Jurgen Klinsmann still has U.S. issues despite win over Guatemala
The U.S. men's national team can breathe easier now.
A World Cup qualifying campaign that was threatening to veer off course is now back on track, thanks to a 4-0 walloping of Guatemala. In fact, a U.S. win against St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Sept. 2 combined with a home win by Trinidad & Tobago over Guatemala could see the Americans wrap up progression to the Hexagonal with a game to spare.
Such was the level of the Americans' dominance on Tuesday that it's a wonder just how they managed to lose to Los Chapines on Friday. But if these past two games have revealed anything about the U.S. it's that there are still questions to be answered.
This summer's Copa America -- with a minimum of three games against Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay -- should provide some opportunity to resolve some of these issues, as will the last two World Cup qualifiers.
Here are five pressing issues Klinsmann needs to sort out in the coming months.
1. Identify and expand the core
With Klinsmann coming under fire for changing his lineups (80 different incarnations in 82 games, according to U.S. Soccer), the coach went on something of a counteroffensive following Tuesday's match. It was pointed out that predecessor Bob Bradley used 77 different lineups in 80 games, with Bruce Arena utilizing 129 in 130 before that.
The numbers obscure a deeper issue, however. It's perhaps telling that Bradley's core group, the players who were the backbone of his side, can be recalled without too much difficulty. Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Steve Cherundolo, Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey were constants during the 2010 cycle. Some combination of Brian Ching, Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore logged considerable minutes up top.
Klinsmann's core group looks and feels much thinner. You have Bradley, Dempsey and now Geoff Cameron in the mainstay category, but caveats are attached to others. Fabian Johnson can be considered for membership, that is when he's not injured or in Klinsmann's doghouse. Jermaine Jones also qualifies, though his advancing age raises the question of for how much longer. Altidore has struggled to shake the injury bug as well. Gyasi Zardes has logged plenty of minutes, but still doesn't seem like a long-term answer in midfield.
Changes to the lineup are inevitable due to suspension, health and form. But the cohesiveness needed on the field requires a reliance on a group of players deemed essential to success.
Klinsmann needs to accelerate the formation of that group.
2. Find a consistent center-back pairing
Tuesday's central duo of Cameron and Steve Birnbaum acquitted itself well. Both players were commanding in the back and efficient with their passing. But the match was also witness to a rather eyebrow-raising stat. Birnbaum is the fifth center-back that Klinsmann has used so far in just four World Cup qualifiers. He used three -- Bocanegra, Clarence Goodson and Cameron -- during the entire semifinal round four years ago.
Granted, some of this is injury induced with Matt Besler being ruled out for both Guatemala games because of a concussion. But John Brooks, another injured center-back who Klinsmann said last week is his No. 1 choice at the position, has yet to make an appearance during this qualifying round, so injuries don't entirely explain the turnover in the center of defense.
On days when a team struggles, especially during road qualifiers, chemistry in the back can go a long way toward allowing a team to accumulate points when it otherwise shouldn't. But Klinsmann seems a ways away from achieving that. If Brooks, when healthy, is filling one spot, who takes the other? Cameron would seem the logical choice, but the amount of time they've spent playing together seems minimal. It's something Klinsmann should aim to rectify this summer.
3. The midfield configuration
The U.S. once again benefited from having Kyle Beckerman in the lineup as a dedicated holding midfielder. He broke up plays, initiated attacks and generally provided a security blanket for both Bradley and Graham Zusi to push forward and press the Guatemalan midfielders.
But what Klinsmann will do going forward in terms of his midfield alignment is anybody's guess. Jones' ongoing suspension will be well over by the time the Copa America comes around. He is a Klinsmann favorite so he could easily slide into Zusi's spot.
But against the better teams in CONCACAF and elsewhere, the U.S. has tended to play better with a two-forward system. What then? Earlier in qualifying, Bradley and Jones occupied the middle, but the question of which player occupies Beckerman's role comes to the forefront in that neither player -- Jones in particular -- seems inclined to take it up.
Klinsmann could play all three in a 4-4-2 as he did at the 2014 World Cup. Another mild wrinkle is Bradley's upcoming suspension for the game against St. Vincent because of yellow card accumulation. But Klinsmann will need to at least identify a Plan A for how he wants his midfielders to be deployed.
4. Maintain the aggressive mentality
The Guatemala game was noteworthy for the way the U.S. imposed itself from the outset, pressing the opponent high up the field and forcing a slew of wayward passes. It raises the question of why it took a backs-to-the-wall type of scenario to play with urgency and aggression.
Granted, against the kind of highly skilled teams the U.S. will face this summer at the Copa America, it's important to pick spots in terms of where and when to press. But the mentality that was evident on Tuesday needs to be present on a more consistent basis. It's when the U.S. team plays its best. You would hope that will be the case when World Cup qualifying resumes in September.
5. Resolve the goalkeeping situation
For the same reason that Klinsmann needs to settle on his center-back options, he needs to do the same with his goalkeeper. It helps develop familiarity in a critical part of the field.
In terms of the competition between Howard and Brad Guzan, the latter came out of these two games in better shape, though to be fair, the U.S. played far better on Tuesday than it did in front of Howard on Friday. And with Guzan a far more likely bet than Howard to get playing time down the stretch at club level, it stands to reason he would take the lead in the race to be the starting goalkeeper.
Yet Klinsmann seems to have a greater amount of faith in Howard. Perhaps Howard's exploits during the previous cycle and at the World Cup weigh heavier. So far in this round of qualifying, it is Howard who has been handed the tougher road assignments while Guzan has played in both home matches. Club form hasn't seemed to matter.
That could change, of course. Howard is practically guaranteed to get playing time when he completes his move to the Colorado Rapids, while Aston Villa's looming relegation from the Premier League makes it unclear what lies in store for Guzan. Either way, the sooner Klinsmann makes a decision, the sooner some cohesion can be developed.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.