Houston, Tx. – The U.S. MNT stand one step away from qualifying for the Copa America Centenario Championship game next Sunday at MetLife Stadium, in East Rutherford, New Jersey, but what a step it is.
An Argentina team that has not won a major championship since winning the 1993 Copa America (the men’s Olympic tournament is primarily a youth competition) is quite an obstacle standing between the Norte Americanos and a place in the Copa Finals.
On the plus side for the U.S. is an NRG Stadium sellout that figures to be a pro-U.S. crowd, although the star power of Messi can’t be discounted. The home team may also get a break from Argentina’s quick turnaround, La Albiceleste knocked off Venezuela 4-1 on Saturday night, two nights after the U.S. secured its semifinals spot with a 2-1 win over Ecuador.
As for U.S advantages, that’s about it. Argentina will be without Nicolas Gaitan through yellow card accumulation but the U.S. will have to replace three key players, although DeAndre Yedlin will be returning for the home side.
After playing the same starting 11 in all three group games, Yedlin’s absence forced Klinsmann to break that run for the quarterfinals. Now, with perhaps the best national team in the world as an opponent Klinsmann will be forced to shuffle his lineup again, this time to replace midfielders Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya, and forward Bobby Wood.
Los Angeles Galaxy forward/winger Gyasi Zardes is likely to move forward into Wood’s position in what has morphed from a 4-3-3 at the start of Copa 100 for the U.S. into a 4-4-2, a formation change that has seen Clint Dempsey flourish, relieved of the center forward role.
Zardes has been effective as a wide left midfielder in the new setup, a position he has played often for both the U.S. and his club, although the striker’s role has always seemed a better fit for the 24-year-old.
Zardes appreciates what Wood has brought to the team in this tournament, calling Wood “a phenomenal player.” “His work rate,” Zardes said before yesterday’s practice, “was through the roof, so I’m just curious,” the once and future striker said, “to see what the coaches have prepared.” “We don’t know anything yet, so we’re curious to see what’s going to happen.”
Klinsmann could elect not to move Zardes, opting instead for Chris Wondolowski to lead the line, and knowing Klinsmann’s high opinion of Wondo that could happen.
Yedlin figures to return to his regular right fullback position alongside Geoff Cameron and John Brooks at center back and here is where things get interesting. Against such an explosive team as Argentina, Klinsmann may opt for the comfort gained from his recently familiar back four and leave Fabian Johnson at left fullback.
With two midfielders to replace Klinsmann has options in Kyle Beckerman, Darlington Nagbe, Graham Zusi, Christian Pulisic, and the coach also could move the versatile Fabian Johnson up to a wide midfield role.
Klinsmann was giving nothing away at Monday’s press conference, although the coach was defiant when asked about his approach to Tuesday’s match.
“”We want to continue our path that we started years ago,” Klinsmann began. “We want to take the game to them as well, we want to keep a high line.” “We want,” Klinsmann said, “to go eye to eye because we’ve done tremendously well throughout this tournament.”
So to whom will Klinsmann turn to back up his bold words? Matt Besler was very solid at left back against Paraguay as Johnson took Yedlin’s spot. Besler could retain that spot with Johnson pushed forward as Zardes does the same and moves up to Wood’s striker position.
Beckerman or Nagbe are in line to partner Michael Bradley in the center of the park with Nagbe also a candidate outside along with Zusi. Trusting Pulisic from the start seems a bridge too far for Klinsmann against this level of competition, although the 17-year-old may be called into action at some point.
So, who should Klinsmann pick? Who will he pick?
Let’s take a crack at figuring it out.
Yedlin, Cameron, Brooks, Besler
Zusi, Nagbe, Bradley, Johnson
The more experienced Beckerman may well get the nod over Nagbe but I would prefer to see Nagbe given the start for his superior speed, and ball control ability, especially with possession likely to be at a premium for the U.S.
Whoever gets the call, the home team will be up against it and while Klinsmann has a plan, former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson famously had this to say about plans. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Mexico had a plan going into Saturday night’s game versus Chile, and Venezuela surely had one too that same night against Argentina. Mexico lost 7-0, Venezuela 4-1.
But upsets do happen, Tyson’s loss to Buster Douglas being one of the biggest ever. The U.S. MNT has had a few too. Beating England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup, topping Colombia 2-1 in the 1994 World Cup, Portugal, 3-2, and Mexico, 2-0 in a 2002 run to the World Cup quarterfinals, and most recently the 2-0, 2009 Confederations Cup stunner over Spain.
Most of those victories featured heroic defending and outstanding goalkeeping and plan or no plan that formula will likely be needed if the U.S. is to add another upset victim to that illustrious group.
The coach has a couple of options available to him. The easiest would be to replace Jones with Kyle Beckeranm