It’s put-up-or-shut-up time for Jurgen Klinsmann.
When the German legend took over as coach of the U.S. national team in late July 2011, there was much talk about how he would overhaul U.S. soccer from top to bottom, create a consistent style of play for the national team program, instill a different soccer culture on these shores, and take the senior team to the next level.
No one could reasonably expect him to have accomplished all of the above in roughly 18 months on the job, but it’s fair to say that his work in progress has, at this stage, with the final round of 2014 World Cup qualifying set to kick off tomorrow, still too much of a work-in-progress feel about it.
His team has had its moments (they played some beautiful soccer en route to a 5-1 rout of Scotland last May), its gotten some big results (beating Italy in Italy, and Mexico at Azteca) and it had a surprisingly good record in 2012 (9-2-3).
But at no time in the Klinsmann era has the U.S. produced a cohesive, quality, 90-minute performance. Not once. They’ve looked like a troupe in rehearsal throughout his tenure.
And the problem with that is that the show opens tomorrow.
The team has landed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras (the most dangerous city in the world, according to the U.S. Stated Department), where it will take on the vastly improved home side on Wednesday in the opening game of the Hexagonal, as the final stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is known. (Kickoff is at 4:00 p.m. ET, and BeIN Sports has the broadcast.)
This round features six teams (hence the name; the other four are Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Panama), who will play each other twice (home and away) in a series of games running from now until October 15.
At the end of the round, the top three sides will advance to the World Cup, while the fourth-place finishers will play a team from Oceania in a two-game playoff for a shot to go to Brazil as well.
It’s a rugged, unforgiving stretch of games in venues that, like San Pedro Sula, are quite a bit less than hospitable. The margin for error—the degree to which you can veer from the ‘win-at-home, draw-on-the-road’ formula for qualification—is miniscule, and the competition has never been tighter. All six teams can play, at a level unprecedented for the region, and all six have loads of experienced guys.
Here’s Klinsmann’s roster for tomorrow’s game (with club, World Cup qualifying appearances, and goals—shutouts for keepers—in parentheses):
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa – 5/3 SO), Tim Howard (Everton – 22/9 SO), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire – 0/0)
DEFENDERS (9): Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City – 0/0), Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander – 31/5), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City – 5/0), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana – 0/0), Timmy Chandler (Nuremberg – 0/0), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders – 0/0), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy – 0/0), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim – 3/0), Michael Parkhurst (Augsburg – 3/0)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Michael Bradley (Roma – 19/5), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo – 0/0), Maurice Edu (Bursaspor – 9/0), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04 – 5/0), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht – 12/0), Jose Torres (Tigres – 9/0), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim – 4/0), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City – 3/0)
FORWARDS (4): Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar – 17/6), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur – 26/10), Herculez Gomez (Santos – 6/2), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders – 11/10)
There are no major surprises here, but there are some mild ones in the exclusions of Kyle Beckerman, a player Klinsmann used quite a bit in 2012, Benny Feilhaber, who looked good against Canada last week and would provide some welcome skill in the midfield, and Terrence Boyd, a big athletic forward who could bring a late spark and threat in the Honduras box.
But this is a solid group. Here are three ways Klinsmann could line them up:
Zusi– E. Johnson
This lineup gives you defensive starch in front of the back four (and reliable possession play there from Bradley), a decent crosser of the ball in Zusi, and EJ’s speed on the left flank. Downside is EJ’s defensive liability in that spot. And the fact that neither he nor Zusi is a true winger.
This option would really clog up the midfield and go a long way toward playing for a low-scoring draw. It’s also totally devoid of wingers, and overloaded with defensive-minded central midfielders (even though MB plays box-to-box for Roma)—an element that has produced some ugly displays in the Klinsmann era.
Here you have the skillful Kljestan playing underneath Altidore with the goal of boosting U.S. possession and creativity in attack. He played in the Champions League this past season, so he won’t be overawed by this occasion (as, say, a Torres seems to be in every big game.) The experienced Dempsey mans the troubled left midfield spot (MIA: Landon Donovan, Brek Shea), and Danny Williams wins balls in midfield, hopefully freeing up Bradley to pick spots to roam forward.
Which ever lineup Klinsmann rolls out, we’re predicting a 1-1 draw.