The U.S. is getting a little defensive about its defense.
After allowing several decent scoring chances early against Turkey last Sunday, the Americans settled down in the 2-1 victory. But the rocky start caused more conversation and maybe more concern about what many believe is the team’s glaring weakness heading into the World Cup in Brazil.
Players brushed aside questions about the sometimes sluggish back line as they practiced in Jacksonville for Saturday’s sendoff series finale against Nigeria.
“I think we were great on the day,” defender Geoff Cameron said Wednesday. “We moved the ball around while we were setting our lines up and trying to keep a high line. They tried to exploit us in that situation, but we kept a clean sheet in the first half, so we were happy.
“We’re still getting used to each other. We’re headed in the right direction. It’s one step in the right direction. That’s what we’ve kind of been doing the last three weeks: one step, one process; another step, another process.”
The defenders have grown tired of hearing about their inexperience, a popular theme since coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced his 23-man roster last month.
This is the first time since 1990 the U.S. heads to a World Cup with no central defenders having played previous minutes in soccer’s showcase event. Defender DaMarcus Beasley has played in three World Cups, but his time in 2002, 2006 and 2010 came as an attacking midfielder, not among the back four.
Even with Beasley’s experience, the American line remains a work in progress, with Beasley, Matt Besler, Cameron, Timmy Chandler, Omar Gonzalez and Fabian Johnson essentially vying for four starting spots.
Throughout World Cup qualifying, only one combination of defenders started together more than once: Beasley, Besler, Gonzalez and Brad Evans, who did not make the team.
So it’s hard to call any pairing a lock for the team’s World Cup opener against Ghana on June 16.
“You won’t see all the pieces in place yet,” Klinsmann said. “It’s still time for us to give players a chance to showcase what they have, where they are right now.”
Communication is key in the back end, and experience and familiarity with each other are some of the elements that make it successful. One glitch can cause major miscues – and, at the very least, scoring chances.
“You don’t want to give teams good opportunities,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “If they’re going to score, you want teams to have to really earn it. We just talked about the shifting and making sure the lines are compact. Anytime your lines are really tight and compact, and you don’t get stretched from player to player, that’s when you cause teams problems.
“We won the game, so you have to kind of take the good with the bad.”
Howard’s leadership figures to be critical during a Group G with three tough tests: Ghana, the team that sent the U.S. home from the past two World Cups; Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in the Amazon heat; and a match with Germany, the squad Klinsmann coached to the 2006 semifinals.
The U.S. has prepared for the daunting task by beating No. 85 Azerbaijan 2-0 in San Francisco and then topping No. 39 Turkey 2-1 in New Jersey. Now, the 18th-ranked Americans face No. 44 Nigeria.
And the U.S. defense surely will be the focus once again.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Klinsmann said. “When you give chances away, then you address that and you talk about it. But it’s not a defensive topic; it’s a whole team topic because the defense starts with the forwards up front. It starts with compactness of the whole unit. You watch it again, like we coaches do obviously, and analyze it.
“That’s why we need these games against very good opponents because they show you those examples and you from it as quickly as you can. The whole thing is a work in progress, and I think we’re doing fine.”
Updated June 4, 2014