U.S. defenders help key attack
RECIFE, Brazil -- The early days of the Jurgen Klinsmann era were marked by growing pains, and that was true for both the U.S. coach and his players.
To be sure, the German legend faced plenty of criticism on a number of fronts in 2011 and 2012 -- not least for his tactics, which, during that first year or so of his now almost three-year-long tenure, consisted of lineups that struggled mightily to create scoring chances from wide positions.
Not that it was all Klinsmann's fault.
When it comes to producing elite soccer players, America has its strengths. The U.S. has long been a goalkeeper factory; at one point a few years ago, 20 percent of the teams in the English Premier League -- regarded as the best circuit on the planet at the time -- were backstopped by Yanks.
Serviceable central defenders or ball-winning midfielders? For two decades, the U.S. has churned those out in abundance, too.
As for fleet-footed attacking players, well, that's where the U.S. has often been left wanting. Landon Donovan, still arguably the best player in the nation's history, is the outlier. While Donovan was used on the outside regularly over the course of his 13-year national team career, he was never a true winger. Donovan wasn't the kind who beats his man to the end line and serves in the killer assist the way Dutchman Arjen Robben did against Chile on Monday. His best work usually came after cutting inside.
Same goes for Clint Dempsey, who never had Donovan's pace but who often ended up on the wing for the U.S. anyway -- first under Bruce Arena, then Bob Bradley.
With Donovan and Dempsey approaching their 30s when Klinsmann took over, though, the new boss was forced to find a workaround. His solution was the use of attacking full-backs.
It wasn't a revolutionary approach.
A 22-year old named Philipp Lahm was one of the breakout players for Klinsmann's Germany team at the 2006 World Cup, and the truth is that Klinsmann was limited by player availability with the U.S. early on. Now, with Fabian Johnson healthy, Timmy Chandler committed to the cause, DaMarcus Beasley a revelation as a converted midfielder and the 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin emerging as one of the coach's pre-World Cup masterstrokes, wing-backs have emerged as an undeniable strength for the Yanks in Brazil.
"I think the full-back position has over the years developed into a key position in all of the teams in global football," Klinsmann said here a day before Thursday's "do-or-tie" match against Germany (Noon ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). "They can be game-changers, they can be the key for success."
They already have been. The lightning-quick Yedlin, who had just two caps to his name before surprisingly being picked for the final roster last month, made his World Cup debut off the bench against Portugal and almost immediately created a goal finished off by Dempsey -- the one that would've been the game winner had the Selecao not stolen a stoppage-time equalizer. Beasley has been solid, and Klinsmann called Johnson "one of the best full-backs in this tournament" on Wednesday.
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"Those positions are very important because they cause the opponents problems," the coach said.
Against a clinical team like Germany, though, having defenders fly up the wing could be a risky strategy, especially since the U.S. needs just a tie to advance to the second round. But having overlapping runners on the outside could also keep Die Mannschaft honest. The key, according to Johnson, is making sure those offensive forays are covered.
"When I go to the attack, they support me at the back," Johnson said.
Besides, after waiting so long for that width and seeing it blossom in Brazil, Klinsmann isn't likely to change things up now.
"In the game against Portugal, they shifted their left-backs three times because they didn't know how to deal with it," the coach said Wednesday. "So hopefully it is going to be a weapon for us tomorrow as well."