Uh-oh. That sound you hear is the tension dial being turned to eleven. If you haven’t read it yet, go read Brian Straus’s piece in the Sporting News, where he details a litany of anecdotal angst from current anonymous national-teamers about Jurgen Klinsmann, JK’s coaching style, and the spirit in the team. It’s not a pretty picture.
Since the article came out, there’s been a lot of back-and-forth about whether or not the team is in crisis. Klinsmann haters have fodder for their hate, while others have tried to turn the blame back on the players. (For what it’s worth, Carlos Bocanegra backed Klinsmann via a Facebook post, and Michael Bradley has called the comments by his anonymous teammates “shameful” and “embarrassing,” according to Steven Goff of the Washington Post.)
Players chafe under new coaches, and change is hard, but the sheer number of comments Straus relates in his piece gives a lot of credence to the misgivings many have had regarding Klinsmann’s tenure as U.S. coach. While no one on the outside can know what the state of the team really is, it sure looks like a team in turmoil.
The only real way to know for sure is to see the team play. A win against Costa Rica tonight in Denver would go a long way toward quieting the critics. Anything less, and those alarm bells will just get louder.
When the U.S.A. lines up against Costa Rica today, it will be the 24th U.S. game Klinsmann has coached, and the 24th different lineup. The story is primarily one of injuries: Tim Howard is out with broken bones in his back. Fabian Johnson and Eddie Castillo are both out. Same for Steve Churundolo and Danny Williams. Landon Donovan, of course, is still on his “sabbatical.”
There is one absentee, though, who’s healthy and wants to be in camp, but didn’t get the call: Carlos Bocanegra. The long-time captain hasn’t been playing for his club team, Racing Santander, and was left home. While many, myself included, understood Bocanegra’s benching from a playing standpoint, it is still a shock for him not to be in the side at all. His leadership will be missed.
So, it’s time for the rest of the squad to step up. Brad Guzan, in particular, will be under pressure. In my preview of January’s friendly versus Canada, I said of Guzan that he is “serviceable, [but] has never established himself as a top keeper.” Since then, he’s gotten a lot of attention for some excellent displays as the first-choice keeper of a very young, and very porous, Aston Villa team. This might be his moment. Let’s hope he takes it.
Another player with an opportunity in front of him is newly-appointed captain Clint Dempsey. It was a bold choice by Klinsmann. The obvious pick, and very defensible, would have been Michael Bradley, who is arguably the U.S.’s most important player. Other reports had Jermaine Jones, a German-American and mainstay of Klinsmann’s teams, as the front-runner. But Klinsmann chose Nacogdoches’s finest.
None would deny that Deuce brings a lot to the table. He is fiery, fierce, combative, and ultra-competitive, and naming him captain is an assertion by Klinsmann that it is just that sort of fight that Klinsmann wants to see in all of the players wearing U.S. jerseys. I couldn’t agree more, but Dempsey will have to do more than play hard to be a good captain. He’ll have to lead.
The starting 11
First up for debate is who plays left back. With no Johnson or Castillo, and no Bocanegra either, some have speculated that Brek Shea might get the call. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s played the position, but with his healing foot not yet 100 percent, it seems unlikely he’ll get a start, let alone in a relatively unfamiliar role.
So who does that leave? Honestly, it’s unclear. Geoff Cameron played as an emergency left back for his club team Stoke City last weekend, and did well, but that’s just one game. (He generally plays at right back for Stoke.) DaMarcus Beasley has been recalled, and has played some spot left back in his career. However, I expect to see Justin Morrow get the start, despite his inexperience at international level. Morrow earned his first cap back in January against Canada.
In the middle of the defense, I think we’ll see Omar Gonzalez and Cameron paired up again, with Tony Beltran at right back. Beltran is another young, relatively inexperienced player, but unless Klinsmann pushes Cameron to right back, he’s the only obvious choice.
In front of them, I believe the front six will be Bradley, Jones, Graham Zusi, Herculez Gomez, Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore, in some combination. What shape they will take is harder to predict.
Costa Rica are not an historically powerful team in the region, but since failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the team has retooled and improved swiftly. They are unbeaten in their last nine games, their most recent loss a one–nil to Mexico, in Mexico, in September.
Costa Rica also boasts some fine attacking talent, in the form of Alvaro Saborio of Real Salt Lake, Bryan Ruiz of Fulham, and Arsenal’s Joel Campbell, who is on loan to Real Betis in Spain. Reports that Saborio wouldn’t be fit to play, due to a bruised knee, have been quashed, unfortunately.
Well, you all know me by now: I’m an optimist, and I think the U.S. will win, if for no other reason than they have to. Qualification out of the Hexagonal is all about winning your home games. If you can’t do that, you don’t have much chance.
Optimist or not, the back line, whatever it ends up being, will probably give up a goal. They simply have not had enough time together to be as coherent a unit as we would like. And with stand-in fullbacks, we’re unlikely to see the free-flowing overlap game that the U.S. employs when it’s clicking.
That said, there’s much to look forward to. Tickets for tonight’s game sold out in an hour, so the support will be raucous. The weather in Denver is forecast for a high of forty-six degrees and should be lower than that by game time, which favors the U.S. Also, our forwards are all in fine form, with Gomez and Altidore scoring at will for their club teams, and I think there are goals to be had.
How many? We’ll see, but I think the U.S. rights the ship tonight and calms a lot of frayed nerves. In the long run, no matter the result, the jury is still out on Jurgen Klinsmann, but for tonight, we all want the same thing, a U.S. win. My prediction: 3–1 to the home team.