You might think that top of U.S. men’s national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s summer to-do list is identifying his top center back combination. Or you might suspect that his first priority over these next couple of weeks of the CONCACAF Gold Cup is building depth at striker. We all saw what happened when Jozy Altidore’s hamtring gave out last summer, right? Ooof.
Or perhaps the coach’s chief aim through July is to keep fiddling with the team’s midfield – to finally start building around his top asset, Michael Bradley, rather than asking the new U.S. captain to adapt to the needs of the moment. Or, maybe, just maybe this is written on Klinsmann’s wax board of top summer missions: “Figure out why I like Timothy Chandler so much!”
You might think those are the presiding charges through the next two Gold Cup group games before getting to the business end of this tournament, and you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. But you wouldn’t exactly be right, either.
His top task this summer is getting the larger, big picture personnel balance right, and he has to do so with the right timing, so that the U.S. can compete be in position to win that final Gold Cup game on July 26. It’s about tinkering just enough with an eye to the future … but then knowing when to get serious, pat the “kids” on the head and let the big, strong, first choices take over.
This a tournament where the front end is so reliably soft that he can afford to tinker without any real threat of consequence. Eight of 12 teams advance out of group play, which makes these early matches, taken individually, just a little bit more consequential than an intra-squad scrimmage behind the StubHub Center. “Let’s have some fun, boys! Loser buys lunch for the winners at Chipotle!”
To explore the conundrum, let’s examine the center back spot. John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado are almost surely not this land’s top central defensive tandem – not today, they aren’t. But perhaps Klinsmann has adjudged that Brooks and Alvarado (both just 22 years old) are the future, that they have the most upside-y upside of the central defenders in his squad. So Klinsmann starts the pair against Honduras and then plays the over-under game with his coaching staff on how many mistakes they’ll make.
And there were mistakes, as an occasionally over-eager Brooks got drawn out of position here and there. Once, as Alvarado hurried over for cover on Brooks’ abandoned side, the promising Club America man had a glaringly bad moment, deferring on a tackle as Carlos Discua danced around him and gave Brad Guzan no chance on Honduras’ lone goal. Everybody who saw that could only grimace at the collective U.S. back line breakdown.
But it was against Honduras. Catrachos manager Jorge Luis Pinto has a tough-minded, organized, ambitious team, one with a few really good parts. But he also has weak spots, too many places where the talent rates as “just OK” on its best day. Klinsmann and his coaches knew they would get enough from Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore or from one of Fabian Johnson’s surging runs, or whatever. Surely with the backing of a home crowd – yes, the balance tips to the Yankee side far more regularly these days – the United States would push a couple goals past Honduras.
Now, against Mexico later in the tourney? Or perhaps against the Ticos of Costa Rica, who were so surprising strong in last year’s World Cup? Hmmm.
So you see the issue. Klinsmann has to get these “upside” guys like Brooks, Alvarado, DeAndre Yedlin, Alfredo Morales and Aron Johannsson minutes and confidence and additional steeling while not permitting their inevitable goofs to crater the larger effort. He has to balance that promising talent with enough old hands to keep the Gold Cup ship steady. Games that get scrappy need a calming problem solver, like Bradley, or a Chris Wondolowski.
Klinsmann keeps saying the CONCACAF Gold Cup is important. But what he really means is something like this: the Gold Cup is important because it helps ensure a Confederations Cup berth that can then possibly, potentially, assist in … wait for it … the World Cup. Yes, if you follow the bouncing ball long enough it inexorably leads to the only competition that truly matters in our part of the world – the fabled and fabulous World Cup.
So it’s really about making the team better in the long run, which is brings us back to the tricky gymnastics of balance and timing. That’s why Kyle Beckerman started Tuesday against those feisty Catrachos. Beckerman has been a good and loyal soldier for Klinsmann, but he is 33 and probably a longshot to make the 2018 World Cup roster. On the other hand, the guy is dependable as the day is long in holding his defensive midfield positioning, which a pair of young center backs needed Tuesday outside of Dallas.
Something else to consider in the equation: Guzan was odd man out late in the season at Aston Villa, where manager Tim Sherwood still seems a few french fries short of a full Happy Meal when it comes to his belief America’s current No. 1. So Guzan’s confidence might understandably be at lower ebb. Klinsmann needed to blood Alvarado and Brooks, but needed enough protection so that Guzan wouldn’t be stranded too frequently.
All of that (center backs, holding mids, goalkeepers, etc.) is probably the best example of the interconnected elements of balance and timing at work – the critical recipe that Klinsmann needs to get right.
Klinsmann has run this race before; don’t forget about how he managed a similar balancing act at the 2013 Gold Cup. Klinsmann tossed the car keys to a few lesser-tested types before summoning Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson for the money rounds. By then, he had seen what he needed to see from guys like Wondolowski, Alejandro Bedoya and Clarence Goodson. (They weren’t young, exactly; rather, that was Klinsmann still learning the deeper ins and out of his player pool, still not yet two full years into the U.S. job.)
Will he strike the right balance Friday in Boston and next week in Kansas City and going forward from there? We’ll see. But do know this: Klinsmann has checked “been there, done that” on the Gold Cup now, and with that experience, it’s probably easier this time. Remember: In 2013, he had the additional drama and distraction of re-introducing Landon Donovan into the program.