USMNT: The Milkman Cometh

Sean Johnson's new summer home. (photo: soccerbyives.net)

Sean Johnson’s summer house. (photo: soccerbyives.net)

Sean Johnson’s Gold Cup debut was an unexpected tournament highlight for Fire fans. OTF’s Austin Fido takes a look at what the Milkman and friends delivered in Connecticut…

USMNT’s jubilant summer of soccer continued against Costa Rica in the final round of CONCACAF Gold Cup group play on Tuesday night. Surely, there are few perfect games, but the Yanks produced another perfect result. Their 1-0 win over Los Ticos makes it three for three (9 pts.) in the group.

Call it a B-team if you must, but this U.S. side must surely be acknowledged as favorites to win the tournament.

Certainly, you won’t hear Jürgen Klinsmann talking down the abilities of his players; it would be atrocious man-management. But interestingly enough, it’s not allowed. Consult paragraph 3, section XIII of CONCACAF’s regulations for Gold Cup 2013:

“A Member Association which has entered the competition shall not refer to its selection as an inferior selection publicly or in the print and/or electronic media.”

Unsurprisingly, Klinsmann tends to refer to whatever selection he has in mind as his “best team”, and there’s little to be gained from quibbling with what has become a stock response to a dumb question. Jürgie picks a team to win. The team wins.

‘Nuff said.

Get a room, fellas. (photo: lionofviennasuite.com)

Get a room, fellas. (photo: lionofviennasuite.com)

That doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises in each lineup though. This time around, Klinsi handed Sean Johnson his fourth cap, second start, and first competitive appearance for USMNT. What did the Fire man do? Hand back his second consecutive clean sheet in a U.S. kit (perhaps third if you count his half of a January 2012 friendly against Panama).

The Milkman’s time to shine came late in the game. A Costa Rica corner triggered a bullet header on goal, and Johnson’s agile block didn’t just stop a shot, it sparked the counterattack that won the match.

The ball bounced from Johnson’s save to the edge of the six-yard box, where Herculez Gomez sliced his clearance into a pair of advancing Ticos. On another day, that’s a disastrous mistake. Not this day.

A panicky moment of head tennis saw the ball pop out to Joe Corona, who found some space and launched a long pass down the line to Landon Donovan. The ball got one-touched behind a hastily retreating back line to Brek Shea, who squeezed his shot past the ‘keeper.

I wouldn’t rush to call Johnson’s save the best of the night though. Patrick Pemberton’s desperate one-handed thrash at Jose Torres’s 57th minute free kick was fantastic, yet also the product of his risky decision to offer Torres half the goal to hit if he could clear the wall. Pemberton gambled that his ability would be greater than that of the set-piece taker.

Patrick Pemberton: risk-taker. (photo: kirotv.com)

Patrick Pemberton: Risk-taker. (photo: kirotv.com)

The Milkman’s 82nd minute parry was, by contrast, a good save, but not outstanding. The reason is Johnson anticipated the threat posed by lurking Ticos at the far post. He positioned himself accordingly, and when the header came in, he was defending a very narrow window. That is not to diminish the U.S. ‘keeper’s reflexes, but to suggest his anticipation and positioning — the harder parts of goalkeeping — deserve greater credit. 

A clean sheet coupled with very few moments of anxiety bodes well for Sean Johnson’s future. He has staked a solid claim on fourth place in the USMNT’s goalkeeping depth chart (Howard, Guzan, Rimando, Johnson).

Overall, Tuesday’s was a solid performance in a match where both teams found it difficult to create clear chances. Los Ticos stacked the back and clogged the middle, and we found out Chris Wondolowski is not a true target forward.

This match represented a high-water mark for Klinsmann’s player pool management. For the second time this summer, he has quickly forged a cohesive, winning unit. Dating back to June 2nd, USMNT has won an unprecedented eight straight games. Furthermore, Klinsi has managed the last four games with a dizzying, last-minute-of-the-spin-cycle rotation policy that hasn’t given much away regarding his preferred selection and tactics for the next phase of the tournament.

Sure, we know Nick Rimando is really the starting ‘keeper, and we know DaMarcus Beasley is the starting left back. Landon Donovan has been ever-present (primarily in a central attacking role), and Michael Parkhurst looks likely to be first choice at right back for the rest of Gold Cup. Beyond that though, we’re basically discussing hunches.

Joe Corona tends to start, usually on the right, yet Alejandro Bedoya got the job against Costa Rica. Likewise, Jose Torres seems to be preferred on the left, but he’s only started twice in that role the past four games.

We also know Kyle Beckerman is dear to Klinsi’s heart, and the only true midfield anchorman in the squad. However, something moved the coach to take another look at the Stuart Holden-Mix Diskerud pairing against Los Ticos.

Herculez Gomez is considered a lock for Brazil, but Chris Wondolowski is scoring the goals and got the most recent start up top. Clarence Goodson and Oguchi Onweyu (the presumed favored center back pairing) haven’t been together at all in the Gold Cup.

This, of course, is what is meant by squad depth.

Tactics-wise, the team plays to the strengths of those on the field. If Shea’s hard-charging wide-play isn’t working out, Klinsi can switch to  Torres’s narrower, tidier approach, or vice versa.

Likewise, if Beckerman’s sensible holding work isn’t needed, Stuart Holden or Mix Diskerud can bring a more attack-minded sensibility to central midfield. Klinsmann’s nominal 4-2-3-1 line-up has proven sufficiently flexible to allow pretty much everyone used thus far to play his preferred game. 

Stuart Holden: playing without fear. (photo: newstimes.com)

Stuart Holden: Playing without fear. (photo: newstimes.com)

This tournament allows for four replacement players to be brought into the squad for the knockout rounds. Klinsi has said he will do so. As such, we can expect a few fresh faces accompanied by further speculation about the identity of the “best team” within the squad.

Klinsmann’s priority is to grow the definition of “best”: He wants as many players in the pool as possible to know the national team coach has confidence in his ability. From that, the coach can build a best team that isn’t in thrall to the vicissitudes of injury or form.

Costa Rica was the first big test of that confidence. Klinsi will be pleased with a narrow win over opponents who worked hard to isolate and neutralize USMNT’s key attacking weapons. More pleasing, he got it with a full shift from Holden, a goal from Shea, and a clean sheet from the Milkman.

USMNT’s World Cup squad options are growing with every Gold Cup tournament game, and that achievement will survive whatever its future rounds may hold.

OTF’s Austin Fido is learning to cope without Martinique in the Gold Cup. Follow the waning of his grief @canetop

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