USMNT: November Rain

It's OK, DaMarcus. We all have the occasional stumble. (photo: mlssoccer.com)

It’s OK, DaMarcus, we all stumble occasionally. (photo: mlssoccer.com)

USMNT closed out 2013 with two games, one loss and no goals. OTF’s Austin Fido pans for gold in the November sludge… 

Always leave them wanting more: an adage of showbiz, unexpectedly appropriated by USMNT for their November friendlies. Of course, the phrase is generally interpreted as an urge to performers to finish on a high note, rather than the drab displays offered by the Yanks on two Fall evenings in Europe. But Jurgen Klinsmann is working in his second (or third…or fourth) language, so forgive him for losing a little nuance in translation.

The teams flying the Stars and Stripes in Glasgow and Vienna played mostly uninspiring football, unquestionably leaving their fans wanting more — albeit for the wrong reasons. What counts, however, is that USMNT wrapped up a successful year (World Cup qualification; Gold Cup champions; free-scoring wins over Bosnia-Herzegovina and Germany) by deftly avoiding any accusation of peaking too soon.

The 0-0 with Scotland saw the Yanks too easily sucked into to playing at the opposition’s tempo, while the 0-1 loss to Austria exposed a lack of confidence in the final third which would be alarming were the World Cup not more than six months away.

Fortunately, there are many reasons to believe USMNT capable of more than was offered in November. Foremost, the squad which traveled to play Scotland and Austria was absent its primary attacking threats: Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan. Klinsi’s beloved 4-2-3-1 makes a great deal of sense when one considers how to combine the particular talents of those men with the passing range of Michael Bradley and the best center forward in the player pool, Jozy Altidore. Unfortunately, Jurgie hasn’t yet been able to play his star quartet in his preferred tactic, a fact which makes his persistence with the formation appear more utopian than utilitarian. Still, its benefits — abundant possession — were evident in both matches, while the weaknesses (tellingly illustrated by the lack of goals on the American side of either scoreline) may be attributed to lack of appropriate personnel.

This is not to suggest that USMNT cannot win without Dempsey or Donovan. The team’s most thrilling victory of 2013, 4-3 over Bosnia, was achieved without either, but it was also owed to a different formation: 4-4-2. Klinsi is certainly mindful of this: as in Sarajevo, he switched the lineup to 4-4-2 in the interest of encouraging more direct play in the latter stages of each of the most recent games. This time, the changes did not bring the decisive resurgence witnessed in August, but the team was similarly transformed, appearing almost instantly more threatening than it had under the 4-2-3-1.

In part, the late-game improvement in either match could be chalked down to the players, not the tactics. Aron Johannsson and Brek Shea posed a much greater challenge to the Scottish defense than Eddie Johnson and Sacha Kljestan; but they were rewarded for their efforts in Glasgow with starts against Austria, and both ‘Bama Ice and Shea were relatively anonymous when asked to work in the 4-2-3-1. As such, it seems unfair to try to pin the blame for this underwhelming end to a banner year on any individual.

Absent Dempsey or Donovan, all the players appear to struggle to shine in the 4-2-3-1. Yes, the games demonstrated there isn’t a tactical plan in all creation which can turn Eddie Johnson into an international-class left winger — but we must have suspected as much prior to these matches. Sure, John Brooks could have done better than to squint helplessly at the cross Marc Janko turned into Austria’s goal — but he is 20, and still developing as a player, let alone a national team starter. Certainly, Brad Evans remains a work in progress as a right back, but…actually, that point is well made.

Contrary to popular belief, they don't all count. (photo: the guardian.com)

Contrary to popular belief, they don’t all count. (photo: the guardian.com)

If there is any USMNT player who can look back on the forgettable November fixtures with satisfaction, it is Geoff Cameron. Prior to these matches, he appeared doomed to travel to Brazil as a utility man: first reserve to Jermaine Jones in midfield, or a replacement for whichever part of the Matt Besler-Omar Gonzalez center back pairing might not be functioning adequately. Indeed, he played the role — lining up next to Gonzalez in Besler’s absence — to perfection against Scotland, while Evans labored on the right side of defense.

Klinsi has turned DaMarcus Beasley into his starting left back with such blinkered determination that it seems foolhardy to suggest he may be second-guessing himself with regard to the Evans experiment. Nonetheless, Cameron’s performance at right back against Austria was one of the better, if not the best, USMNT shift in that position this year, regardless of whether his goal-bound header crossed the line. Not stellar, but good enough to warrant consideration for another start.

A start that won’t come during the January training camp (a hastily scheduled friendly against Canada is not inevitable, but would not be surprising), since Cameron will be preoccupied with his obligations to Stoke City in the English Premier League. So we will have to wait until the March 2014 international break to see just how effectively he made his case this November.

And if Klinsmann has finally scratched the itch on the right side of his defense, he will justifiably be pleased with his goalless, winless, 2013 finale. 

OTF’s Austin Fido isn’t always on Twitter, but when he is, he’s @canetop. Follow him.

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