USMNT World Cup Qualifying Review: Klinsmann Stays Afloat / by Jared Young

By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)

World Cup qualifying review: USMNT rebounds in opening weekend
The USMNT opened World Cup qualification for Russia with two solid, if unspectacular performances. They started with their easiest match of this round with a 6-1 home win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The second match was the most challenging, a road game against Trinidad and Tobago, and resulted in a 0-0 draw. The goalless result in a non-friendly was the first for the United States since their World Cup game against Germany last summer, a run of nine games. It was their seventh clean sheet overall in that same time.

USMNT vs. St. Vincent and the Grenadines
The first game was complete domination by the United States and we can only sit back and admire the gaudy statistics that described this contest. The U.S. held possession for 83% of the match and made 913 pass attempts. Their 20 shots tied the previous cycle high against Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinal. This time the U.S. finished a few more shots. To provide a visual sense of the dominance here are the passing charts of the four starting defenders for each side.

The United States defenders were playing extremely high and very involved in the offense, tallying a goal and an assist. Meanwhile, most long ball attempts by the St. Vincent and the Grenadines defenders were thwarted immediately by the U.S. defense. Only two passes were attempted by the visiting defenders in the attacking half. There is little to say or analyze when the quality of the two teams is so glaringly difficult. The only real takeaway is that people who call for a sixteen team Gold Cup have more of these games to look forward to. 

Trinidad & Tobago vs. USMNT
Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain was the toughest task for the U.S. in the fourth round of CONCACAF qualification. Both teams played very conservatively, starting in flat 4-4-2 formations and sitting their defense deep. The lack of defensive actions in the attacking half reveal this lack of defensive pressure from both sides. From the passes per defensive action metrics below, we can see that Trinidad and Tobago sat a good deal deeper, allowing the U.S. to dictate the tempo, but not allowing many opportunities.

As the game progressed, Trinidad and Tobago sat even deeper allowing the U.S. to eventually hold more than 60% of possession. Both teams were clearly comfortable with a tie and were unwilling to take the risk of pushing too many numbers forward. 

Despite the possession disadvantage, Trinidad and Tobago was able to take more shots, gaining a 14-10 advantage. A shot discrepancy is nothing new for Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad as their TSR (shots taken as a percentage of total shots taken) is 42% this cycle. They’ve taken 93 fewer shots than their opponents in the last 24 games. However, the U.S. is extremely patient with their shot taking and as a result are dead even with their opponents in shots on target. In this match they lost that statistic 3-2 but perhaps the best chance was a chance that missed the target.

In the 47th minute Jozy Altidore laid a perfect cross onto the head of an oncoming Gyasi Zardes who headed it off the woodwork. The U.S. likely won’t regret the miss, but Zardes’ three missed shots all revealed a lack of sharpness that indicates he may not be ready to handle forward responsibilities in international competition. He’s been more effective for Klinsmann on the wing where he can help create and be a secondary scoring option, making runs off the forwards.

A new regime
With the Gold Cup and Confederations Cup disasters in the rearview, Klinsmann has begun signaling more permanent changes to the lineup. DeAndre Yedlin is now a clear fixture after getting two starts in qualifying. However, Klinsmann has not committed to playing him in the midfield or at defensive back. His defense is too suspect for the grand stage at this point, which must be why Yedlin is getting chances on the wing. Perhaps that will improve with his time at Sunderland. Fabian Johnson earned time at his more natural position on the left wing, signaling that he might be the long term choice opposite of Yedlin. Where that leaves Zardes remains to be seen.

Bobby Wood is another clear fixture in the forward rotation and his recent production makes him an easy selection. He appears to be the heir apparent to Clint Dempsey, but to accommodate Wood’s style the U.S. will have to replace the deeper playmaking ability that Dempsey brought to the team. That final link between the midfielders and forwards remains the team’s biggest gap. Until a central attacking midfielder emerges from the pool, we might see a lot more of this flat 4-4-2 formation. 

The four points from the opening matches are plenty for the United States. The final four matches in this round will be a great opportunity for Klinsmann to further refine the lineup that will make the core team for Russia. How long will aging veterans like Jermaine Jones and Matt Besler hold on to their positions? Who are the players that can knock them out and keep them out? We’ve got to wait to March to see that play out.