Photo by Bill Barrett/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
When CONCACAF’s Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying began back in February, there was no shortage of questions surrounding the U.S. Men’s National Team’s defense.
Some of those questions may still linger today but by and large most have been answered, with Friday night’s victory over Jamaica serving as the latest bit of proof of that.
The U.S.’s 2-0 win over the Reggae Boyz at Sporting Park did not just clinch a first-place finish in the Hexagonal for the Americans, it further fortified the notion that the defense has come a long way since the start of the year. The U.S. have impressively pitched a shutout in each of its five home games in this final round of qualifying (and six out of its nine games in total if you include the memorable scoreless draw against Mexico at Estadio Azteca back in March), and did so despite fielding a back line that was constantly in flux and still in a maturation process considering the lack of chemistry between the players that comprised it.
From the emergences of Brad Evans and Matt Besler to the string of steady showings from makeshift left back DaMarcus Beasley, the U.S. defense received contributions from players few observers would have predicted to play such integral roles this year. That speaks volumes to the players’ abilities and also the Americans’ continued growth as a team, especially since the U.S. booked its World Cup place earlier than most other nations.
“We are very pleased how things kind of developed defensively,” said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann after Friday’s victory in Kansas CIty. “Obviously, it’s a learning process, it’s an adjustment process every time you have a new back line and probably we’re going to have another one in Panama again (in the U.S.’s final qualifier on Tuesday). … Here and there you will concede goals based on mistakes that you make, but it definitely speaks for all of them keeping cleansheets and sooner or later having that feeling that we’re going to score up front.”
Of course, defending is a collective effort from the entire team and the Americans did benefit from the defensive bites of the likes of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman. But seeing stats like the one above is a source of pride for the U.S. defenders and goalkeepers, especially given how much scrutiny they faced throughout 2013.
“That for me and for Brad and the rest of the boys in the back, that stat means more than anything,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who, along with Brad Guzan, helped anchor the defense with quality saves and solid communication with the back four. “Without that (defensive) foundation, you can’t move forward and I think we set the bar really high. I don’t know if it’s been done before, but it feels good and it’s very tough to do.”
As tough as it may be to do and as good of a job as the U.S. defense may have done, there is a belief among some fans and sections of the media that the current defensive unit is not good enough to get the job done next summer in Brazil. Calls for the likes of Eric Lichaj, Timmy Chandler and John Brooks are common during every roster selection even though their lack of experience with the current U.S. back line is clear for all to see.
In any case, having those options and others in regulars like Geoff Cameron and Edgar Castillo ahead of next June is a plus for Klinsmann and the U.S. coaching staff. After all, it is part of what made the American defense so successful in qualifying in 2013 and what has the U.S. guaranteed to finish atop the Hexagonal despite there still being one qualifier left to play.
“It’s a good problem to have, because as I’ve said before, you start getting into World Cups and hopefully you’re playing four or five games and it’s hard to have the same lineup all the time due to injuries and cards and suspensions,” said Howard. “You want to have guys that feel comfortable stepping in, that aren’t going to be shaken by the environment. It’ll be interesting to see how it works over the last six or eight months of preparation.”
Photo by Bill Barrett/ISIphotos.com