US Soccer can see Brazil on the horizon. Thanks to two wins in the last week, last Friday’s 2-1 victory in Jamaica and Tuesday night’s 2-0 defeat of Panama in Seattle, Jurgen Klinsmann and co. are top of the Hex in World Cup Qualifying. The team has 10 points from five games over this first stretch that included three road games. 16 points has guaranteed qualification in past cycles, and with a majority of home games remaining, a win next Tues. over Honduras and the team can shift emphasis a bit. It will be more about building the team and less worrying about getting to Brazil next summer.
The team also looks much, much better. A number of factors contribute here: time together, diminished quality of opponents, and a likely change in some coaching/communication methods. The key component has been the emergence of important utility players, who have stepped into new or less familiar roles. This can be a tricky proposition; oftentimes when you play guys outside their natural or familiar club position, they’re tentative or ineffective. But Jurgen seems to have pushed the right buttons in this case, and his plug-and-play lineups have succeeded – at least against these regional opponents.
Five points for your two World Cup Qualifier utility wins…
- Utility outside backs DaMarcus Beasley and Brad Evans have answered the call. Evans (a midfielder) got the garbage goal in stoppage time to beat Jamaica and has been smart and steady. He’s struggled with quick attackers, though, and is probably third choice at right back. Beasley (a midfielder) on the other hand, looks like the de facto left back of the moment. He’s never shied away from contact (despite his small stature), and his intelligent runs and skill on the ball have helped make the left side the primary attacking side.
- Utility attackers up top. Eddie Johnson (a striker) filled in at right mid against Panama. He may play left mid next Tues., and he will also push high as a second forward. Fabian Johnson looked effective at left mid and can also slide to the backline. Meanwhile, the USA’s primo utility attacker, Clint Dempsey, will pop up anywhere in the attacking third, and looks much more comfortable in the middle.
- Cameron the conundrum. Geoff Cameron played perhaps his best game in a US shirt against Panama after looking sharp in relief against Jamaica. He did so at center mid. Cameron has also had stints at center back and right back under Klinsmann. We still think Geoff’s best bet is at center back, but his athleticism and versatility have made him a mainstay. If only he could get more center back reps for his club team…
- Utility not required for the Big Three. The plug-and-play has not expanded to the US’s three best players during this stretch: Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore. While each of them have shown some versatility, they clearly have a much better understanding of their roles and positions than this time last year. And those positions are ironclad. Maybe that’s why the attack looked so much better Tuesday against Panama – the familiarity with each other and the system is finally there. It starts with Bradley, who looks like the best midfielder in the whole region. Dempsey trusts his teammates more lately, and Jozy is starting to play like the strker we’ve been hoping for.
- Utility men and fool’s gold. Hey, it’s working right now, but these players out of their natural positions or in roles for which they’re not wholly suited isn’t the longterm answer. Against high quality teams (see the Belgium match), the utility men can be exposed. The team needs a natural right back badly. Every team needs versatility, though. And we haven’t even discussed two additional versatile utility men, Stuart Holden and Landon Donovan, who could be back in the mix very soon.