Photo: Nicolae Stoian
Having won the CONCACAF Region Hexagonal round of qualifying for the World Cup for the third cycle running, it might seem like business as usual for the U.S. However, any keen watcher knows that this edition of the team looks different from other recent vintages. We’ll take a look at the roster itself in another post, but let’s see what sorts of lessons we’ve learned about the U.S. in the last nine months.
Jürgen Klinsmann is a very good coach
Jürgen Klinsmann’s record as a head coach is decidedly mixed. He saw great success with the German national team, then cratered as the head coach of Bayern Münich, leading many to say his coaching bona fides were flimsy—Germany’s success was down to Jogy Löw, Klinsmann’s former assistant and current German national team coach, not Klinsmann. And Klinsmann’s first months with the U.S. were up and down. Was he anything more than a great motivator?
In the past nine months, however, not only has Klinsmann masterfully managed his roster of players and personalities, he has also shown a very astute tactical ability, primarily through his substitutions. While the U.S. rarely does anything tactically complex, the number of times Klinsmann has changed games in the U.S.’s favor through timely substitutions is very impressive. Even as recently as the game against Panama on Tuesday, the U.S. found itself under pressure. Klinsmann won that game by introducing Brad Davis and Aron Jóhannsson. Davis assisted the first two U.S. goals. Then, Jóhannsson scored the winner off a feed from the third substitute, Terrence Boyd.
Klinsmann has also changed formations when subbing players, often to great effect. Against Panama, the subs brought a switch from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2. Against Jamaica, the game was again tight, and Klinsmann changed from a 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, which resulted in two goals and the win. This has played out time and again throughout the Hexagonal, and is a very promising sign for the World Cup. While coaches can’t win games themselves, it shows that Klinsmann is very well-acquainted with the individual skills and tendencies of his players, and uses them to great effect.
The U.S. is resilient and consistent
The U.S. hasn’t lost consecutive games since October/November of 2011. In 2013, its three losses have all been followed by wins, scoring an average of 2.33 goals in those games. During the 12-game winning streak, the U.S. was forced to come back three times for wins, including from 2–0 down against Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the past, the U.S. might not have had the mental fortitude and confidence to come back so well, whether within games or from game to game.
And, during that winning streak, instead of getting complacent or taking a game off, the team remained hungry and worked hard to maintain effort and effectiveness. Certainly, the fact that everyone has been working for their place on the World Cup roster has been a factor, but the spirit of the team is more confident and together than ever before. Those rumors of dressing room rifts from January certainly seem like a long time ago.
Things look good now, but the future looks even better
Players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have been the U.S.’s talismans for years, and for a time, it seemed like there might not be players to take up their mantle. However, much of the U.S.’s success this past year has come without one or the other of them, and young players have really stepped up. Jozy Altidore, for instance, is still only 23, even though he seems like he’s been around forever. Aron Jóhannsson is 22. Mix Diskerud is 23. Alejandro Bedoya is 26, as is Matt Besler. Omar Gonzalez is 25. Terrence Boyd is 22, and John Brooks is 20. These players will be the backbone of the U.S. through this World Cup cycle and the next, when all of them will be in their physical primes.
What Klinsmann has done better than his predecessors is expand the player pool. Looking at dual-citizenship players but also at the U.S. ranks, Klinsmann’s approach has been, “Show me you can play, and you will get a chance,” and the players have responded. Regardless of what happens next summer—and the signs are good—the U.S. is on an upward trajectory.
Nine months ago, the U.S. lost the first game of the Hex, in depressing style, to Honduras. Following on from the turmoil of January, the mood from outside the U.S. camp was perhaps as negative as it had been in years. And now, the U.S. has just completed one of the most successful stretches in the program’s history. It’s quite a turnaround. Long may it continue.