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Klinsmann says formation change was designed to maximize Pulisic impact

Photo by Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports
Photo by Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports

Little doubt remains: the U.S. Men’s National Team is now built around Christian Pulisic.

Jurgen Klinsmann confirmed as much in a recent Facebook Q&A, detailing the thought process behind deploying a three-at-the-back system against Mexico in the USMNT’s Hexagonal opener. The decision backfired, as Mexico scored early while keeping the U.S. on their heels, prompting an eventual switch to a more traditional 4-4-2.

According to Klinsmann, the 3-4-1-2 system was selected to maximize the talent of Pulisic, who was given freedom to roam behind the striker partnership of Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore.

“There was a reason we went to that formation, and that was simply Christian Pulisic,” Klinsmann said. “With that formation, the four midfielders spread over the width of the field and then having Christian as the one behind Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood, we hope that gives him freedom to roam and hurt Mexico at specific times, similar to what he does at Borussia Dortmund. We trained it before, it went really well in training, but the problem was, after 10-12 minutes, we were not able to put pressure on their attacking midfielders.

“A formation is built on the strengths and weaknesses of your players, and when you have a player now like Christian Pulisic, who is a very, very special talent for us, you want to adjust things for him. You want to build a system around players to show strengths and help each other where they have weaknesses.”

Klinsmann went on to say that formation choices are much more about the players than coaching preferences. The players dictate the tactical decisions, not the other way around, and players like Pulisic will help drive Klinsmann’s selections going forward. The USMNT boss cited Mexico’s three-at-the-back set, one used to maximize a player like Rafa Marquez.

While the recent tactical switch didn’t work as planned, Klinsmann reiterated that it was one that could return in the future, especially as the U.S. prepares for further big tests.

“When you go towards a World Cup, it’s important to know you have different systems in your pocket,” Klinsmann said. “You need to know you can go from a 3-5-2 into a 3-4-3 or a 3-4-1-2 or a 4-4-2. The system is not really important; it’s the way the players are connected on the field doing their attacking movement and especially having their discipline defensively to take away the space for the opponents to break through.

“That was the reason for the formation against Mexico, and I have to give the team credit for how they played the second half. We had them right there and should have scored the second goal.”


  1. Building your lineup around an 18yr old in his first Hex game and first Mexico game is not smart. Yes he is really good with crazy potential, utilize him. But you don’t build a formation around the kid. On top of that Jones has had Three competitive starts in the last 3-4 months 2 of which were Mexico and Costa Rica. Really Klinsmann? You can’t tell me that there weren’t better options. Maybe Jones is a better player overall then Sacha and Williams (maybe) but he hadn’t been playing and either of those would have been able to offer more sharpness and fitness.

  2. There are a couple problems that will face the US manager whomever that is going forward.

    1. How do you maximize CP without having to sit Wood or Altidore or force one out to the wing

    2. How to use Yedlin and Johnson to benefit both the offense and defense?

    3. What is the role for the CMs?

    4. Is there anyone besides Johnson that can play LB?

  3. Many of the Dortmund games show a 4-1-4-1 in their pregame lineup graphic.. and it’s perfect for them because they have so many players that are interchangeable. If he wanted an experimental lineup to feature CP he could have done other things than 3 in the back and MB and JJ like that…especially with no Cameron who would be the best guy to try that backline.. Total swing and a miss…

  4. In soccer this is a foolish gamble. You might do some tactical tweaks to help a star, but trying to develop a strategy and formations around a young player like Pulisic is foolhardy. Primarily Klinsmann has no grounding in strategy and tactics strong enough to implement such a misguided attempt. In addition it is unfair to the young player to implements this as it may be taken to mean the formation and strategy if it has failed, the blame may be unfairly inferred to the young player OR to any other player, for it’s failure.

    You do not build a team around a single player. (This is different than building around a single *position*) that may have an exemplary player in it.) The team must play well if that player is gone either through disposition or injury.

    Why is it not optimal to drive a team around a player? Once the strategy is discovered it is very easy to counter, it is even easy to disguise the counter. Most coaches with experience will be able to see this. Klinsmann is a fool if he thought that Osorio or Ramirez wouldn’t.

    One of the great things about soccer is its fluid and ever changing dynamics on the field of play coaches must remember that. You can prepare a team with a set of tactics and strategy to allow your best players to have a greater impact on the field, but its the players who need to make adjustments for all eventualities. The fact that the US players abandoned Klinsmann’s formation against Mexico speaks volumes. But in doing so it also abandoned the faith in his leadership. That was evidenced in the horrific game against Costa Rica.

