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World Cup Qualifying

Can a Struggling U.S. Step Up in World Cup Qualifiers?

The U.S. men's national team has endured a dismal 2015 campaign, but tonight's World Cup qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines gives Jurgen Klinsmann and co. a chance to start anew.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 13, 2015
9:00 AM

THE UNITED STATES men’s national team opens its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign today against St. Vincent & the Grenadines (6:30 ET; ESPN, UniMas, UDN), and it does so at a time of turmoil and uncertainty.

If all goes according to plan, the Americans will play 16 qualifying games between now and 2017 to earn one of the 32 spots in Russia. The Americans played in seven straight World Cups but there are increasing signs that making it to eight could be difficult.

Qualifying for the last World Cup was no picnic. People tend to forget that in the semifinal round the team actually had its back against the wall. It squeaked past Antigua & Barbuda only after a last-minute cross from Alan Gordon found Eddie Johnson and later fell behind against Guatemala in Kansas City before rallying to avoid a stunning elimination with a 4-1 win.

CONCACAF is clearly catching up, and the U.S. might be regressing, too. This past summer’s Gold Cup was a disaster for the United States as Jurgen Klinsmann's men lost to Jamaica and were heavily outshot in the three group-stage games by Honduras, Haiti, and Panama. In all, the Yanks have lost four straight games against CONCACAF opponents, all at home.

St. Vincent & the Grenadines should be the easiest CONCONCAF opponent the U.S. team has faced since it defeated a defection-plagued Cuban team at the 2015 Gold Cup. Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday (6:25 ET, beIN Sports), however, should provide a bigger challenge.

The roster for this team is decidedly younger than the Gold Cup team, but significant questions remain. Here’s what to watch for in the two games ahead.

Can the U.S. Turn It Around?

Yes, the Americans have played poorly in recent months, and yes, there are serious questions about the direction of the team under Klinsmann. But the Yanks have been here before.

After struggling through the semifinal round of World Cup qualification and beginning the 2013 Hexagonal with a loss to Honduras, the Sporting News posted a shocking article spotlighting dysfunction within the team under Klinsmann, raising concerns about the squad's future under the German coach.

But that iteration of the U.S. team responded about as well as it possibly could have, surging to dominate the rest of the Hexagonal and winning the 2013 Gold Cup.

Will the same happen this time around? St. Vincent & the Grenadines will be a minimal test, giving the Yanks little to gain but everything to lose. Winning by a huge margin is expected, and even that probably won’t do enough to change anyone’s mind about the team’s direction. Winning against Trinidad & Tobago, meanwhile, wouldn’t quite eliminate concerns but would buy a little more time heading into 2016.

More than the results, though, it will be important to watch how this team plays—including its body language. In the dismal loss to Costa Rica last month, it appeared as if the players’ minds were elsewhere, as they couldn’t complete basic passes and never looked threatening.

Will the players in these matches look defiant and eager to dominate, or will they again appear defeated and downtrodden? Will they play to or exceed the sum of their parts or will they play down to the level of their opponents?

Aside from the results, these questions may be the most important ones for the United States going forward in this cycle.

What Will the young players bring?

The U.S roster for these games features many young players, including three (DeAndre Yedlin, Matt Miazga, and Jordan Morris) who are eligible for the 2016 Olympic team and two (Ventura Alvarado and Bobby Wood) who miss out only by mere weeks. In total, 11 of the 23 players are younger than 25, but only Miazga and Darlington Nagbe are with the team for the first time.

U.S. Soccer’s official website has a story boasting that “Youth is Served,” even while most would agree that the team still needs to get younger. The real question is whether Klinsmann has selected the right group of young players and how—or if—their energy and fresh perspectives will influence the rest of the team. Young players, after all, can bring about positive change if handled correctly, as was the case in 2002 with the invigorating inclusions of Landon Donovan, John O’Brien, and DaMarcus Beasley.

Still, these moves haven't always worked out, and some fresh faces have had deer-in-headlights responses when faced with international pressure. 

The Positioning Problem

During his tenure Klinsmann has had a tendency to utilize his players in roles that differ from those they normally play with their clubs. The list is a long one.

