Jurgen Klinsmann might have had his hand forced into bringing in a player that might solve the United States' problem at the #10/CAM role in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
During the 2014 World Cup, an injury to Jozy Altidore pushed Clint Dempsey up top, and the American attack was stalled trying to go through Michael Bradley, their stalwart box-to-box midfielder who was used to creating from the back. Players like Mix Diskerud and Alejandro Bedoya have yet to lay claim to the playmaking role behind Dempsey. Which is where Lee Nguyen comes in.
Lee's exploits in MLS this season are well known. 18 goals during the regular season, two more during the New England Revolution's playoff series against the Columbus Crew to go along with an overall dazzling display throughout the 2014 season. But can Lee Nguyen breakthrough into an already crowded US midfield with players who have largely been involved during the last World Cup cycle?
Of course he can, but that also depends on Jurgen Klinsmann actually deploying Lee in that attacking midfield role and not as a winger of a defensive midfielder. We're well aware of Klinsmann's tactical exploits/conundrums and we'll get to Jermaine Jones' continued experiment as a centerback later, but if Klinsmann want's to see what Lee can actually do at the international level, he's going to have to put Lee in his natural position.
That doesn't mean Lee can't be effective playing out wide or deeper in the midfield, but if you watched the Revolution during their 8-game losing streak over the summer one of the issues was Lee was being forced to sit deeper in the midfield and the Revs struggled to create chances. With Jermaine Jones now in the New England midfield, Lee has the freedom to stay higher and press the opponents defense. But Lee is still smart enough to be deployed anywhere in the midfield, but playing him anywhere but the playmaking role would be a disservice to his skill set.
I've often lamented that players like Diskerud and Bedoya don't have natural positions in Klinsmann's formation. Bedoya seems to have his best games when deployed out wide and Diskerud seems stuck between trying to learn how to play a holding role or be a playmaker when he might just be an old-school box-to-box center midfielder. With the formations and tactics so specialized in today's game, their versatility ends up being their weakness since neither has been able to stake a claim to a single position.
Granted, I expect to see a lot of Bedoya and Diskerud going forward in the 2018 cycle, it's just a matter of where. Is Diskerud the future partner with Michael Bradley in the holding midfield role or will he remain the super sub off the bench? Bedoya faces a similar problem but with much less competition out wide in the winger roles, if he can be effective and produce in the attack, he'll get minutes. But with Klinsmann constantly shuffling players around, he's also creating part of this headache.
This is where Lee Nguyen comes in. He already has role and everyone knows what he's good at, which means Klinsmann has the option to build around him as the playmaker in the same way he does with Dempsey. The best part is, with Dempsey staying behind in Seattle to rest up for the Western Conference Final, there's a vacant spot open to start against Colombia today. And since it's likely that Nguyen and Jones are returning to New England, why not give Lee at least 45 minutes to get a first hand look at what he does best, create: either for himself or for others.
Friendlies are a wonderful time to experiment with tactics and formations, and Klinsmann has been known to do this perhaps too often. And I don't mind the idea of Jermaine Jones playing centerback at the international level. His ability on the ball and vision has been a weapon from deep in the midfield and it might extend his international career for a little while. But against a team like Colombia? This is a recipe for disaster.
Colombia is good. Like, really, really good. Like they were absolutely better than Brazil in the quarterfinals of the World Cup good and I will hear nothing to the contrary. Sadly, Radamel Falcao is out for this game, so the attacking focus will be instead on James Rodriquez, the breakout start from last summers World Cup and current Real Madrid player. With Teofilo Gutierrez up top in head coach Jose Pekerman's 4-2-3-1, Colombia will provide a stern test for the USA.
But as much as everyone was raving about Colombia at the World Cup, there are two things about their roster that jump out at you. The first is at goalkeeper, where Pekerman has brought in three domestic keepers and only one has ever played internationally, Camilo Vargas at age 25 has two caps, his backups Jose Cuadrado and Leandro Castellanos have zero. Defensively, two AC Milan players in centerback Pablo Armero and fullback Cristian Zapata represent most of the experience on the back line with 61 and 30 appearances respectfully. Santiago Arias who plays for Dutch side PSV has 12 caps and behind him are five players with a total of 8 caps, and two defenders on the roster are uncapped.
With inexperience in the defensive third, it will be up to Altidore and the rest of the US attack to breakdown this unit, and the best way to do this is to put out the USA's best lineup. If Klinsmann wants to experiment with the roster for the Ireland game, that's fine, he's going to be losing a handful of MLS players who have playoff series the following weekend. But this lineup should be strong from the get go, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman in the holding roles, Cameron and Matt Besler in central defense, you get the idea.
And if Lee Nguyen does get a significant run out with what should largely be the United States' first team, even off the bench, it will end a seven year drought for him away from the national team, the second longest in USMNT history for an outfield player. Only former San Jose legend Ramiro Corrales went longer between US appearances.
It's been a long awaited return for Lee Nguyen to the international stage, and after months of New England and pretty much everyone else clamoring for this call up, it's finally here.
The United States and Colombia will kick off from Fulham's Craven Cottage, former club of USMNT's Dempsey, Carlos Bocanega, and Brian McBride, at 245 PM EST on ESPN.