U.S. offense impotent again in loss to Belgium
Jurgen Klinsmann is still making the most of his honeymoon period as United States head coach, but it won't be long before his rebuilding job needs a coat of paint and to be made ready for a full appraisal.
Klinsmann was largely spared criticism following the USA's 1-0 friendly loss to Belgium in Brussels on Tuesday night, the team's second defeat (it also has one draw) since he stepped in after Bob Bradley was fired.
Yet while there is a general level of understanding that the new coach needs some time to discover which players can do the job for him leading up to the 2014 World Cup, he has certainly already used up some of the free passes afforded to him once he accepted the post.
Whereas Bradley could do no right in the eyes of many American soccer enthusiasts, Klinsmann largely inspires belief and optimism, particularly among those who feel that with so many players now plying their trade in Europe, a coach from that continent was the only sensible option.
Even so, international soccer waits for no man, and Klinsmann now finds himself in need of some positive results if the feel-good factor that greeted his arrival is to continue.
The Belgium loss may, like an opening game draw against Mexico and a home defeat to Costa Rica last week, have offered valuable lessons. Though with World Cup qualifying now within sight, realistically one can hope the coach is getting close to settling his lineup.
His experiments have been plentiful, with some (such as Brek Shea) proving generally successful, and others (such as Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco) far less so.
Belgium is a talented and solid side, and a defeat on foreign soil should not be seen as a disgrace. However, the Belgians, who clinched victory thanks to Nicolas Lombaerts' powerful strike after 55 minutes, are unlikely to qualify as one of the 16 teams for next summer's European Championships and are ranked only 37th compared to USA's No. 28 world ranking.
When Klinsmann came in, it was expected that he would attempt to build an identity for the team that revolved around enterprise and attacking force. Yet the product has been far less imaginative than many hoped.
Playing a solo forward in attack – first Jozy Altidore and then substitute Juan Agudelo – the frontmen were too often isolated as once again USA struggled to create meaningful chances.
The first smatterings of discontent came from former U.S. international and current ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman, who highlighted the dearth of creativity in the camp.
"Six halves of soccer, one goal," said Twellman. "The key is the quality of chances. There are no chances. How many were there in the game? Maybe two. It is not good enough. One goal in six halves under Jurgen Klinsmann."
In Klinsmann's defense, he has not yet had a full-strength side to work with, and the addition of Landon Donovan, who was allowed to remain with his club team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, instead of traveling to Belgium, could have been significant. Even more so, the hoped-for return of Stuart Holden, who is close to full fitness after six months out with a broken leg, may be another factor that generates forward momentum, possibly from the heart of the midfield.
"This was OK," said forward Clint Dempsey, playing his first game of the Klinsmann era. "There were bits and pieces. At times we played well and kept possession and moved it around but had trouble getting chances. We haven't got a win for the coach yet, but we have got to keep improving. We have got to come to places like this against quality teams and test ourselves."
Klinsmann is making some progress in addressing several question marks. He used young defender Timmy Chandler in an unfamiliar left-back role and surely saw enough to suggest that the Germany-based 21-year-old is worth future consideration.
The efforts of Jose Torres in midfield, which have improved game upon game, point to a long-term role for him. He may benefit even more when accompanied by a player like Holden alongside him, perhaps with Michael Bradley sitting just behind.
Yet it is the conundrum of how to break down opposition defenses that is the most testing, especially as the U.S. has now gone 20 straight games without scoring more than twice. Most of that statistic is not of Klinsmann's making, but it is his primary concern.
How he deals with it will shape how he is perceived as his new role moves into its next phase, one where the importance of tangible results is held in greater regard.
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