How do you solve the enigma wrapped in a puzzle that is the U.S. Men’s National Team? With two opposite coaches in pedigree, style, and almost everything else, neither Jurgen Klinsmann or Bruce Arena 2.0 have this side playing consistent, quality football. That leaves one of the few countries to qualify for every World Cup since 1990 on the edge of potentially not qualifying from one of the weakest CONCACAF hexagonals in years. With the switch of coaches and mentality, repeated failure has to have another cause. So at this point it is fair to point at the players consistently called up for matches and say they are not good enough, correct?
Ask me again in two months.
For the moment, let’s look at this weekend’s two qualifying matches to see what are the common factors in the U.S’s failure to secure – or at least feel secure – in qualifying for Russia 2018. The two matches were quite different: hosting Costa Rica (a CONCACAF power at this point) just outside of New York City and travelling to Honduras. The matches offered a prime opportunity to seize an automatic spot from the region but both had trip points that meant the U.S. had to come prepared to play to actually get their three points.
The beauty of Costa Rica is their consistency. They do two things in almost every match: they start Bryan Ruiz and they play a 5-4-1. Both consistently frustrated the U.S. and cause fans to question the “soccer IQ” of their manager. Last time these two sides met in a match that mattered, Costa Rica pummelled the U.S. so badly that Klinsmann was actually sacked. What stood out in that match was how terribly overrun the U.S. midfield was, and their inability to maintain any semblance of reasonable possession. Most critics pointed to players playing out of their normal positions and the inability to create game plan that responded to what everyone knew would be Costa Rica’s game plan.
Fast forward to this past Saturday. Bruce Arena ran out a starting XI that on paper looked confusing and in execution was terrible. He responded to the 5-4-1 with a 4-4-2 and had Michael Bradley and Darlington Nagbe in the middle. Nagbe is a multi-talented player but the midfield four of Costa Rica physically bossed him all game, essentially eliminating him from the U.S. lineup when the Yanks had possession. Costa Rica pressed up the pitch, so the ball started in the backline, went to Michael Bradley who dropped very deep to start the play, then was turned over due to pressure or hoofed up the field to try and find U.S. players trying to run behind the defence. At times, the U.S. looked like it was playing with two separate sets of players with no linkage in the midfield. With Nagbe marked out and the two wings of Christian Pulisic and an out-of-form Fabian Johnson pushing forward, the U.S lacked the ability to string together passes and build pressure on the visitors. Add to the scenario the fact that the starting back four were abysmal as a unit by leaving tons of space for midfield runs, and the U.S. looked just as disjointed as the previous meeting (albeit with a more flattering scoreline).
Fast-forward to Tuesday. Bruce Arena was under some pressure after the embarrassment in New Jersey. He responded with wholesale personnel changes and switched to a more aggressive 4-2-3-1 to start. Why then did the U.S. struggle again and look until late in the match like they would drop a second straight match? One major key was who started. Among the players dropped from Friday night were Geoff Cameron and Bobby Wood. Cameron had a putrid night Friday but it was a rare dud in an overall solid USMNT career. With John Brooks injured, Cameron was the most dependable defensive option. Bobby Wood had played decently Friday and suffered mainly from the lack of service. He unspectacular play and rust compared with some of his teammates in MLS who are in late season form probably condemned him to the bench.
The centre back pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler was poor. From the start the two looked out of sync and Gonzalez had to rely on his physical talents too often to make up for poor positioning. In the second half, Cameron came on and Arena switched to a back three which not surprisingly worked better with the steadier Cameron in there. As for Wood – the scorer of the goal that may have saved the U.S. – his spark was immediately apparent as his entrance pushed Clint Dempsey to a more attacking midfield role and moved Jordan Morris wider in support.
Did these substitutions show a tactical genius to Bruce Arena? Or an adjustment to the poor starting XI of this match? The answer is hard to define as the truth is this core of players has underperformed this cycle under two managers. As formations have switched and players are moved like Claudio Ranieri playing Football Manager, there is a lack of consistency and understanding by the players on this team who they are on the pitch as a unit and where they should play. This can in part be attributed to the previous coach’s inability to find a promised America style, but it is also on an underwhelming pool of players who for the most part have failed to secure their position on the pitch. Overall play is poor enough that constant tinkering is needed to find the right formula to meet the goal – World Cup qualification. The U.S. needs to learn from Costa Rica – find a system and fit your players into it. The combination of a future in the air for the “America style” plus weakened player pool means the U.S. will have to keep tinkering. As it does so though it fails to create a consistency its successful rivals have that meets the goal of qualification plus. The Yanks need to have their actions meet their rhetoric and find some consistency before it is too late.