Jurgen Klinsmann has been the United States’ manager for four years, and he has never been able to establish any consistency in defense. The Gold Cup group stage was supposed to change that, giving him a chance to try out his options and settle upon a best four to take into the knockout stage and, eventually, World Cup qualifying. But while Klinsmann came into the tournament hoping for answers, the Gold Cup’s first two matches have only provided even more questions.
Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream got the nod in central defense for Friday’s 1-0 over Haiti, but neither looked spectacular. Gonzalez, who has been tremendous in the first half of the Major League Soccer season, looked nothing like his club self. He was slow to turn, uncertain as to when to be aggressive and when to retreat, and since he was rarely tested in the air, he was unable to dominate with one of this best skills. Ream was considerably better, calm on the ball and generally in the right positions, but he was out-run on a couple occasions and slow to step forward when needed. Neither player was so good that Klinsmann has to start them again.
Unfortunately for Klinsmann, the same was true of John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado in the Americans’ opener – a 2-1 win over Honduras. Brooks was dominant in the air, excelling in that area more than any other U.S. defender has at anything, but he was constantly out of position and late to tackle. Alvarado was sloppy on the ball, generally behind the play all match and got absolutely embarrassed one-on-one.
Coming into the Gold Cup, Klinsmann probably felt that he had an in-form and dependable option in Gonzalez, a physically dominant Brooks, and one of the other two central defenders would probably step up. Instead, now he has an unimpressive Gonzalez, a shaky Brooks, an unremarkable Ream and a disastrous Alvarado. That’s what the first two matches have done to his centerbacks.
The fullback situation isn’t much better. Greg Garza got the nod on Friday, but he was poor. Not only did he get killed defensively, but he contributed little to the attack. On the other flank, Brad Evans was in the right positions, but his lack of athleticism was exploited repeatedly. Timothy Chandler was in the same boat in the opener, getting killed at right back and never looking up to the task.
So far, the only U.S. defender that has looked good is Fabian Johnson, which is no surprise. He’s one of the team’s best players and has been a go-to player for several years. The problem is that there is only one of him, and through two Gold Cup matches, the gap between him (good) and the rest of the U.S. defenders (below average to horrific) is gigantic.
Klinsmann had options. He had guys in form. He was only supposed to struggle at one, maybe two spots. At least that was the thinking heading into the tournament.
After two matches, Klinsmann has Johnson. After that, he has problems and disappointments.
The good news is that it has only been two matches. There’s been a lack of continuity, a terrible temporary grass pitch on Friday night and shoddy refereeing, all of which have made matters difficult for everyone. There’s reason to think Klinsmann can still sort out a back four before the knockout round. But right now, the team has a bunch of questions – certainly more of them than they had before the tournament started.