SANDY, Utah — For Juergen Klinsmann, managing a soccer team is a little like building a puzzle.
It’s about “how to fit all the elements together,” says Klinsmann, who is in charge of piecing together the U.S. national team. And when the puzzle doesn’t come together properly? Well, that’s when a coach mashes the pieces into place.
Take the U.S. team. In their World Cup qualifier last week against Panama, the Americans started two natural defenders and a forward in the midfield and two regular midfielders on defense. It’s a mix-and-match strategy that has worked well for Klinsmann, who figures to use it again tonight when the U.S. hosts Honduras in another World Cup qualifier before a sellout crowd of more than 20,000 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“Every coach sees qualities and strengths in players differently,” Klinsmann said Monday. “We need to figure out ‘OK, what is best now for this group? How do we get the best out of them as an entire unit?’ “
“It’s an important part of this that you tell a player, ‘I understand that in your club maybe you play differently. But this is what is needed right now, here.’ “
Which is how U.S. defender Fabian Johnson found himself filling in as a midfielder last week while Brad Evans, who played sparingly for Klinsmann as a midfielder, has found a new home at right back.
“Now that Brad Evans is playing that role very, very strongly, he made a very strong case for himself going toward the World Cup in Brazil,” Klinsmann said.
If Evans is to go to Brazil, he’ll need a team to go with, which is where the match with Honduras comes in.
The U.S. sits atop its group standings at the halfway mark of the 10-match regional qualifying tournament for just the second time in two decades. And it can pad that lead Tuesday by extending a 24-match unbeaten streak in home qualifiers that dates to September 2001.
Honduras is the last country to beat the U.S. in a home qualifier as well as the only team to beat it in this qualifying tournament, winning 2-1 in San Pedro Sula four months ago. But the Central Americans come into the rematch banged up and could be without four key players because of injuries and suspension.
“It still sits a bit in my stomach, what happened in February,” Klinsmann said. “Now we have the opportunity to redeem that.”
But not before Klinsmann makes a few more lineup changes. Midfield enforcer Jermaine Jones, who missed the Panama match with a concussion, has been cleared to play and figures to start against the physical Hondurans. And back from a one-game suspension is U.S. midfielder Graham Zusi while defender DaMarcus Beasley is out with two yellow cards.
Klinsmann said he’s knows who will play — and, more important, where — on Tuesday. But he was keeping that a secret.
“I’ve decided it already,” he said. “But I’m not sharing. Sorry.”