  5. Klinsmann may have sought to maximize Pulisic’s contributions, but starting with an insufficiently practiced 3 back system, along with Chandler rather than Yedlin, and no left back undermined the whole effort at the outset. Subsequent failure to utilize Kljestan, rather than Jones, made things worse. The current version of Jones is a loose cannon who plays without coordination in the rest of the team’s structure. Kljestan has an orderly, productive approach to every game and has clearly demonstrated that he combines well with both Pulisic and Bradley. Jones, on the other hand, has never combined successfully with Bradley and has yet to demonstrate an ability to do so with Pulisic.

  6. yeah, it’s no real revelation that the formation was designed for pulisic. of course, the fact that it put pretty much every other teammate at a disadvantage meant that it was a terrible idea that should’ve been laughed off as soon as it was brought up in meetings.

    which makes me think that maybe more of the blame should go on klinsmann’s assistants: klinsmann’s obviously not there for his great tactical acuity, and if it was their idea, they should be fired for incompetence. if it was klinsmann’s idea, and they were too scared to disagree, they serve no purpose and should be fired for irrelevance.

    • For me….and many others….the buck should stop with the head coach.

      I don’t know how, but you obviously disagree?

      • practically speaking, yes, the buck stops with klinsmann. my comment was more concerned with how the decision could’ve been made. i’ve stated elsewhere that i think klinsmann should be fired as usmnt manager, though not strictly due to the last two matches. at this point i was simply wondering if other people should also be held accountable.

        i guess one option i left out was that it was klinsmann’s idea, his assistants tried to dissuade him, and he ignored them, but i was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. i think he’s aware that tactics is his glaring weakness.

  7. I think the theory was right. I also think it is smart to adjust your playing style to fit your players instead of the other way around. My favorite coach of all time, John Wooden, did just that. As I wrote before, when we lost to Mexico in the playoff for the Confed Cup, Mexico totally dominated possession because their midfielders dominated ours. This was another reason to overload the midfield. However, even then the Mexican midfielders outplayed ours. I don’t think Bradley and Jones are up to the task of handling the Mexico midfield and that was the main problem in that game. This is a real problem for the team when they play good teams, whoever the coach is.

    • Ditto. Our midfield tandem had been solid last cycle but now its one of our weakest points on the spine. Bradley and JJ has fallen so much since the Copa, its hard to imagine but CM is not where we have a lot of depth anymore. I don’t know what to say. I thought Bradley had at least another cycle in him but he’s been poor in the DM spot and JJ’s injuries have started to show. Unfortunately, I really don’t see any answer to this weakness. MB or JJ need to regain previous form or we need other younger players to emerge but who? Could be rough hex for us.

      • Jones has been injured for a long stretch in recent times, but prior to that kept the entire midfield/spine afloat. Bradley, on the other hand, has been horrendous since pre-World Cup 2014.

        The liability isn’t Jones, from my vantage point, but no one (including the manager, media, and most fans) are willing to admit Bradley should have been dropped a long time ago.

      • I’d agree with most of that Old School. JJ has been the better of the two. My issue with Bradley has always been that he’s too out of position all the time to play DM. He likes to get forward and this creates a pocket of space for opponents to pass and run into just in front of the CB line. MB also never seems to get the ball off his feet fast enough to link with players wide or other CMs and instead he’s left with the last resort option of a back pass to a CB or GK. He played his role in the 4-2-3-1 last cycle really well but he’s not capable of playing the DM in a diamond or 4-3-3 in my opinion based on his form the past several years. You already know but I can’t state enough the younger fans out there how much of a problem this can cause to our shape and potential results in the Hex. DM has usually been a position where we’ve had a solid stable of player depth but what now?

      • DM has usually been a position where we’ve had a solid stable of player depth but what now?

        That’s the million dollar question.

        We really don’t have anyone behind Jones or Bradley to provide valid competition for the spot or responsibility. People have mentioned Danny Williams, but I’ve never seen his ability remain consistent enough or translate from his club form to justify him as the answer.

        Unfortunately, that’s a common theme for far too many positions with out national team post Donovan/Dempsey/Beasley-era. We don’t have enough bodies to step up and take their place. It’s a complete indictment on our system, development of players and…our domestic league.

      • That 2002 team both Donovan and Beasley as youngsters along with veterans like Lewis, Cherundolo, Berhalter, Pope, Reyna, Hedjuk, McBride, Stewart, O’Brien, JM Moore, and of course Keller and Friedal. We aren’t producing near this quality any more. Some of those names are the best we’ve ever produced at their positions and in their prime would still start on our current team. Sad really. Had it not been for that Torsten Frings handball this team would been in the semifinals and who knows what else.

      • Love it or hate it. Bradley is still our best option at DM.

        To me the idea that you will have an 18 year old with almost no international experience be THE man like that is dumb. He is a great player, let him grow into being the man in a position he is comfortable with, it will make everyone else better, controlling the game that way, even if he isn’t controlling the game directly.

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