Jurgen Klinsmann's tactics put U.S in a bind it can't overcome vs. Mexico
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At the end of the Copa America Centenario, U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann seemed to have answered his most vexing questions. The team played out of a 4-4-2, had identified its preferred back four and had determined the best roles for Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, with Bradley sitting deeper and Jones creating mayhem farther up field.
At that time, it seemed as if it would be a shame for Klinsmann to blow it up. There was no reason to, especially with two of the most difficult World Cup qualifiers -- home to Mexico and away to Costa Rica -- looming on the horizon. Yet every so often, Klinsmann the fantasist overrules Klinsmann the pragmatist and decides to do something exotic tactically.
That is precisely what he did in Friday's 2-1 defeat against Mexico.
In a tactical blunder, Klinsmann opted for a 3-5-2 or, as he semantically insisted, a 3-4-3. Whatever. The U.S. hadn't played three in the back since a friendly against Chile nearly two years ago. When asked why he decided to go with the formation, Klinsmann said, "We trained that [formation] and it went really well in training." Klinsmann added it had nothing to do with Mexico's approach.
Here comes the migraine.
The results proved as devastating as they were predictable. For the first 25 minutes or so, the U.S. was overrun, especially on its right side. The defensive spacing was a mess, as clear a sign as any that the formation's unfamiliarity was causing the side problems. Yes, Mexico is talented but all the more reason to not introduce such radical change with only a few days of preparation. El Tri was getting some fantastic looks, too, finally breaking through when Miguel Layun scored in the 20th minute. Mexico hit the woodwork on two other occasions.
"Tactically they do some interesting things and they space themselves out in a really good way," Bradley said. "So you have to have clear ideas about how you're going to deal with that and how you're going to close them down. Then it's easy to get pulled around and it's easy to have guys step out of one space to close something down and now that's the exactly the space that they're going to end up playing through."
When Mexico midfielder Andres Guardado went down injured in the 26th minute, it was like a boxer being saved by the bell. It allowed both Bradley and Jones to walk over to Klinsmann and plead with him to change the formation. Bradley barely hesitated when asked who suggested the formation change, Klinsmann or the players: "I think ultimately it was among us all. It was clear that it made sense to change."
Loosely translated, it was the players. Credit Klinsmann for going along with it, but he never should have put his team in such an awkward situation in the first place.
Once the U.S. made the switch, it not only got the home side back in the game but allowed Bradley & Co. to dominate the second half. The U.S. pulled even through Bobby Wood's cool finish and had chances to go ahead, only to run into some inspired goalkeeping from Alfredo Talavera. But then Rafa Marquez found space on a late corner, his flick-on header found the back of the net and the U.S. was forced to swallow a 2-1 defeat.
That the U.S. recovered is what makes the loss so frustrating. Klinsmann treated the match more like a January friendly than it was a World Cup qualifier. You simply can't gift an opponent like Mexico 25 minutes of the game and expect to get away with it. The U.S. didn't.
The result saw the end of some impressive streaks. It was the first home loss in a World Cup qualifier for the U.S. since 2001, when the Americans lost to Honduras. It was the first home loss to Mexico in a World Cup qualifier since 1972. There's no guarantee, of course, that if Klinsmann kept his framework simple, the U.S. would have won. But chances are the U.S. would have started the match on more even footing.
Instead, he left his side vulnerable and, rather predictably, Klinsmann blamed his players for the formation's failure, specifically Bradley and Jones.
"The key in that system is that your central midfielders need to get into these one-against-one battles," Klinsmann said in his postgame news conference. "That's something that was not happening the first 25-30 minutes. Not Michael Bradley nor Jermaine got into these battles and their players could roam and that really puts difficulties, so that gave them their chances. So we changed it then back because we train different systems, we have that always available.
"It calmed down the situation then and I think the second half was really good. If you go back to set pieces, we had ours with Omar [Gonzalez]'s open header there and it could have easily been a goal. But they scored two minutes before the end of the game. That's how it goes."
But it didn't have to.
Klinsmann didn't rule out using the 3-4-3 again. But ahead of Tuesday's match at Costa Rica -- where the U.S. only ever achieved a draw, back in 1985 -- he should rediscover the pragmatic approach that made the U.S. so successful earlier this year, using some variant of the 4-4-2. That way, come Tuesday, perhaps the U.S. can be the one to break an opponent's winning streak instead.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.