The U.S. men’s national team is still a Route 1 team, even if it doesn’t want to be

The United States scored a goal! It was on a long diagonal to Jozy Altidore, who ran onto it, shook off a defender and ripped the ball past the goalkeeper.

The United States scored again! It was on a long diagonal to Altidore, who ran onto it, brought it down and squared it for Aron Johannsson to tap in.

Both goals were pretty, well done and showed some nice technique and speed from the Americans in the middle of the pitch and up top. Both goals were also the result of very direct play, which the U.S. has come to rely on almost exclusively for competent attacking.

This is the same U.S. team that Jurgen Klinsmann promised would emphasize playing the ball out of the back. That it would be more skillful and depend on its midfield. The Americans would string together passes, even keep possession sometimes and, more than anything else, be proactive.

About that … none of it is happening. Every attempt to play the ball out of the back results in turnovers and scoring chances. When they try to make 11 or 12 passes to push the ball forward, they normally give the ball away at pass No. 2 or 3. It just doesn’t work.

But the long ball does. We saw it against Denmark. Instead of using Bradley as an attacking midfielder in an effort to be more fluid, he was deeper and pinging long balls. It worked for a goal, and his long ball play nearly worked on a set piece for a second goal. Timothy Chandler didn’t get way up field on one occasion and played a long ball for the Americans’ first goal. Altidore got to use his size and speed, while Johannsson lurked around off of him, trying to get onto second balls.

After more than three years of Klinsmann, and with the Gold Cup just four months away, the U.S. is still a long ball team. They are still best when they are playing directly and utilizing their athleticism. That is how they cause other teams problems. It’s that and set pieces.

Moreover, trying to play another way hasn’t just been unsuccessful, it’s been downright dangerous. They concede so many chances because of bad giveaways and ruin their shape trying to recover from those giveaways. All the while, their talents are often being wasted as they are pigeonholed into a style of play that doesn’t suit them.

None of this is disastrous. Maybe Klinsmann thinks that the team just needs more work and more emphasis on a possession-based, high tempo system. Or maybe he’s going to push it as far as he can, knowing that he can always revert to a more conservative and direct style come a major competition, hoping that some of the skills from the team’s struggles help make them a little more varied. Either is possible. The only way the Americans might run into trouble is if they’re actually fully committed to building from the back, dictating tempo and not leaning on Route 1 soccer.

We don’t know where Klinsmann is taking the U.S. and whether there is reason to worry. What we do know is that right now, they are a better team when they play direct, no matter what more ambitious goals anyone may have for them.

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