Posted February 08, 2014

Lessons learned: Plenty to glean from USA’s Jan. camp despite limitations

2014 World Cup, Aron Johannsson, Bob Bradley, Brian Straus, Clint Dempsey, Fabian Johnson, Graham Zusi, Jermaine Jones, Jozy Altidore, Jurgen Klinsmann, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, U.S. men's national team, U.S. Soccer
Landon Donovan

Landon Donovan captained the USA against South Korea. (Gus Ruelas/AP)

Landon the leader

Saturday’s game represented pretty strong evidence that Klinsmann no longer has any questions about Donovan’s commitment or potential contribution. The program’s all-time leading scorer helped set up both goals and was the most consistently dangerous player on the StubHub Center field. Perhaps more importantly, Donovan captained the U.S. for the first time in nearly three years. The malaise that led to last year’s sabbatical appears to be forgotten.

“It was [important]. It was very nice. I really enjoyed it,” Donovan said of the captaincy. “I liked being a part of this group a lot this month – a lot of eager, excited players and I think I really took on the leadership in the right way and I wanted to do that. I was very honored to have the armband.”

In addition to embracing that role, Donovan also showed flashes of what he does best. Many of the Americans’ most dangerous attacking forays on Saturday seemed to start when Donovan collected the ball in space and had the opportunity to look up and run at the South Korean defense. See Wondolowski’s first goal, for example.

Former U.S. coach Bob Bradley rightly built his 2010 World Cup team around Donovan’s lethal control and composure on the counter. The 31-year-old might not possess the same sort of speed four years later, but those runs remain among the most potent weapons in Klinsmann’s arsenal. The U.S. would be well served finding ways to utilize it. Scoring goals isn’t always about patient build-up play.

“A lot of good things come from him being on the ball. Get him in that kind of withdrawn position, a lot of times is where he does a lot of his damage. He’s so good at running and going at defenses and then bringing in other players into the attack. So yeah, when he’s on the ball a lot of good things can happen,” Zusi said. “That was a big part of this camp, was not the side-to-side, build-up, build-up. It was about penetrating balls. When it happens like that it leads to a quick attack. Both our goals [against South Korea] came from just that.”

Style of play

Zusi’s comments hint that Klinsmann is finding a pragmatic balance between building a team that plays the proactive, stylish brand of soccer he prefers and recognizing the technical limitations of the current U.S. player pool.

There is no Xavi, Messi or Pirlo at the coach’s disposal and the Americans have had difficulty passing through the opposing midfield with consistency, especially when under duress.

Klinsmann was hired — and rewarded with a pre-World Cup, four-year contract extension — to mount an assault on the sport’s incumbent powers. To do that, he must spark an evolution at American soccer’s tactical and technical foundation and challenge all U.S. national teams to elevate their game, all while giving the senior squad the best chance to win on the day. As the World Cup approaches, Klinsmann is doing both as he focuses on building up from the back and on striking quick out of midfield.

“We really emphasized this camp in being confident in playing,” Donovan said. “Not just lumping the ball forward and hoping to see what happens. We wanted to take this opportunity in a friendly to be confident and try to play. We could go to Brazil and sit back for three games, for 90 minutes, and pray that we get results but that’s not how we’re going to progress as a soccer nation. So we’re going to go with the confidence to play.”

At the same time, as Zusi said, the U.S. often is more dangerous when the ball moves quickly into the attacking third. Whether it’s Donovan on the run or Altidore’s ability to win and then move the ball against an opposing back four, the Americans will score goals doing what they do best.

“A lot of the work we put in this camp was that first decisive ball into the forwards, or bypassing some of their midfielders and getting our midfielders beyond their midfielders and then getting the ball wide and attacking from the flanks,” the Sporting Kansas City star explained.

The U.S.defense, anchored by Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, did try to play smart, possession-oriented passes on numerous occasions despite the South Koreans’ high pressure. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but Klinsmann said last week that he prefers his defenders aim for a teammate rather than the unknown of an area far up the field.

“Maybe [there was] a long ball in between, but overall we wanted them just to become calm, to settle in the game and get balance and for the fact that it was their first [game this season], I think they looked pretty good,” Klinsmann said. “They will get smoother and smoother. They fine tune things every game and they’re getting their legs now.”

Those moments when it does work are critical, Donovan said. Every minute an opposing team chases is one that tests its shape and fitness and makes it more vulnerable to the attack.

“The modern game is such that, the more you have the ball, the more you can wear teams down,” he said. “It’s a lot more enjoyable to have the ball instead of defending 90 minutes. We’re evolving as a nation. That wouldn’t have happened five years ago even. So we’re getting better. We still have a lot of work to do, but it was good progress.”

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We will go nowhere with Donovan on the bench, rather than on the field.

Is Jermaine Jones overrated?


@DSM Agreed, the writer's notion that Donovan is competing for a starting spot is ludicrous. He is better than any of the "core" players mentioned, he plays well in big tournaments and against top teams, and he is the team's best player on either wing, best attacking mdfielder and best striker.

The only real problem I have with Jones is that he is going to get a red card during the World Cup and our team won't be good enough to overcome that.