By IVES GALARCEP
SANDY, Utah– It took a majority of the night, but the U.S. Men’s National Team did produce a goal on Tuesday night. The story wasn’t just that Jozy Altidore scored a goal for the fourth straight game, or the fact that the U.S. attack created chances in bunches. A major story lost in the wake of Altidore’s winner was the fact that his goal was all the U.S. needed to win.
Jurgen Klinsmann reconstructed the U.S. defense when the CONCACAF HEX began, benching and eventually leaving out captain Carlos Bocanegra, and giving Steve Cherundolo the summer off. He turned to a pair of unproven national team centerbacks in Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, while trying some new options at fullback in DaMarcus Beasley and Brad Evans.
The U.S. defense went through its share of growing pains, which included matches like the loss to Honduras in the HEX opener, to the 4-2 loss to Belgium, but the defense has also found considerable success in qualifying, with Tuesday’s shutout the fourth in six HEX matches.
“I think our back-line is coming along,” Klinsmann said after Tuesday’s win. “It will never be perfect. There is no back-line that is perfect. it helps them obviously to keep the nil.
“And it helps them to go through those grinds, those games where they also have to be the first contributor in terms of build-up,” Klinsmann said. “They are forced then to move the ball around quickly. It’s not only the defending side of it. If there’s a ball in front of you, your centerbacks, your fullbacks, they have to be spot-on.
“They have to release the ball quicker in order to find Clint and Jozy and the guys up front,” Klinsmann added. “That’s what they’re learning right now. They’re going through their period right now where they learn to think fast. To pass faster. To decide everything a step aster, which is a requirement on the international level.”
The left back position, long a position of concern for the U.S., has the look of a position of strength after the first half of the HEX qualifying round, with Fabian Johnson looking like a standout option and DaMarcus Beasley showing that he is more than capable of stepping in and being a reliable starter. Edgar Castillo’s excellent play for Club Tijuana has also put him on the radar at the position.
Right back is in a bit more unsettled state, with converted midfielder Brad Evans holding his own as the team’s starting right back in all three World Cup qualifying wins in June. With Steve Cherundolo expected to still be a part of the pool after the summer, Geoff Cameron having shown his ability to play right back, and Timmy Chandler still someone who should be an option, Klinsmann should have some options on the right side of the defense.
The centerback position has been the subject of more scrutiny than the other positions due to the relative newness of the tandem, and the hiccups the duo has endured as they adjust to the international level. Besler and Gonzalez have had some outstanding outings in the HEX, like their masterful effort in the 0-0 draw vs. Mexico in Mexico City, but they have also had some shaky moments. Gonzalez particularly has had his share of growing pains as he settles into a starting role.
“On those plays that haven’t gone my way I think I’ve been trying to do too much“ Gonzalez said. “I haven’t been playing simple, and as a centerback you don’t want to take chances and this year I’ve been taking a little bit of chances to do things and to grow as a player.
“What I’m finding out is that it’s not that important to make the play, just gotta be simple and keep the team off the board. I’m learning the hard way, but there’s no other place to learn.”
The pair credit Klinsmann’s confidence in them, and willingness to let them go through the expected growing pains, with helping them develop and play without fear of the quick hook.
Klinsmann’s patience with his centerback tandem has paid dividends as the duo has developed a good working relationship that continues to improve as they play more games together.
“It’s really easy to match up with him because we complement each other well,” Gonzalez said of his partnership with Besler. “We’re on the same page in the way that we think and the way we approach the position.”
“The main thing we talk about is they might get by one of us, but they can’t get by both of us,” Besler said. “As long as we’re covering for each other on every play we’re going to make it hard for the other team.”
One area the tandem has helped the U.S. team is in the construction of the attack. Besler’s passing ability has helped establish him as the best centerback in the pool at the moment, while Gonzalez continues to improve in the passing department, even if he did have his share of nervous moments in possession vs. Honduras.
“I think if you look at it today, from Omar to Besler, those guys have been great in terms of always looking for a solution and making long balls the last option,” Jozy Altidore said of the U.S. centerbacks. “When you do that against these teams, and you make them defend, eventually they’ll crack.”
While their contributions to the offense are clearly important, Besler and Gonzalez will continued to be judged by their defensive effort, and ultimately by the amount of goals they surrender. So far, in four World Cup qualifiers together, Besler and Gonzalez has helped the defense allow just one goal in four matches.
“We’ve been on a roll and it’s good for the young guys in the back,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “It gets us feeling really good about ourselves and every time you have a good performance you put it in your back pocket and save it.”
If the U.S. can continue to be stingy when World Cup qualifier resumes in the fall, the team’s ticket to the 2014 World Cup will be punched sooner than later, and as much as the U.S. team’s recent attacking success has been a major factor in the team’s success, the U.S. defense’s continued evolution, and growth, will be just as vital in qualifying, and beyond.
“I think it’s important to score goals, but I think it’s just as important to keep clean sheets and what you saw in these last two games we have two clean sheets,” Clint Dempsey said. “That’s what you need if you want to qualify for the World Cup. You need a solid defense and you need forward who can make goals.”