Photo by Michael Janosz/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
Eight months. That is all that separates the U.S. Men’s National Team from the World Cup in Brazil.
After enjoying a largely successful final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying that ended Tuesday night with a thrilling 3-2 win in Panama, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players can now shift their focus towards preparing for next summer’s tournament. The expectations for the competition are high for the U.S. after they tied a record total of points in the Hexagonal this cycle, and the team will be keen on meeting and possibly surpassing them once June rolls around.
The numbers may indicate that reaching the 2014 World Cup was an easy task for the Americans, but that was not the case. The U.S. endured some rough moments and Klinsmann faced a bevy of criticism at the start of the Hexagonal before the ship was righted and some quality and memorable results were picked up.
Regardless, the entire process of qualifying served as a big lesson for Klinsmann and his players in terms of learning about themselves and here are five things to take away from the U.S.’s Hexagonal campaign as they gear up for their trip to Brazil:
FEED ALTIDORE AND HE WILL SCORE
The recipe for scoring success is there: feed Jozy Altidore and the goals will come.
Questions abounded about Altidore’s form at the start of the year after a well-documented scoreless drought that was surely weighing on the forward’s mind more than he let on. But criticism turned into immediate praise once Altidore started finding the back of the net with more regularity midway through the Hexagonal, a result of the U.S. team providing better service to the 23-year-old striker.
Altidore showed that when is given the ball in dangerous spots, he can make opposing teams pay and that only lifts his confidence to make him even more dangerous. Altidore scored in a string of consecutive qualifiers against Jamaica, Panama and Honduras in June, but the key ingredient to it all was his American teammates finding him in more dangerous positions.
Yes, Altidore will need to continue to shoulder most of the hold-up play for the U.S., but a steady dose of service will keep him happy and opposing teams on their toes.
THERE ARE OPTIONS AT FULLBACK, BUT MORE MIGHT BE NEEDED
Brad Evans’ emergence at right back and DaMarcus Beasley’s international renaissance at left back were among the biggest surprises for Klinsmann and the U.S. team. Both started a good portion of the Americans’ qualifiers and fared well in the majority of the matches they played in.
That said, it appears that Klinsmann knows that more will likely be needed from those positions in order to make a serious run next summer. After all, he has always said he likes his fullbacks to jump into the attack and Beasley and Evans do not necessarily provide that added dimension regardless of how capable they are defensively.
Klinsmann does have options at each spot. He could once again summon Fabian Johnson to left back (where Johnson played much of 2012 at amid plenty of praise from Klinsmann) if someone steps up and proves worthy of handling the left midfield role that the versatile 25-year-old currently occupies. Landon Donovan, Alejandro Bedoya, Edgar Castillo and Brad Davis are among the potential candidates to do so.
On the right, Klinsmann could turn to a number of players. There is Timmy Chandler, a recovering Steve Cherundolo and the oft-ignored Eric Lichaj. Klinsmann, however, does not have much more time to see how those players can integrate with the back line that navigated successfully through the Hexagonal, so he will need to give them the same type of chance he handed to Alejandro Bedoya on Tuesday night to see what they can do.
CENTERBACK IS DEEPER THAN MOST ORIGINALLY THOUGHT
Take your pick.
In present-day, there is no shortage of center back options for Klinsmann to choose from. That is a far different scenario than at the beginning of the Hex, when few observers had any idea as to who could come in and fill the problematic spot for a U.S. team ready to move on from its veteran contributors.
The center back pool includes the likes of Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, Clarence Goodson and Michael Orozco, players who have all played pivotal roles in this cycle at one point or another and will be fighting to be the two starters at the heart of the U.S. defense. Throw in the up-and-coming John Brooks to the mix and you can see that the U.S.’s situation at centerback is at a much healthier state than it was 12 months ago.
KLINSMANN KNOWS THE DEFINITION OF AN IMPACT SUB
It is not mere coincidence that Klinsmann’s substitutions paid off more often than not during the second half of the Hex.
Time and again in the last five matches, Klinsmann saw players that he inserted off the bench make an impact. There was Mix Diskerud in the 2-0 win over Mexico in September, Edgar Castillo and Graham Zusi in last Friday’s triumph over Jamaica, and Brad Davis and Aron Johannsson in Tuesday night’s exhilarating win over Panama.
Klinsmann has discovered the formula to making good substitutions by not waiting too long to use them and having a good grasp of his players’ strengths and weaknesses. The U.S. head coach has shown as of late that he can figure out what type of player a game is calling for, and that should only do wonders for the Americans as they prepare for the World Cup.
WORLD CUP ROSTER WILL COME DOWN TO THE WIRE
The Gold Cup in July revealed it. The fall’s qualifiers amplified it further.
This current crop of American players is as deep as any in the history of U.S. Soccer. Not only is there intense competition for the 11 starting spots, but also for the highly-coveted 23 tickets to Brazil for next summer’s World Cup. It seems as if almost everyone’s place is in danger and that leaves no room for complacency, just as Klinsmann has wanted all along.
That also likely means that the majority of those 23 World Cup roster spots will come down to the last minute. The U.S. boasts such quality depth right now that you can expect some key contributors to miss out on next summer’s roster for Brazil, and that goes without even taking into account the list of recently-injured players like Herculez Gomez, Maurice Edu, Danny Williams and Brek Shea that are hoping to break back into the squad.