Klinsmann formation blunder hurt U.S. vs. Mexico, but there were positives
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Angry. Upset. Disappointed. Frustrated.
Those were the adjectives used by U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his team Friday after the Americans lost 2-1 to Mexico, and for good reason.
The players had every right to be distressed by Klinsmann's overthought and ultimately unsuccessful decision to employ a 3-5-2 formation -- one they had rarely, if ever, used during his five-plus years at the helm.
Meanwhile, one can also understand how the manager might be miffed after his defenders left Rafael Marquez alone to nod home the winner -- from a corner kick, no less -- in the dying seconds of a match they'd eventually grabbed by the scruff of the neck after mercifully switching back to their traditional 4-4-2 alignment.
The defeat leaves the U.S. in real danger of starting the 10-game Hexagonal with two consecutive setbacks; the Yanks face a daunting test on Tuesday in Costa Rica, where they have a dismal record of zero wins, one draw and eight defeats in nine qualifiers.
Yet however disheartening Friday's result was for the hosts -- it was the national team's first home qualifying loss in 15 years (a span of 30 games) and its first to southern neighbor El Tri since 1972 -- there's also legitimate cause for optimism.
"In the second half we went to something we were more familiar with, and we dominated the game," said forward Jozy Altidore, who set up strike partner Bobby Wood's goal just after the break, which cancelled out Miguel Layun's 20th-minute opener. "We have a young team and a lot of talented guys that will learn from tonight and move forward."
Chief among the up-and-comers is 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder Christian Pulisic, who repeatedly dazzled the capacity crowd of almost 25,000 with his silky skills and fleet feet.
Pulisic began the game playing centrally behind front-runners Altidore and Wood, and then moved to the left wing -- the spot he usually plays for Dortmund -- when Klinsmann made the tactical switch. Wherever Pulisic was, he drew the attention of Mexican defenders, beating them off the dribble almost as often as not.
"I thought Christian handled it very well," Klinsmann said. "He's trying to find his openings, find some areas where he can explode and take people on."
Wood also continued to show his quality, and not just on his well-taken finish. The 23-year-old enjoyed perhaps his best game for the U.S. and was a little unlucky not to score a second when, after a brilliant turn, his goal-bound shot was stopped by Mexico keeper Alfredo Talavera.
Still, the Hamburg player's touch, hold-up play and clever decision-making were plain to see -- Wood was named the Americans' man of the match -- and he will only improve as he matures.
Elsewhere, full-back Timmy Chandler settled down and had a solid match after a shaky start, which was mostly the result of Mexico flooding his right side with numbers, which pinned him in his own end early on.
And Matt Besler turned in another credible shift at left-back after the formation switch, a spot he'd never really played before filling in for one match during June's Copa America Centenario.
If Besler can make the position his own -- his next chance could come as soon as Tuesday in the Costa Rica capital of San Jose -- it would enable Klinsmann to deploy the more attack-minded Fabian Johnson further up the field.
On the whole, though, Friday's contest served as a reminder to Klinsmann that his team performs its best when it knows exactly what to expect.
"I would not say we were not comfortable with it," Jermaine Jones said of his coach's latest experiment, noting that it had worked well in training earlier in the week. "Sometimes you have to try something. But then in the second half I think you saw that we were on their toes and we almost scored the second."
Klinsmann admitted as much afterward himself: "It took us a while to get into the game. We switched back to 4-4-2 after a little bit to correct some things because in the beginning our midfielders didn't get into the one-on-one battles that we expected them to get into."
Only time will tell if he will stop tinkering unnecessarily and stick with what's proven to work, and that goes for Tuesday's encounter at Estadio Nacional as well as the eight matches that will follow when the Hex resumes next March.
If it does, that would be the biggest silver lining of all from the latest Columbus Clasico.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.