We are nearly at the 2 year mark of Jurgen Klinnsmann's tenure as Head of the U.S. Men's national team. He was brought in to replace a guy who took us to the knock out round of the World Cup (while breezing through qualification), took us the the finals of the Confederations Cup, and performed, more or less, very well in the CONCACAF Region (CONCACAF is composed of teams from North and Central America, and is the region the USA has to qualify in to make it to the World Cup) by winning the 2007 Gold Cup and made the final game in 2009 and 2011 (losing both to Mexico). Despite the success of Bradley (his successor), Klinnsman was regarded as the Savior of USA soccer. He was to be the coach that got the US to the next level. To get the USA into the discussion as one of the best sides in the World. Klinnsman was a world class striker who had won a world cup and coached a team to a 3rd place finish. Everything was going to go wonderful once he was hired. Except, it didn't.
Klinnsman came in preaching a more exciting brand of soccer. He wanted the US to control possession better. He liked to run out a 5 man midfield with a lone striker, as compared to the traditional 4-4-2 the US had come accustomed to see. Klinnsmann wanted his defenders to be involved in the attack and be diligent passers, not just guys who would boot the ball out of the back. The whole style of play was going to be different... it was going to be great. But after only 2 wins in his first 7 matches... the critics quickly came out. Despite controlling the possession early in his tenure, his team wasn't finding the back of the net. He was bringing in a bunch of duel-nationality players that didn't seem to be meshing with the regular call ups. Klinnsmann was running out a new starting XI every time out, often playing guys out of position. Maybe this more exciting brand of soccer wasn't for us? Maybe we should just go back to what we always do, play good D and counter? Why oh why did we fire Bradley for this guy? Alexi Lalas of ESPN tended to be one of the first to pour on these criticisms (as ESPN covers most of the US's soccer games), and, some moreso that others,l were very valid points. The US did not seem to be adapting well to this new style and formation. The Defense was still stout, but couldn't keep a clean sheet. Josy Altidore and the other US forwards didn't seem to be able to score while being alone up top, and the US couldn't seem to get both Dempsey and Donovan (their 2 stars) in the lineup together. Things didn't look great, but the 1 positive was that those games didn't matter, so long as the USA got it done in qualifying... life would be fine.
2012 rolled around and the USA had up and down results, but began to gain some traction picking up wins at Italy and Mexico (both places the USA had never won). But similarly to 2011, they couldn't produce continuous results, losing in Jamaica (also a first) and needing to win their final 2 games in the 3rd round of CONCACAF qualifying to advance. Klinnsman continued to ruffle feathers of both players and analysts with a constantly changing lineup, and leaving key players off of the world cup qualifying roster at times when they seemed to be needed most. But the USA got through, the dream of making a run in the Brazil World Cup was still alive, despite some small sects starting to call for Klinnsman's job given the struggles in qualifying. Those sects voices got louder when the US dropped its first game in the 'Hex' (the 6 team final round of CONCACAF qualifying) with former Captain Carlos Bocanegra on the bench.
Since that point the USA has won 3 out of 4 qualifying games (tying Mexico in Mexico) and beat Germany in a friendly. The question is why did it take until now for the USA to start working under Klinnsmann? Here are my possible solutions:
1. Klinnsmann is coaching for 2014, not 2011, 2012, or 2013. This is easy to say for any coach at any level. College basketball coaches are trying to prepare their team for conference and tournament games, professional coaches coach for the playoff, etc... Klinnsman spent 2 years trying to find a combination of players that worked best for what he wanted. He inherited an older team. Team leaders Bocanegra, Donovan, Cherundolo all were likely on their last world cup run, Howard was questionable at best for 2018, and Dempsey was likely done after 2018 as well. The USA was lacking in true Wing type regular players, which were key for his style of play with 5 midfielders. The US struggled finding a suitable partner for Michael Bradley (this went back all the way to Bob Bradley's tenure). There were holes in the roster that Bob Bradley had done a good job hiding with his style, lineup and formation. Klinnsmann spent a good deal of time early in his tenure, trying people out in different spots. Klinnsmann was throwing players into roles they had never played (some handled this more successfully than others) and he was bringing in all kinds of new players. Klinnsman did not run out the same line up twice in any match he had coached until this past Friday night against Jamaica. Likewise, Klinnsmann wasn't afraid to bench, or not even call in, a so called staple player. Particularly with Jozy Altidore, Klinnsmann wanted to teach him that he has to play a certain way if he wants to play for the national team. He needs to hold the ball up when he is the lone striker, he needs to help back on defense. And while it was rough going for him and Klinnsman for a while in 2012. The last 3 games may have been some of Altidore's best in a national team uniform. On the flip side, Klinnsmann was calling in a lot of new players to the national team.
2. Style changes take time. This is particularly true if the personnel you currently have don't necessarily line up with what you want to do. The US had played a 4-4-2 for a while, often lining up Dempsey and Donovan as the wide men (both like to cut inside rather than stay wide). This often lead to 4-6 guys cutting to the box, often on counter attacks, when the USA were to score. The US also often relied heavily on Corner kicks and Free kicks to score. Klinnsmann wanted to switch to a style in which there were guys on the wings that would put in crosses to a lone forward. As many people put on twitter after the game Tuesday, when Altidore gets good service (crosses) he scores. The USA wasn't doing that for a period of about 2 years. They were still trying to do things the old way, which wasn't working with a lone forward. Once the team began to buy into this different style, and he got the right personnel, the results have started to get better. The Panama game being the upmost example of what the US wants to do.
3. Communication breakdowns have been resolved. Up until March of this year, Klinnsmann appeared to be ruffling feathers of his players. An article came out in the Sporting News in which several anonymous players cited problems with how Klinnsman was running the team. He wasn't telling players that they wouldn't be starting, or wouldn't be called into camp. Prior to the Snow Bowl (game against Costa Rica in Denver, CO), the first game after this article was published, the team had a sit down meeting and worked some things out. They came out and got 4 critical points in qualifying that week. Since then, things have appeared to have gone better. Often a little adversity can cause a team to gel. I'm not in the meetings so I can't say that this has been completely resolved, but their aren't any surprises like Bocanegra being left out of the starting XI after being captain for 3 + years.
4. Lots of New faces donned the red white and blue. As stated above, Klinnsman wasn't opposed to bringing in new guys to the National team.And a lot of young MLS guys were learning how much different the pace is at the International Level. The players coming to the USA from places in Europe (Dual-Nationality players) were learning how different it was to play in CONCACAF where the fields are less than pristine were also in for a bit of a culture shock. Klinnsmann's early trouble were in part his own doing by bringing in so many new faces. Like the first point, this gets more guys prepared for 2014 in Brazil, but definitely have lead to some bumps in the road.
There are a lot of other reasons that could have contributed to the USA's struggles, but as of today, the USA are in first place of qualifying and can open up a good sized gap with a win Tuesday in Utah... and nothing can soften a memory of past struggles than current success.
Thanks for Reading,
T.O. signing out.