Lessons learned: Plenty to glean from USA’s Jan. camp despite limitations
CARSON, Calif. – The U.S. national team’s January camp featured a 12-day stay in São Paulo, closed practices in Los Angeles and a climactic friendly that amounted to a match between a U.S.-eligible MLS all-star squad and their K League counterparts.
How much could one possibly learn about Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup plans from that limited roster and limited opportunity to observe?
Quite a bit, it turns out.
Here’s what we think we know following the Americans’ 2-0 win over South Korea on Saturday:
A core is in place
Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey have scored a combined eight goals over the past six months. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones have joined new clubs during the winter before the World Cup – both in leagues considered by many to be a “step down” from those of their former employers. And questions remain about whether the two robust central midfielders are genuinely compatible.
Yet those four players, along with goalkeeper Tim Howard, represent the U.S. core, Klinsmann confirmed Saturday. The manager has unwavering faith in them, even though they all have plenty of work to do before the U.S. meets Ghana in Natal. It’s also now pretty clear that the manager has settled on a 4-2-3-1 alignment, at least at kickoff.
“I think Jozy, he’s keeping his playing rhythm [at Sunderland] and the quality he has, [he’s] our No. 1 center forward that we have. And Clint is the player behind him,” Klinsmann said. “We often talk about the spine of our team, which starts with Timmy and goes through midfield with Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley and then Clint and Jozy. I think this is something to build around.”
Klinsmann has built considerable depth throughout the squad and tried players in a multitude of spots. That has strengthened the team’s versatility but opened the door to so many permutations that it becomes more difficult to determine the ideal lineup.
Might Dempsey be more effective closer to goal? Could Landon Donovan play underneath the lead striker, as he did on Saturday? What about the shifty and clinical Aron Johannsson as a second forward? Would the midfield feel more organized with a stay-at-home defender/distributor like Kyle Beckerman rather than a pair of box-to-box rovers like Bradley and Jones?
Klinsmann appears to have answered those questions.
That “spine” pushes Donovan out to the flank, where some figure he’ll be competing with Graham Zusi for a starting spot. Both Donovan and Klinsmann were asked about that potential scenario during camp and each shot it down, paving the way for the South Korea match, at which the pair took the field together for the only the second time. Naturally, they played a role in both goals scored by Chris Wondolowski.
“Both can play either side, so your can play them both, or you can decide to play somebody else on one side, then they compete for the same spot,” Klinsmann said. “Obviously once Clint and Jozy [are leading the attack from the middle], then it might go to the left or to the right.”
Donovan is better running at the heart of a defense and Zusi is a superior crosser, meaning that the L.A. Galaxy veteran very well could start on the left side at his fourth World Cup. That would push Fabian Johnson to left back, leaving Klinsmann to decide on his central defensive pairing and his right back. Or, Johnson could play in midfield and either Donovan or Zusi would sit.
Form and injury are always unpredictable and there are still a host of combinations to sort through, but it appears Klinsmann at least is starting to narrow them down.
“I don’t think you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to scoring goals,” Zusi said. “A lot of the World Cup is who’s hot at the moment. I think it’s a good thing that we have so many options and so many guys are doing well for us. As far as I’m concerned, that’s fantastic.”