The U.S. national team is in a state of purgatory. Stuck somewhere between past glory and future triumphs, Jurgen Klinsmann and his side are caught in an uneasy bargain.
And Wednesday, it cost the team in a big way.
The U.S. head coach made a bold move against Honduras in his team's Hexagonal opener, opting to start Omar Gonzalez, who was making his first appearance in a World Cup qualifier, ahead of veteran captain Carlos Bocanegra.
When the lineups were announced, many applauded the German's gamble, and it's not hard to see why. Gonzalez looks like a future national team stalwart at 24, while the 33-year-old Bocanegra has struggled with injuries and form this season at second-division side Racing Santander in Spain.
After the game, it was apparent that Klinsmann's risky move had backfired.
Gonzalez and his center back partner Geoff Cameron were out of sync on multiple occasions, in what was their first time ever playing together as the USA's center back pairing. The Honduras winner was particularly disastrous, as the duo's collective lack of awareness led to an easy tap-in for Jerry Bengtson.
Gonzalez and Cameron had a combined 14 caps heading into the Honduras game. Bocanegra has 110.
Similarly, Klinsmann trotted out a pair of inexperienced outside backs in the game as well, though in slightly less controversial fashion. Both Timothy Chandler and Fabian Johnson were widely expected to start the match at right back and left back respectively, but both were playing in their first Hexagonal game, and had just 19 caps between them before the match.
Johnson had a decent game, but Chandler was atrocious, failing to get involved in the attack and repeatedly looking heavy-legged while getting turned, spun, and screwed into the ground by the Honduras wide men. One particular play stood out in the second half, when Carlo Costly spun and nutmegged Chandler like it was his first time ever playing soccer.
It's easy to look back and bemoan the play of the team's back line in light of such an inauspicious performance, but it would also be instructive to remember why so many were hailing Klinsmann's bold move before the game started.
Bocanegra has missed a large portion of Racing's campaign with a hamstring tear, and wasn't at his best standard for the U.S. during the qualifying semifinal round. He's lost a step (or two) and will be 35 years old when Brazil 2014 rolls around. Other options like Clarence Goodson and Oguchi Onyewu are similarly on the wrong side of 30, and aren't getting consistent club minutes. Matt Besler has even less experience than Gonzalez.
After Chandler's performance, Steve Cherundolo may reclaim his spot at right back for the USA's next game, but like Bocanegra, he has also struggled with injuries this season and will be 35 when the World Cup begins.
Should Bocanegra have started in place of Gonzalez against Honduras? In hindsight, yes. And Cherundolo may have got the nod ahead of Chandler if he were healthy and on the roster. But the U.S. needs to be proactively searching for their replacements while simultaneously ensuring safe passage to Brazil. It's hardly ideal.
For his part, Klinsmann does not sound like a man ready to give up on his young back line after one poor performance.
"Chemistry takes time to develop, but the back line was not the reason that we lost that game," the coach said. "We believe Omar is ready for the international level and the only way you find that out is to give him a chance. Overall I thought he did well."
Looking further up the field, the focus is drawn to the man who's been such a big part of the USA's past and, if evidence from the Honduras match is to be believed, will have to also be a big part of its future.
While the team toiled in the hot sun of San Pedro Sula, Landon Donovan was far far away, both physically and presumably, mentally as well. As he continued his soul-searching sabbatical, the Yanks demonstrated why they absolutely need him back for one more go round.
For most of the match, the U.S. demonstrated exactly zero wide midfield play. Eddie Johnson is miscast as a winger, his replacement Sacha Kljestan even more so. On the other flank, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones won't get wide very often and with Johnson and Chandler unable to get involved in the attack, the U.S. suffered.
Donovan, even if he's not quite the player he used to be, is the Americans' best option to inject some pace and proactive play on the flank. Furthermore, his presence should help connect defense and attack without the litany of careless giveaways that plagued the U.S. in San Pedro Sula.
Klinsmann's team will eventually need to transition to the next generation of stars, but if we learned anything in Honduras, it was that there is still plenty of use for a few familiar names.
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