DeAndre Yedlin was a right back in Seattle and continues to play there at Sunderland. Will those performances convince Klinsmann to allow him to play fullback for the national team? Such a move could in turn free up Fabian Johnson, who has been playing in the midfield this season for Champions League side Borussia Monchengladbach.

Nagbe, who has the chance to become just the second MLS player to make his debut under Klinsmann outside of a January camp, has been playing very well for Portland ever since Caleb Porter began utilizing him in more of a box-to-box, No. 8 position. Is that how Klinsmann intends to use Nagbe, or will the coach play him out of position on the wing?

Questions remain about other players, too. Is Gyasi Zardes a winger or a forward? Is Miguel Ibarra better out wide or centrally? Is Tim Ream a center back or a left back? These two games will shed some light on Klinsmann's plans.

No, Jurgen—the U.S. has not been good

Yesterday, Klinsmann made a totally bizarre statement regarding the U.S. national team’s recent games. In a nutshell, he said that while the results have been bad, the performances have been good.

“I agree with the fact that we didn't get the results we wanted, but I don't agree with the fact that the performances were not the ones we wanted to see,” Klinsmann said. “I think we had a very, very, good game actually against Mexico. We discussed that at length after the game. But we came out on the short end. We lost it. That's the bottom line. If you have negative results, there's critics on there. The expectations are always the highest.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. The expectations are not high, they are low. The U.S. is being outplayed to CONCACAF teams at home and has lost four games in a row against regional opponents on U.S. soil. It was outshot at the Gold Cup 85-47 (aside from the Cuba game) to Honduras, Haiti, Jamaica, and Panama twice. Overall the team was outplayed in that tournament and the fourth place finish (without playing Mexico) was not just the result of bad luck, it was completely deserved. If not for Dempsey playing quality attacking soccer, it probably wouldn’t have gotten out of its group.

Then the Mexico game: Mexico dominated possession and was by far the more proactive team on the night. For most of the second half, it was tough for U.S. fans to watch. Three days later, the friendly loss to Costa Rica might have been the worst U.S. performance against a CONCACAF team on U.S. soil in many years.

By all accounts most agree that the U.S. has problems right now. The first step to solving a problem is to identify it. In saying that the U.S. performances were in any way acceptable, it is only going to make them harder to fix.

Future Uncertain for many players

The national team has not had a strong year aside from a few headline-making friendly wins, and many of its players have struggled with their clubs. The following in particular need a strong showing during this international window to make a case to be part of the team in 2016.

Miguel Ibarra: First named to a U.S. roster in 2014, Ibarra at the time was one of the best players in the second-tier NASL. In 2015 he moved from Minnesota United FC to Club Leon but has only played 125 minutes since. Making matters worse, Liga MX players (even those who play regularly) have typically not integrated well into Klinsmann’s U.S. team.

Ventura Alvarado: Last year Ventura Alvarado started for Club America in the Liga MX final and walked away with a win over Tigres. His 2015, however, has been a disaster. The 23-year-old from Phoenix has played just 380 minutes this season for Club America, compared with 862 largely erratic ones for the national team in 2015. Klinsmann says he likes Alvarado, but there are other players emerging, such as Miazga and Matt Hedges, who are both playing regularly and playing well.

Michael Orozco: Orozco has been a regular on the national team for years despite being just average in Liga MX. Now, however, questions might be asked about his future. He is on a horrible Club Tijuana team that’s in last place and has allowed 30 goals on the season—second worst in the league. Orozco was also benched in the team’s most recent game, and at age 29 his upside is negligible.

Alan Gordon: The Los Angeles Galaxy forward has shown an uncanny ability to score goals at the right time for his club. But Gordon is 34 and has just two national team caps to his name, and only seven of his 30 appearances for the Galaxy in 2015 came in a starting role. As soon as Klinsmann opts to give another young forward his shot, Gordon will be the first to go—unless Long Beach, Calif., native can do something extraordinary in the next week.

Jordan Morris: Morris has become a fan favorite this year, earning regular call-ups and making his presence felt in U.S. wins over Holland and Germany. The reality, however, is that the Stanford University junior is still unproven in games that truly matter, and his lack of professional competition and his shortened college training regimen may well catch up with him. After this international break, Morris will again be faced with the decision of whether or not to turn professional. The Seattle Sounders own his MLS rights and could certainly use some fresh blood. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. 

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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