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The United States men's national team is on to the semifinals of the Copa America Centenario. But its 2-1 quarterfinal victory over Ecuador claimed a few casualties.
Jermaine Jones received a straight red card, and Alejandro Bedoya and Bobby Wood both picked up their second yellow cards of the tournament, meaning all three will miss the Americans' semifinal against Argentina on Tuesday.
DeAndre Yedlin will return from his yellow card suspension for the match, but without three of his most influential players, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is faced with a number of lineup questions.
That would be troubling for any team. Yet it's especially troubling for the U.S. One of the team's biggest assets at Copa America has been lineup continuity. Despite a mid-competition formation switch, the same central quartet of Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley and Jones had started all four games.
Also amplifying the concern is that the Yanks' opponent, Argentina, might be the best team in the world.
So what will Klinsmann do?
Dilemma No. 1: Formation
The U.S. played a 4-3-3 throughout the buildup to the tournament, for the entirety of the opener against Colombia, and for roughly 35 minutes against Costa Rica. Then Klinsmann moved Bobby Wood up top alongside Dempsey and pushed the U.S. into a 4-4-2, the formation it has been playing ever since.
With a fully stocked cabinet, this wouldn't be much of a dilemma. The 4-4-2 has been successful, and it suits a "defend and counter" game plan far more than a 4-3-3 does.
But with key players missing – namely Wood up top and Jones in the middle – and with high-powered Argentina awaiting, other options come into play. There's a chance Klinsmann could go to an ultra-defensive 4-5-1 setup. Jones' two-way capabilities aren't going to be replicated by a single player, so rather than partially plug the hole and task forwards or defenders with fixing the leaks, Klinsmann could opt to fully plug it with two players rather than one.
That would necessitate concessions elsewhere, though, likely up top. And that's an issue, because recent games have taught us two unshakeable truths: 1. Dempsey has to be in the U.S. starting 11; and 2. Dempsey is not a lone striker, especially not at this stage of his career. So if the Americans are to provide an attacking threat – and they'll need to, despite the expectation that Argentina will boss the game – a 4-4-2 remains the best option. It just might not be realistic given other restrictions.
That brings us to Klinsmann's first personnel decision.
Dilemma No. 2: Dempsey's partner
Dempsey and Wood had developed a good partnership, with Wood's running providing Dempsey with space in which to play. The ideal replacement for Wood, if the U.S. remains in a 4-4-2, would possess a similar skillset.
The top option is to move Gyasi Zardes to striker. Zardes, who has been playing wide for the U.S., has alternated between the two positions ever since debuting for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2013. He's been maddeningly inconsistent in a U.S. jersey, but he's been more than serviceable on both flanks at Copa America. He created Dempsey's goal against Paraguay and scored what turned out to be the winner against Ecuador.
Zardes has more speed than any other American attacking player at Copa America. Thus, of the options at Klinsmann's disposal, he complements Dempsey best. But Zardes's movement isn't as mature and proactive as Wood's. The other clear con to moving Zardes up front is that it creates a hole in midfield and removes Zardes from what has become his comfort zone within this U.S. team.
Chris Wondolowski – he of World Cup infamy – is really the only other option. That's because he's the only remaining out-and-out striker on the roster. But Wondo wouldn't be the key cog in buildup play that Wood was and seems better-suited to a substitute role, should the U.S. find itself behind in the second half.
If Klinsmann does decide to play a lone striker, it has to be Dempsey. It's far from ideal, but based on the conundrum in midfield and the opponent, Klinsmann might deem it necessary.
Dilemma No. 3: Central midfield
Klinsmann must replace at least two of his midfield starters, and three if he chooses to move Zardes higher up the field. The most pressing concern, however, is in the middle.
Jones' absence creates a massive void. Playing next to – but really in front of – Michael Bradley, Jones was doing everything. He was a ball-winner; but with Bradley as a safety net, he was also liberated to press higher up the field and join Dempsey, Wood, Zardes and Bedoya on the counter.
Klinsmann will inevitably have to sacrifice some portion of Jones' abilities in picking a replacement, and especially against Argentina, it will likely be the attacking ones that he surrenders. Jones and Bradley both have box-to-box capabilities. No other midfielder on the U.S. roster does.
Whether it's in a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1, Kyle Beckerman seemingly has to be in the team.
Klinsmann trusts Beckerman. The Real Salt Lake stalwart started three of four games at the 2014 World Cup and is one of the smartest players in the squad. He has nowhere near the physical attributes of Jones, but he'll shield the back four and allow Bradley to fulfill some of the attacking responsibilities vacated by Jones.
Perry Kitchen would be the other, more athletic defensive midfield option. However, he's untested at the international level, and wouldn't provide much more than Beckerman going forward.
There's another outside-the-box option, though.
Think back to the 2014 World Cup. With a ridiculously talented and physically robust Belgium team looming in the Round of 16, Klinsmann surprisingly benched Beckerman and moved Geoff Cameron – who had started the tournament's first two games at center back – into a defensive midfield role. Could he pull a similar stunt against Argentina?
