Bring on the World Cup: the so-far success of the Jurgen Klinsmann era
Began in ‘96’s two soccer experts offer their thoughts on the World Cup-bound U.S. Men’s National Team.
The World Cup: An expectation fulfilled
As the match’s 94th minute approached, Mexican midfielder Jesus Zavala carelessly dragged down Clint Dempsey. Zavala’s eyes seemed to protest the call, but his body language betrayed a player who had all but given up. It turns out Zavala got the memo late; the rest of his team had given up 60 minutes earlier.
Dempsey approached the resulting penalty shot anyway and sprayed it wide, as if some mysterious wind carried the ball away to preserve the "dos a cero" score line that has plagued so many of Mexico’s previous encounters with the U.S.
Nevertheless, when the final whistle blew in Columbus, Ohio, and the U.S. Men’s team celebrated their win, manager Jurgen Klinsmann looked a man content. His side had dispatched a poor, yet full-strength Mexico at home, riding the inspired crowd all the way to victory. And he had done it without Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron, his three steadiest players. It was further testament to Klinsmann’s long-term emphasis on depth and flexibility, one that involved employing 47 different players over 19 World Cup qualifiers, international friendlies and Gold Cup matches. The U.S. now boast the largest player pool they have ever seen.
The win propelled the men’s team to 13th in the FIFA World Ranking, placing them above such teams as England and Chile. The ranking is certainly misleading to a degree. But unlike its fourth-place position leading up to the 2006 World Cup, the U.S. have earned their spot through stout defensive play and a string of victories over respectable squads like Mexico and Italy.
What will push them higher is an offense that is blossoming under Klinsmann. Altidore, Landon Donovan, Graham Zusi and newcomer Aaron Johnson form an attacking corps capable of much more damage than their predecessors. Throw in the European experience gained by players like Bradley, Cameron, Fabian Johnson and John Anthony Brooks, and this squad is far more talented and experienced. Most will be full-time starters with their respective clubs, ensuring that they enter the summer at the tops of their games.
They will need to, given what comes next. A World Cup birth to this team is less an achievement than fulfilled expectation, and it has so far gone according to plan. Klinsmann and the U.S. now face the opportunity to show how far American soccer has moved forward. And really, it has always been about moving forward.
Klinsmann’s masterful turnaround
The U.S. Men’s National Team punched its ticket to the World Cup this past week with a solid 2-0 win over rival Mexico, providing the perfect moment to reflect on Jurgen Klinsmann’s nearly two-year reign.
The 49-year-old German replaced Bob Bradley in 2011, bringing with him the promise of an attacking, flowing game underpinned by a consistent strategy. It was a departure from his predecessor’s one-game-at-a-time philosophy, an approach that bred familiarity and experience but left the national team thin on depth. As the U.S.’s core players aged out of their prime, there were few able and ready to take their place.
Klinsmann set out to change all that. He promised the same general approach game in and game out, but ensured that there was always a plan B. Every player had to re-earn their spot, and even stars Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore found themselves dropped from the squad at various points. Through it all, Klinsmann methodically assembled vast ranks of players who would aid the U.S. over the next couple years and further into the future.
That long-term vision got in the way of early success: the U.S. team went 1-1-4 in Klinsmann’s first six matches. But the tide gradually turned, and soon he had signature wins over Italy (in Italy) and Mexico (in Mexico’s dreaded Azteca Stadium) under his belt. Then the U.S. withstood a blizzard to beat Costa Rica, and then reeled off 12 wins in a row en route to a 13-2 record, and eventually lingering doubts about Klinsmann’s grand vision evaporated. The team now heads to the World Cup as strong and as deep as it has in years, and perhaps ever.
At the core of that success are Klinsmann’s subtler accomplishments. He’s figured out how to get Altidore scoring consistently, something no other USMNT coach could do. The 23-year-old found the back of the net in five consecutive matches, and seven times in 10 contests.
Also revitalized are Donovan and Eddie Johnson, even as they drift closer to the end of their careers than the midpoint. Much of that lies in Klinsmann’s more forward-thinking tactics. The U.S.’s freer style allows it to score on the build-up, counter and against the run of play. And thanks to the the squad’s newfound depth, it has found scoring sources from a variety of starters and subs. Klinsmann even trotted out what was essentially the U.S. B team during the Gold Cup, and went on to win it all.
It is a transformation of the national team that has grown soccer’s reputation and visibility both among players and fans. Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson and Mix Diskerud, among others, could have played for other national teams. Instead, they joined the U.S. More MLS players are being funneled into the system, and Klinsmann’s policy of playing the best players — no matter their popularity — raised the level of play for all those involved.
And when those players run out onto the pitch, they do so to a packed house. Fans sing and chant, and follow the squad into enemy territory like Azteca. That would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But the U.S. now plays attractive, winning soccer, and has so far reaped the rewards.
Of course, the main test is the World Cup. Klinsmann and the U.S. built unprecedented momentum thanks to a brilliant summer, and the spotlight now promises to be even brighter a year from now. Whether the U.S. can withstand that heat is the true test of the Klinsmann era.
Zach Ricchiuti is a contributor and resident soccer expert for Began in ‘96. Matt Anderson is Began in ‘96’s Richmond correspondent. Find more of his writing at First and Den.