U.S. Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s main goal for World Cup 2014 was to bunker down during group play and some way advance to the knockout rounds. Now that his squad completed Phase I, survive the Group of Death, it is time for Klinsmann to activate Phase II, manage his motley crue.
Here are the keys for Klinsmann to manage his USMNT to a second-round victory versus Belgium:
First, let’s put to sleep the demands for benching MF Michael Bradley. As subpar as his play was during the first three games, he still remains the best option to patrol the U.S. midfield. He must however vastly improve his level of concentration when executing his first touches and deliveries. Keep in mind it was Bradley who steered the ship during world cup qualifiers with his pristine accuracy and timely decisions. Klinsmann needs the decisive and confident Bradley that got him there rather than the Bradley who landed in Brazil.
Clearly the weak point heading into Brazil, the defense as a unit have actually played better than expected. What wasn’t expected is the lackluster individual play within the penalty area. Failure to clear simple crosses and basic marking have marred an otherwise decent performance. CB Geoff Cameron quite possibly had the worst game of any defender in recent U.S. history against Portugal, as he was single-handidly responsible for allowing both goals. Omar Gonzalez who did a fine job against the Germans, may have to be inserted in Cameron’s stead. Belgium attacks and attacks with lethality. Klinsmann must get his defensive unit to focus on the little things that can kill a team’s chances of advancing. Clearing crosses and basic marksmanship are minute details, but loom large if you fail to do either. If the small things can be accomplished, Klinsmann can turn speedy wing backer Demarcus Beasley loose more often to initiate the counter-attack. Otherwise, this could very easily turn into a 2-0 or 3-0 match in favor of Belgium.
Make no mistake, Howard’s experience is second to none. With this being his second world cup coupled with a lifetime playing in the EPL, he is the best option in goal. Along with experience though comes age, and with age comes slower reflexes and deciceveness. So is the case with Howard. He has made critical mistakes for instance when choosing to hold his line when he should have come out. Christiano Ronaldo’s cross that allowed Portugal’s injury time draw was a perfect example in which Howard’s poor decision making cost a win. He has looked slower than usual reacting to mid-range shots during all three group games. Howard must anticipate the play much quicker in order to mask his slower reaction time. Klinsmann has options at the net minder position with backups Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando awaiting, but they are not the answer. Only Howard can see the American’s to a deep run in the tournament, but he must be the sharpest he’s ever been for that to happen.
Belgium beat the U.S. 4-2 in a 2013 friendly, but that was an experimental lineup in its youth stage. Nevertheless, the Red Devils are a year more experienced as well and plan to attack with unrelentless menace. Expect Klinsmann to somewhat mirror his lineup comparitive to what was seen during group play. The real test will come in the first 20 minutes when he sees how is squad reacts to Belgium’s pressing methods. If his American’s react with fear the way they did against the Germans, he’ll have to make a critical decision earlier than expected by subbing out certain starting personnel to quell the onslought. During the knockout phase of games going down to the wire, coaches prefer to save their subs until the latter stages of the game in preparation of tired legs and possible extra time. Replacing starters early to prevent Belgium from running away with the game may be the lesser of two evils Klinsmann will be forced to deal with.
Jurgen Klinsmann has made several unpopular and unorthodox decisions in his drive to the word cup(See Landon Donovan). Despite his approach, thus far, most decisions have been on point. The knockout stage of the world cup demands decisions that may not make absolute sense at the time. If a coach tries to maintain the norm, a devastating loss may be in store (See Mexico’s meltdown vs Netherlands).
It is very possible for the USMNT to win this match. But not with what they’ve brought to the table thus far in Brazil. Klinsmann is going to have to reach deep into his bag of tricks to pull the magic out this time, because ordinary isn’t going to cut it.