On Wednesday night, the U.S. National Team ushered in the Jurgen Klinsmann era with a 1-1 tie against Mexico in Philadelphia. The new U.S. coach spent most of the evening with a smile on his face, and although the first half of his debut was less than promising, the second half provided plenty of reason to be optimistic.
The U.S. started in a 4-2-3-1 formation that is designed to spring into a 4-3-3 on the attack and sink into a 4-5-1 on defense. It is primarily a possession formation that engineers attacks from the back to the front.
However, in the first half, the U.S. was not getting enough players high to make the formation truly effective. The 4-2-3-1 works only if the team is able to attack with numbers. At times, only three to five U.S. players would go up against seven or eight Mexican defenders. All of the attacking players, the defensive midfielders and at least the strong-side outside back must be involved in the attack.
Working out of the back, the U.S. was not finding the outside backs enough in the build-up. They were doing a good job of pulling high and wide, and the center backs were pulling to the width of the 18-yard box, but Mexico was able to sit centrally for most of the game because the outsides were not involved enough. Getting the ball wide opens up space in the middle for the defensive midfielders to check to the ball in the 4-2-3-1 formation.
However, in a formation set up for possession, Kyle Beckerman was Klinsmann’s most shrewd selection. He always plays simple, does not lose the ball and gets stuck in on tackles defensively. Beckerman excelled in this game, especially during a shaky first half. Finding his feet in the middle allowed Jose Torres and Landon Donovan to get the ball wide in the attacking half when not much was going on for the U.S. in that space.
Physically, the U.S. was still imposing, minus on the Mexico goal. The team is not afraid to get in on tackles. The U.S. goal was a result of Brek Shea’s ability to hold off his defender physically and slot a ball across the goal to Robbie Rogers, who scored on his first touch of the game.
Speaking of Rogers, the substitutes really sparked the U.S. in the second half. Juan Agudelo dribbled at players, Shea created chances and Rogers put one away. Shea assisted the goal and got behind the Mexican defense in the last 10 minutes. Rogers got taken down behind the defense and should have drawn a red card, using his pure pace to beat a defender who had two or three yards on him at the start.
The U.S. got much better on the attack toward the end of the game, largely due to the substitutions. Donovan, who was quiet for the majority of the first hour, was more involved in the latter stages. When Clint Dempsey comes in for the U.S., the attack will only get better.
All in all, it could have been a lot worse for a team playing under a new coach, coming up against an established team with recent success such as Mexico. Now, it is time to iron out the details. The U.S. was shaky on set pieces, both offensively and defensively, including the Mexico goal and Rafael Marquez’s near miss at the far post in the second half. Of course, not all U.S. personnel was available for selection; it will be interesting to see what Klinsmann will do with a full roster at his disposition.
Nonetheless, it is clear from this game (and the history of the U.S. team in general) that Klinsmann might do well to find a style that better suits the physicality of American players and appeals less to the technical side, which is lacking in comparison to the rest of the world. The U.S. found success against Mexico in the final third using its speed and power, not its technical ability. Perhaps it is time for Klinsmann to embrace that as the “culture” of the U.S. team and not get too caught up in playing pretty soccer.
Liviu Bird is a goalkeeper for Seattle Pacific University and editor-in-chief of The Falcon, Seattle Pacific’s student newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter here.