What Was Klinsmann Thinking?
What we witnessed last night in Costa Rica was one of the worst performances in the history of the US Men’s National Team. Losing 4-0 to any opponent, let alone Costa Rica, is embarrassing and unacceptable for a program like the USMNT. Watching the game, it was easy to place blame on the American players, and they do deserve some of that blame. It simply was not good enough. However, to anyone who watched, it was obvious that the man who deserved the most blame for the catastrophe was Jürgen Klinsmann. He got it all wrong.
During Klinsmann’s tenure as head coach of the national team, we have seen him tinker with lineups and formations game after game. For reasons unknown, the former German national team star seems to have the perception that he is as good of a tactical expert as he was player. Klinsmann’s tactics have made players look like shells of themselves at the club level through positional decisions and inconsistencies. The result is a program that lacks a true identity for the first time in as long as fans can remember. Even during the initial boom of the national team during the 90’s, the team had an identity as a physical team that would battle for results no matter who they were going up against. Now, in 2016, we are watching the most talented group of players in the history of our nation look completely lost and unsure of themselves on the pitch.
If Klinsmann were the tactical genius he thinks he is, it would have been obvious to him that playing a 4-4-2 was not the right approach against this Coast Rican team. Since their success in the 2014 World Cup, Costa Rica has continued to play with three center backs in a 3 or 5 man backline, depending on how you would like to look at it. The formation calls for the wing backs to have the responsibility to cover the sidelines themselves by getting up and down the flank while the three central defenders narrowly protect the goal. The space in behind these wide players is where Costa Rica is vulnerable in this system. The only threat the USMNT had into that space all night was Bobby Wood occasionally making runs out wide. Jozy will never be the guy that makes flashing runs into space; he plays almost strictly within the width of the 18. Even when Wood was able to get into that dangerous area out wide, Jozy was left isolated in 1 vs. 2 or 3 inside of the box. The result, the US struggled to find any rhythm offensively. Klinsmann’s team continuously tried to play long balls into the feet of Altidore and Wood but with such poor service and field conditions, the strikers struggled to hold onto the ball. We saw Altidore attempt to drop off and find the ball in deeper positions, but he was unable to make an impact on the game this way.
Why not a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 from Klinsmann? Either one of these formations would have provided the US with more defensive cover in the midfield, giving our wingers less defensive responsibly and the ability to stay high. Costa Rica’s wing backs would have been forced play in deeper positions and provide cover for the center backs had we played with wingers. If they didn’t, Costa Rica’s center backs would have been exposed in these wide positions where center backs feel much less comfortable defending (we all saw Omar Gonzalez on Costa Rica’s first goal). The best way to beat a team that plays with three narrow center backs is to stretch those three defenders so that they need to defend an uncomfortable amount of space; the US was unable to unbalance Costa Rica in this way last night and paid for it.
Klinsmann needs to bring structure and consistency back to a program in desperate need of it. Stop trying to outsmart and outcoach every opponent the US goes up against. If Klinsmann is to lead this team going forward, he needs to stick to man management. Keep the players happy, motivated, and committed and the team will find success. The group is talented enough to do that. This would all help to build a winning culture that American fans can be proud to support. The reality is that the clock is ticking. There are only so many games in the Hex and anything other than automatic World Cup qualification would be the most disappointing event in American soccer history.