The USMNT kicked off their 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign exactly the way they should have, with a 6-1 victory over St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Things looked rocky at first when a defensive breakdown allowed St. Vincent to jump out to a quick 1-0 lead, but the United States settled down and proceeded to systematically break St. Vincent and the Grenadines down throughout the match.
There were two dominant storylines that highlighted this match: U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann has finally decided to play his players in their natural positions and he is very committed to Jozy Altidore.
Klinsmann has spent the better part of the past year experimenting with any and every formation to try to find the best one possible. Friday he opted for a basic flat 4-4-2.
Klinsmann needs to play a two-striker formation due to his need for Altidore to be on the field and because you also need at least one competent striker on the field. The problem the U.S. has run into with the 4-4-2 is that playing Bradley and Jones together has often had disastrous results.
Despite an early defensive breakdown on several levels Friday night, the Bradley-Jones pairing eventually seemed to click, and the pair allowed Klinsmann to play several others in positions they are far more familiar with.
Fabian Johnson has been a right back for the United States for two years now, despite playing as a left winger for his club team Borussia Mochengladbach. Similarly, DeAndre Yedlin has always been a right back, though Klinsmann has preferred to play him as a right winger.
Klinsmann started Johnson on the left wing and Yedlin at his natural right back, allowing Gyasi Zardes to play in his more natural right side. Johnson took control of the U.S. midfield resulting in a far more potent U.S. attack that didn’t rely nearly as heavily on Bradley. This allowed Bradley to sit back more making his partnership with Jermaine Jones far more effective.
Johnson was a force going forward, scoring the teams’ second goal and the combination of the Zardes and Yedlin on the right side gave St. Vincent fits the entire night.
The other dominant storyline in this game was Altidore’s position on the team.
When the roster for the World Cup was announced, it was noticeable that 2014 World Cup captain Clint Dempsey was left off the team. Klinsmann addressed this saying he left Dempsey off because he needed to see what the younger players could do.
History says Klinsmann would stubbornly put Altidore on the team, and if Altidore were to keep his place and Dempsey is your best forward what difference would it make what the young players could do? Nevertheless, maybe he’ll give the young players a chance and stick Altidore on the bench where he belongs.
Instead we were treated to a 4-4-2 with Altidore and Bobby Wood started up top. Wood has been impressive lately, but that doesn’t change what Altidore did, or rather didn’t do. Altidore was completely invisible. He had no effect on the game. The only problem with that statement was that he actually scored two goals, the most misleading stat of the night.
Altidore’s first goal came on a header right next to the post when he simply finished a very well executed corner kick from Johnson and the rest of the USMNT. His second goal came on a hold up play in the box where he turned and shot it into the net.
Despite Altidore’s absence from the match and his goals the alarms went off late in the second half when bright young striker Jordan Morris replaced Wood as a substitute. Klinsmann wasn’t trying to see how the young strikers played with the U.S. team, he was trying to see how they each played with Altidore. This gives the impression that Altidore’s spot is set in stone, and Klinsmann is openly holding auditions for Dempsey’s replacement.
It should be noted that Dempsey is currently 32 years old, the same age Landon Donovan was when Klinsmann cut him from the 2014 World Cup team.
At this time, players like Wood and Morris are exciting. They have both shown flashes of brilliance and have sky-high potential. But at the same time, Dempsey remains the U.S.’ best forward.
A 6-1 win will mask any potential problems that the USMNT might have, but Klinsmann auditioning people for Dempsey’s spot rather than Altidore’s going forward is certainly a storyline to watch.