By FRANCO PANIZO
Going into a crucial World Cup qualifier without your two best options at left back might seem like something to be extremely worried about, and U.S. Men’s National Team fans certainly are beginning to worry about Jurgen Klinsmann’s dwindling options at a weak position. But the reality is a weak left back isn’t likely to matter against lowly Antigua & Barbuda, a team that is comprised mostly of players plying their trade for USL Pro side Antigua Barracuda FC.
No, the area of the field where Klinsmann should really be focusing on heading into this Friday’s match at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium is the midfield. The players he deploys there will ultimately decide how successful the American attack is and if the U.S. take home three big points heading into their final third round qualifier against Guatemala.
The first thing Klinsmann has to decide is whether he wants to deploy a three-man midfield or four-man midfield. Klinsmann has alternated between the two throughout his tenure, but in the U.S. team’s most recent game, a 1-0 win over Jamaica in September, Klinsmann chose to play four midfielders and the results were extremely positive.
The Americans dominated possession in that match, passing the ball around sharply against a Jamaica team that was content to sit back and look for counterattacks. The U.S. only scored once in the match, but created a bevy of chances.
If Antigua & Barbuda, who are playing for their World Cup lives, intend to sit back and throw bodies behind the ball as Klinsmann has said he expects, then the U.S. should once again go with a four-man midfield. No, there are no real outside midfielders on the roster (Landon Donovan and Brek Shea have been ruled out with injuries), but that was also the case against the Reggae Boyz last month and the U.S. still dominated possession for large stretches.
Constructing the U.S. midfield begins with the defensive anchor, the No. 6. Danny Williams played that role excellently against Jamaica, and he is the front-runner to handle that role again. With Williams’ range and defensive bite helping the back four snuff out Antigua & Barbuda counters, the U.S. should be able to limit the hosts to few chances and that would allow for more possession.
That’s where Michael Bradley steps in. Klinsmann has stated previously that he sees Bradley and Jones more as No. 8s, or central midfielders with more advanced, attacking responsibilities, and Bradley should fill in now that he has recovered from the injury that sidelined him from September’s qualifiers. It is no secret that Bradley can shoot from distance and make late runs into the penalty area. Both those attributes could come in handy against Antigua & Barbuda.
It is hard to imagine Klinsmann not going with Jones given the tenacity and hustle he brings, but he entered training camp in Miami with an ankle injury and Klinsmann may prefer to let him rest up for the Guatemala match, where his qualities are likely to be more needed.
As for who starts on the outside, Klinsmann does not have many options. Graham Zusi figures to be a starter at one of the spots given his strong showing against the Reggae Boyz, but who else can play out wide? The only other experienced option is Sacha Kljestan.
No stranger to playing on the outside, Kljestan spent time there during the Bob Bradley era and should be favored over Joe Corona due to his previous participation in World Cup qualifiers. Kljestan even manned the left midfield spot in his last U.S. appearance under Klinsmann, a brief cameo off the bench in the Americans’ 1-0 win over Italy in February.
Klinsmann said during his conference call on Monday that Kljestan impressed in a recent Anderlecht game against Malaga, continuously looking to play balls forward and not sideways, pushing forward well, being direct and showing real aggressiveness in his offensive game. That is what Klinsmann has asked of Jose Torres in recent U.S. matches but the diminutive midfielder has not met expectations, which has in part left the door open for Kljestan to further make his case.
Kljestan won’t be the type of midfielder to run down the touchline and whip in crosses, but he can help with possession with his composure on the ball and is also capable of playing the quick one-two passes that Klinsmann so often stresses.
Kljestan should man the right side of the midfield, only because the left side is not somewhere he has spent much time at. Consider also that while Zusi shone as a right midfielder last month, he is not unfamiliar with having played on the left with Sporting Kansas City and he is also able to maintain possession and bring some offensive creativity.
With Zusi and Kljestan tucking in, Steve Cherundolo and whoever is chosen to play left back will be able to roam forward and provide the width that has been lacking at times under Klinsmann, especially with Antigua’s willingness to absorb pressure (they have scored just twice and conceded seven times in four games in this round of qualifying).
Whether it is labeled a 4-1-3-2 or a 4-4-2 does not matter. Klinsmann can go with a more narrow four-man midfield to help keep the ball and wait for cracks in Antigua’s defense to slip balls to the forwards or Bradley. An early goal would do wonders as it would force Antigua to come out of their shell, potentially opening the floodgates and allowing the Americans to score more than the three times they did in their previous meeting in June.
Klinsmann could decide to go with a three-man midfield, playing a 4-3-3, and if he goes that route it is a safe bet he would turn to the trio of Williams, Bradley and Zusi in a triangle. This seems like the less likely of the two options for Klinsmann’s midfield, but it is definitely an option given the absence of true wingers to turn to.
Whether it is a four-man midfield, or the three-man triangle, the U.S. midfield will look to make for in possession what it lacks in width. Is it a perfect scenario playing without true outside midfielders? Not really, but given what tools Klinsmann currently has at his disposal, a combination of Williams, Bradley, Zusi and Kljestan is probably the best midfield he can trot out to secure the much-needed win, and make who is playing left back an afterthought.