A Cameron-in-midfield lineup would push Matt Besler back into his customary center back position, slide Fabian Johnson back to left back and slot Yedlin back in at right back, which is all very reasonable. Tinkering with a back four that hasn't conceded from open play in the entire tournament would be a controversial maneuver, especially after finally finding a center back tandem that has gelled. But hey, this is Jurgen Klinsmann we're talking about. Don't rule it out.
If the U.S. goes 4-5-1, it would likely be looking for a third midfielder who can be a No. 10 to Bradley's No. 8 and Beckerman's No. 6. That would be Darlington Nagbe. A Nagbe-Bradley-Beckerman midfield would, on paper, actually be quite well-balanced. Nagbe would be tasked with supporting Dempsey and holding possession under pressure, while Bradley would move into a do-it-all role. This would be Klinsmann's best option if he settles on a 4-5-1.
Dilemma No. 4: The rest
This is where things get complicated. Not only does Klinsmann have to find one or two new wide midfielders; he also has to decide who his fullbacks are. He has four players who could potentially play fullback and five players who could potentially play on the wing, but of the five midfield options, two (Johnson and Yedlin) are also the presumed starting fullbacks, one (Christian Pulisic) is 17 years old, and another (Nagbe) is likely starting centrally in a 4-5-1.
First, let's all but rule out Pulisic. His only Copa America appearance came in the opener when the U.S. was chasing a 2-0 deficit. He's not going to play from the start in a game that will be primarily a defensive one for the U.S.
Now let's break down the options at each of the four spots.
• Right back: DeAndre Yedlin, Fabian Johnson, Michael Orozco.
• Left back: Fabian Johnson, Matt Besler.
• Right midfield: Gyasi Zardes (if 4-5-1), DeAndre Yedlin, Fabian Johnson, Graham Zusi, Darlington Nagbe.
• Left midfield: Gyasi Zardes (if 4-5-1), Fabian Johnson, Graham Zusi, Darlington Nagbe.
For the quarterfinal, Klinsmann picked Besler, a natural center back, in place of the suspended Yedlin, and swapped Johnson over to the right side to put Besler, a lefty, at left back.
In the functioning 4-4-2, Besler carried almost no attacking responsibility. The U.S. essentially ignored the left third of the field, instead attacking through the center and right thirds, and employed Bedoya as a defensive winger on the left to protect Besler and compensate for his lack of pace.
Even with Bedoya suspended, there's a decent chance we see a similar ploy against Argentina.
Zusi can play the Bedoya role. With Zardes presumably pushed up to striker, Johnson and Yedlin can patrol the right side of the field, with one in front of the other at right midfield. Johnson plays on the wing for his club, Borussia Moenchengladbach, and Yedlin plays at right back for Sunderland. But in the past, Klinsmann has used Yedlin as a right midfielder.
Either way, this seems like a very logical lineup. But the U.S.'s success with the lopsided formation against Ecuador might be deceiving. It worked for 45 minutes, but only because Ecuador failed to recognize and adjust. Argentina should be able to do that given a few days to prepare.
Interestingly, Klinsmann also used Besler at left back in a 4-3-3 in one of the pre-tournament friendlies. And after Thursday's victory, he said, "… there was a reason for that. We know who we [could face], growing through at the group stage."
That would seem to indicate that Besler was more than just a backup plan. He may be a key part of a more defensive system that Klinsmann always planned to use against teams like Argentina. So although a 4-3-3/4-5-1 often requires more fullback support in attack, the U.S. might disregard attacking plans to solidify things at the back.
Here's what that would look like (left to right):
Guzan; Besler, Brooks, Cameron, Yedlin; Johnson, Bradley, Beckerman, Nagbe, Zardes; Dempsey.
Another extremely defensive option would be to bring Michael Orozco into the fold at right back in a 4-4-2. This would essentially be four central defenders across the back, with the two fullbacks, Johnson and Yedlin, on the wings, and Zardes up top alongside Dempsey.
Or, Klinsmann could opt to revert to something similar to the lineup he had settled on coming into the tournament with Johnson at left back and Yedlin at right back. That would bring Nagbe into the team – either as a winger in a 4-4-2, or as an attacking midfielder in a 4-5-1 – plus another winger, likely Zusi. Here's what this would look like (left to right):
Guzan; Johnson, Brooks, Cameron, Yedlin; Zusi, Bradley, Beckerman, Nagbe, Zardes; Dempsey.
Such a setup would also give the U.S. tactical flexibility. The same 11 could morph interchangeably between a 4-5-1 and 4-4-2, with Zusi moving forward and Nagbe moving wide.
In the end, formations are merely simplistic representations of intricate systems, so Klinsmann's most likely move is to choose the above 11 and design a plan – probably somewhere in between a traditional 4-4-2 and traditional 4-5-1 – for those 11 to carry out.