By IVES GALARCEP
It is time to test your memory a bit. Think about the best performance by a U.S. Men’s National Team left winger that you can remember. When was the last time an American left winger truly marauded down the flank as a true flank player, providing width and service and pace?
You might say Eddie Johnson in Antigua a year ago, but that day he looked more like a wide forward than true winger. If we are talking about a player excelling in a role as a traditional left winger, you have to back to the final national team match of 2011 to find someone who looked like a serious attacking threat in that position.
That someone was Fabian Johnson.
The Hoffenheim standout has spent an increasing amount of time playing on the left wing for his German club in recent weeks and months, and with the U.S. midfield being a unit struggling to create chances for the U.S. forwards, it seems only natural for Klinsmann to consider Johnson for a role on the left flank. Klinsmann suggested we could see it in the friendlies, though the German Bundesliga relegation playoffs have gotten in the way of Klinsmann trying that out.
That Klinsmann is actually open to the idea, when there was a time not too long ago that he was vehemently opposed to moving Johnson away from his left back spot, is telling. Not only does it offer a peek at Klinsmann’s understandable frustration with the struggling U.S. offense, but also suggest that Klinsmann believes he finally has some viable alternatives at the left back position.
One thing is clear, Johnson is the best left back in the U.S. pool. It’s pretty tough to deny that, even you let yourself be swayed by his struggles against Honduras in the blazing heat in San Pedro Sula. He didn’t have his best game that day, but then neither did any of his teammates.
What can also be argued is Johnson is also the best left-sided midfielder in the pool. If Brek Shea were healthy and playing regularly he could try to make this case, but he isn’t and can’t. Herculez Gomez manned the spot against Mexico in March, but he would be the first to admit left wing isn’t a natural position for him. Grahahm Zusi could theoretically play there, but is better suited for the right wing.
(Here is where many of you will stop reading and, in a snark tone, point out that Landon Donovan could play there.)
Donovan isn’t with the team, and his absence is a discussion for another time. In terms of players actually on the team for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, it is tough to argue against Johnson being the best option on the left flank.
So what is the problem? The problem is whether or not you buy Edgar Castillo and DaMarcus Beasley as viable left back options? Six months ago that would have been tough to agree with, but plenty has changed since then. Castillo has blossomed playing for a Club Tijuana team that won the Mexican league last year, and are on an improbably run into the Copa Libertadores.
Beasley is coming off of a pair of inspired performances at left back in World Cup qualifying, against two teams with strong wing play in Costa Rica and Mexico.
Wait, what? You don’t think Beasley played all that well against Mexico? Considering the opponent, and the venue, it’s very tough to argue that he didn’t play well. Yes, Gio Dos Santos and Javier Aquino did their best to try and run Beasley ragged, but for all the abuse they tried to subject him to, Mexico still didn’t generate any goals and Beasley stopped his share of attacks (and even the yellow card foul he drew in a dangerous area was a questionable call by the referee, fooled by a clear dive).
Beasley held his own against arguably the strongest wingers in CONCACAF (even if you can argue Costa Rica’s speedsters were neutralized in the snow). So if Beasley can hold up against Mexico and Costa Rica, is it really a stretch to think he can do the same, or better, against Jamaica, Panama and Honduras in June?
You also have Castillo playing very well, filled with the confidence that comes with playing well in a competition like Copa Libertadores. Whether it is Castillo or Beasley, the U.S. will have a speedy defender capable of staying with any of the attackers the U.S. will see on the left flank in qualifying.
Then you consider what moving Johnson up to the left side of midfield could mean for the American attack. Johnson is faster than anyone who Klinsmann has started on the left wing in the past year. He can take people on, and can provide service. His marauding runs on the left against Slovenia in 2011 helped the Americans post an impressive road win, and for players like Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Herculez Gomez, having a truly dangerous threat providing service from the flank is a dream come true, and something the U.S. attack simply hasn’t seen much of lately.
Klinsmann might not be ready to deploy Johnson on the left wing in Kingston, but when the Americans return and play Panama and Honduras at home, he will have to consider it. Think about the possibilities of a Johnson-Beasley left side, with both of them being able to play left back or left wing. The overlapping and interchanging could prove dizzying to deal with for opposing defenses.
Not convinced that could be a long-term solution, and find it hard to imagine Beasley starting at left back in the 2014 World Cup? That is a subject for another day. For right now, in the HEX, with three important games coming up, and with an attack that has managed two goals in three HEX qualifiers, finding a way to give the offense more of a boost is key, and deploying Johnson on the left flank could just be what the U.S. offense needs to start creating more chances and scoring more goals.