as much a way to compensate for the U.S. defense as it was to spur an attack in the short-term and revolution in the long-term. If the Americans could keep the ball, they would limit the exposure of their defense.
While a fine theory, Klinsmann's approach hasn't worked out so well. The defense has not just been bad under Klinsmann, but it has been even leakier than it was under Bradley's stewardship.
The U.S. has played six World Cup qualifiers, all apart of the semifinal round of qualifying, and they managed just one clean sheet against Jamaica, Guatemala and Antigua and Barbuda. Four years ago in the same round of qualifying, the U.S. kept Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala and Cuba scoreless in each of their first three semifinal qualifiers en route to four total for the round. That Bradley-led team allowed just three goals in the entire round, two of them in the same match with reserve players after already qualifying for the next round, while Klinsmann's squad allowed six in as many matches.
Of course, Bradley had a much more stable center back pairing to turn to in 2008 with a healthy Onyewu, but the U.S. defense was still better in its final days under Bradley than it has been under Klinsmann. The Americans surrendered six goals in six 2011 Gold Cup matches, equal to the number that Klinsmann's team gave up in the semifinal round of qualifying, but the Gold Cup team did it against much tougher competition, with four of those six goals conceded coming against Mexico. Moreover, the U.S. still managed to keep four clean sheets in that Gold Cup, a defensive mark Klinsmann's squad is still searching for.
It isn't as if Klinsmann didn't know he had a problem in defense, specifically central defense, long before World Cup qualifying started. He knew it as soon as he took over the job, but he failed to identify his central defenders for the future despite a slew of friendlies to work through growing pains. Instead, Orozco Fiscal and Ream continued to get looks as Klinsmann hoped and wished they would come good to no avail.
Only now has Klinsmann identified one of his new central defenders, turning to Cameron. But even Cameron's rise came late, months after he made his case with a fine 2011 season in MLS and a strong January camp. As recently as May, Onyewu was getting matches for the national team despite three years of evidence that his form was anything but international caliber. Meanwhile, Cameron sat on the bench and watched.
At least in the short-term, Klinsmann appears to have found his first choice back line. Johnson is his left back and Bocanegra and Cameron pair in the center. The only question is at right back, where Cherundolo is the incumbent, but Timothy Chandler can give him a run if he commits to the U.S.
That back line still has its issues, though. Be it Bocanegra's age, Cameron not playing center back for Stoke or the lack of time the two have spent playing together, the U.S. defense hasn't quite settled yet. Carlos Ruiz's early goal for Guatemala in last month's qualidier proved that as Bocanegra and Cameron lost their shape and kept the striker onside to trot in at goal for the simple finish.
Against Russia on Wednesday, all eyes will be on defense. Friendly results don't matter, as Klinsmann was quick to say when the team as searching for wins at the beginning of his tenure, and was proven when the defense that shut out Italy and Mexico failed to show in qualifying. But friendlies are not meaningless altogether. They provide an opportunity for players and units to grow, which is what the U.S. defense has to do in Krasnodar.
Klinsmann is clearly looking at the trip to Russia as a chance for the U.S. defense to sort out its kinks. While he was experimental in his midfielder and forward choices, he picked nearly all of his best defenders. The defense needs time together and that is what they will get against Russia. It is time they have to make count, too, because this is their last time together before the Hex begins in February.
The U.S. barely avoiding elimination in the semifinal round, as their defense faced every ill the attack did and then some. In the Hex, the competition will only get stiffer and the attacks more fierce. The defending that was good enough to get by in 2012 won't be good enough in 2013. The Americans have to get better, and it starts in defense.