Friendlies in international soccer do funny things to a man, particularily those played after midnight on East Coast time.
Somewhere in the second half of last Friday's disappointing USMNT 1-0 loss at the hands of Costa Rica my mind started wondering if Jonathan Bornstein would actually be an upgrade over Edgar Castillo at left back? That, gasp, part of me actually missed the left back styling of Senor Bugaloo.
More likely my brain was on fire from eating too much buffalo chicken dip at my friend's new apartment housewarming scenario.
Still it was hard to feel the performance by the U.S. -- first 30 minutes aside -- would have been something pulled from the Bob Bradley playbook, not Jurgen Klinsmann. Sadly, it felt like a continuation of the same, making you realize more-and-more it's about the players than anything else.
All-and-in, it's probably a good thing the game was played so late on a Friday night on the opening weekend of College Football. Out of sight, out of mind.
The first 30 minutes, with the U.S. players buzzing around was encouraging -- but let's not get carried away. You could make an argument, too, if Landon Donovan buries that early chance inside the right post, instead of outside it, it's a U.S. rout and we all feel better about ourselves and Klinsmann doesn't have to worry about possibility waiting until October for his first victory in charge of the U.S.
What struck me about the Costa Rica game, as it wore on, was a lack of ideas or leadership on the field. It seemed the entire game plan boiled down to getting the ball to Brek Shea on the left wing, hoping the big blond dude could dribble around a defender and make something happen. Shea, to his credit, didn't stop working but it's hard to recall a dangerous cross which produced a chance during the run of play. Part of this can probably be equated that Jozy Altidore(*) isn't exactly a target striker, or at least the kind of guy who's going to find through a forest of attackers to win a header. Hell, the U.S. hasn't had that player for five years when a certain ex-Fulham hero retired from international play.
(*) Maybe in a few years we'll realize that Charlie Davies car accident also cost Altidore his international mojo, since the two forwards clicked playing off each other.
As easy as it is to chalk these games up to friendlies or -- buzzword alert -- everything with the U.S. is a work in progress, that's maybe being too simplistic. There is, for certain, a lack of urgency since the U.S. doesn't play a game that actually counts for something until June with the nasceant stages of CONCACAF World Cup 2014 qualifying.
What's tricky with Tuesday's game against Belgium in Brussels (2:30, ESPN), is yeah, you can make an argument that a game against a solid (not great) European team on European soil should theoretically count for something. Try telling that to the players, though. With the results not at a paramount, you're going to tend to have more disjointed displays, where individual players might try to do too much to impress Klinsmann and the new coaching staff.
It's a danger, with so many young or non-capped players, that instead of building a team over the 90 minutes of these friendlies, there are only small pockets of cohesive player or individual moments of brilliance. To counterweight that, Klinsmann all but has to have another January National Team camp like Bradley, if only to get these guys training and thinking together, right?
That's what's scary about the future with Klinsmann. Let's assume the U.S. manages its way through its first CONCACAF group (Jamaica plus, likely Guatemala and Haiti) and gets through the final hexagonal and qualifies for Brazil 2014. Between today and then, the only real tournament this U.S. team will play under Klinsmann will be the low-pressure 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup, probably on American soil. The way an athlete's brain functions in a friendly compared to a game that actually matters are two different things, and something that you can't create outside of the real deal.
Say what you will about the Bradley era, but the U.S. was battle tested and tournament (semi) ready.
So logic would only dictate the -- ugh -- process, under Klinsmann is going to take time, go through a lot of auditions and we won't have the luxury of a dress rehearsal (Confederations Cup) come Brazil. It'll be live without a net.
When you want change, you have to live with the growing pains.
* Nothing against Jose Torres, but there's nothing that leaps out at me in the limited international experience he's had that screams automatic starting XI. How much of a role is there for him, either, once Stuart Holden is healthy? Call me crazy, but it's hard to evaluate where the U.S. stands until the Bolton midfielder is back on the field. This isn't to say Holden is the missing link, but well ...
* Let the great Clint Dempsey where to play him debate begin. Considering the lack of striking options, perhaps its best to play him in a withdrawn role behind Altidore (or whomever). Better yet, if I'm Klinsmann I give Dempsey the freedom to roam like Sir Alex Ferguson allows Wayne Rooney. That said, with Donovan gone figure he tucks in at right midfield like he does at Fulham for this match.
* Hype warning, but Juan Agudelo is really damned impressive, or the minimum very confident on the ball and ready to make something happen at all times. If Klinsmann's smart, he'll develop the 18-year-old as super sub to run at tired legs in the final 20 minutes of games, where he can make the most impact.
* Kyle Beckerman is 29, a year older than Dempsey. Suppose there are other examples of players coming into their own as internationals this close to 30. Beckerman might have his limitations, but he does bring a bit of bite and leadership to the U.S. midfield, in one small sample vs. Mexico in August he put more of his stamp on the match than Maurice Edu did vs. Costa Rica.
* Never really understand what Robbie Rogers brings to the international table, if anything he's indicative of the lopsided, unbalanced type of player pool the U.S. has.
* If not Edgar Castillo at left back, then who? Eric Lichaj playing an inverted role when he gets back from his hip injury? Bobby Convey? DaMarcus Beasley? If Klinsmann develops Shea as a pure left-sided attacker, then the future U.S. left back doesn't need to get forward too much, instead needs to be a little like Gael Clichy and simply defend his position and hassle his mark. Shouldn't be that hard to find, should it?
* It makes me sad to think Jonathan Spector has gone from Manchester United -- albeit a fringe squad player -- to the English second division at relegated Birmingham City.
* For whatever reason, think Sacha Kljestan could have a decent game here, though he's not a guy that tends to bring a lot to the table for the U.S., or at least never found his best position in the XI under Bradley.
* Teams the U.S. has beaten in 2011: Canada, Guadeloupe, Jamaica and Panama.
* Belgium gave up a late goal on Friday to draw Azerbaijan in Euro 2012 qualifiers. It essentially ended the Red Devils chances to qualify. Hard to imagine the Belgian players, with the Euro leagues getting into gear, will be too fired up for a friendly against the U.S. It's not like Eden Hazard's transfer value is going up any higher based on how much he roasts Edgar Castillo or whomever, now is it?
* If Maroune Fellaini doesn't break anyone's ankle in this match, mission semi-accomplished.
* Wonder how many Belgian players are big fans of Tintin? Or better yet, even know who that is?
* Just going to link the Wikipedia page for King Leopold II. Great beard, but a major-league douche otherwise.
* Speaking of douches, for whatever it's worth, always enjoyed "In Bruges" despite the presence of Colin Farrell.
GK -- Howard
DEF -- Cherundolo -- Ream -- Bocanegra -- Castillo
MID -- Dempsey -- Kljestan -- Beckerman -- Torres -- Shea
FOR -- Altidore
Terrible job by me for the Costa Rica game not realizing Cherundolo and Beckerman weren't with the team. Oof.
Cosmetically, it would be a nice moral boost to beat a wounded Belgium team on their home turf. Plus it ends anyone mentioning how Klinsmann is winless in charge of the team.
Beyond that, it's another 90 minutes on the long road toward, hopefully, brighter skies in 2014.