REFLECTIONS ON SLOVENIA
Remember remember, the 15th of November, the goal scoring, playing and plot.
During a foggy Slovenian night, there were many stories and subplots being hatched as the U.S. engaged in a thrilling rematch of a thrilling World Cup meeting.
Among the stories at hand: The response to an abysmal loss to France; Carlos Bocanegra's 100th cap; players out of position; where is Michael Bradley, and the never-ending story of a toothless attack. Fortunately, each of those stories had happy endings, bringing such a sigh of relief to fans, pundits, and arm-chair analysts alike, that it finally seemed that America's soccer community could breathe again.
With the weight of the soccer nation resting on his shoulders, Klinsmann finally made some key tactical changes that had, ironically, been the cause of some of the greatest ire directed at Bob Bradley since 2009. Switching up his formation to a more structured 4-4-2 from the nebulous, free flowing withdrawn role player formations he'd utilized in the past allowed the U.S. to work within it's comfort zone.
Additionally, the insertion of Michael Bradley into the lineup came on the heels of intense criticism for not using the former coach's son against France, despite him taking merely two weeks to solidify himself as a 90 minute player in the physically and tactically intense Serie A.
The charges of nepotism that came at the elder Bradley were never wholly deserved, although some questionable instances of failing to discipline his son for off-field behavior certainly added legitimate fuel to an already tense situation. However, despite failing to instill on and off the field discipline in Michael, there was never any doubt about his ability as a player. Unfortunately, during the quick transition of coaches, the younger Bradley was caught on the bench and not earning playing time at his club, which according to Klinsmann, was an absolute must in order to be selected for his camps.
This seemed to ring true, because Jermaine Jones, who had been benched with Schalke, was also in the same purgatory after becoming a regular under Bob Bradley. However, the talented but at times inconsistent Jones worked his way back into Schalke's lineup and saw minutes against France while Bradley was left on the bench. The resulting sour taste caused many to wonder about Klinsmann's hesitancy to include arguably the best midfielder in the pool, while also playing a completely ineffective Danny Williams and bringing in an out of position and equally ineffective Fabian Johnson (more on that later).
However, after six games of stubborn player selections and his seeming inability to adapt on the go, Klinsmann switched his tactics and inserted Bradley into the central midfield while also playing Johnson in a more suitable central role. Finally, for the first respectable time span in Klinsmann's tenure, the midfield was able to control the ball and move it around the field to seek out gaps in the defense. It also greatly helped that the second piece of the forward puzzle wasn't a withdrawn midfielder. Putting Edson Buddle up top with Jozy Altidore was the best move that Klinsmann could make, following Bradley's inclusion.
Buddle had an immediate impact on the game, and kept that impact going through his 77 minutes of action. Altidore was able to be free of being a player he's not suited to be, and Clint Dempsey had more space to move on and off the ball. After taking a woodshed beating against France, Buddle's activity on the field provided adequate distraction of Slovenia's defense, allowing Clint Dempsey to move through the game without looking like Jack Dempsey at the end.
Bradley had a positive impact through the entirety of the game, playing his usual hard nosed style and playing dangerous set pieces into the box that eventually resulted in a Dempsey goal. Bradley proved to Klinsmann and everyone else that his presence is vital above any other center midfield option at this present time.
All of this combined to create scoring opportunities through the whole of the first half, resulting in three goals for the first time since the South Africa qualifying campaign. Those three first half goals were also one more than the U.S. had scored in it's previous six games under Klinsmann, which can be no coincidence. While Klinsmann's defense has been, by and large, playing very respectably minus some glitches here and there, the offensive impotence has been the head scratching antithesis to the style of soccer the Blonde Bomber purports to be cultivating.
The offense seemed to finally click though, starting with a great goal from Buddle, and then Dempsey earning a well deserved header after coming close in previous chances. The attack was flowing, and more goals should have been scored in the first half, with Johnson proving to be an integral player in the offensive half of the field.
However, for some reason, the offensive engagement against Slovenia seemed to come at the sacrifice of defensive integrity, with several horrendous breakdowns as the backline failed to work the offsides trap or simply lost their marks while ball watching. If not for the heroics of Captain Carlos during one frenzied stretch of the second half, the result could have once again left a sour taste in the mouths of fans. But indeed, Bocanegra brought in his 100th cap with a stellar performance, notching the victory.
With the win, Bocanegra is the 12th American to hit the century mark, and continues the U.S.'s remarkable string of good fortune in securing positive results for their 100 cap winners, as he joins Cobi Jones, Jeff Agoos, Marcelo Balboa, Kasey Keller, Claudio Reyna, Paul Caligiuri, and Earnie Stewart in winning their milestone games. Of the 12 centurions, only Joe-Max Moore lost his 100th cap.
While Bocanegra's personal play was solid, his partners on the back line left a lot to be desired at times, with breakdowns from Clarence Goodson and Timmy Chandler resulting in goals and scoring opportunities for the Slovenians. The defense should not have had any significant trouble, but mental breakdowns led to the problems that occurred, and should be rectified before the next slate of games in January.
All in all, the response to the catastrophe in Paris was a great one, with the team playing with a zest and cohesion that appeared to be non-existent a few days prior. Fabian Johnson showed his worth, Buddle showed that he needs to play, and Bradley showed that he is a key to the team's success. Klinsmann needs to continue his renovation of the team and it's playing style, but perhaps rather than changing it all at once and hoping become the team that he wants, it will be best to make it a gradual progress through the spring of 2012 and into the early stages of qualifying, slowly growing into that desired team rather than taking the plunge into the deep end and hoping that it all clicks.
Panama and Italy await in the future, with the first match in Central America sure to be a solid test like Slovenia was, while the match with Italy should provide a decent measuring stick to see how far the team has progressed since it's loss to the last world power it faced in France.
World Cup Qualifying is around the corner, and Klinsmann is running out of time to put his puzzle together, however he showed positive steps this past week in putting key pieces on the board. The next great challenge is going to be whether or not he continues this trend, or leaves it as a one off while he continues his so far unsuccessful position experiments. Whatever the case may be, the win against Slovenia was a good one, and sends off 2011 on a high note after several months of disappointment.