As 2012 winds to a close, any review of the USMNT needs to begin with an examination of the manager, Jurgen Klinsmann. More “progress report” than definitive report card, the examination is necessary because Klinsmann finally managed meaningful matches, with reasonable results. In between those fixtures, Klinsmann managed a team that delivered a string of exceptional road “friendly” results, and all against sides in great form. Still, there is work to do, and that qualifying proceedings (and as such, advancement) came down to one week in October put many on edge. There have been great moments and moments of tactical (and yes, result-based) crisis. So a progress report, before 2013 and 2014’s “final examinations”, seems fitting as we begin to ponder the year that was in US Soccer. Comments, as always, encouraged.
First and foremost, the looming existential crisis has been averted—the USMNT has qualified for the hexagonal—a final round of qualifying in which half of the involved teams (and possibly a fourth) will qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. There were moments, even in the early minutes of the final match, where the moneychangers at ESPN were near despondent and the hard core American fans were split somewhere between “I told you so/this is all MLS’ fault” (my personal favorite) and “What do we do now?” All that was pushed asunder with a dominating US victory, led by aging captain Carlos Bocanegra and Tottenham Hotspur enigma Clint Dempsey. The fact that these moments even occurred, that it came to this, allows us to analyze some of the criticism aimed at Klinsmann first. The fact that CONCACAF has improved dramatically in quality, even since the early stages of the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, seems to get short shrift. Why that is- well, you try to tell us—but the criticisms of Klinsmann seem the most apropos place to begin any “progress report”, and especially this one- where we at The Yanks Are Coming offer a spirited defense.
Indeed, the shall-we-say tenuous nature of the United States’ qualifying campaign has led some within the American soccer fan community to comment negatively toward the reign of Jurgen Klinsmann. In fact—it has led to inevitable “We want Bradley back!” chants from some. I think this is a load of crap—and I think that it’s time to defend the dramatic and important changes that have occurred over the USMNT over the past few years.
This article advances a now-controversial thesis: the United States should not only hold on to Klinsmann (that he will coach through the 2014 World Cup, assuming we qualify, is a certainty), but fans of our beloved USMNT should be happy that Klinsmann is our manager. We should be more excited about the USMNT now than at any point in our history. He is doing a remarkably good job, and perhaps more critically, he is still the best possible person (speaking in realistic terms) to have as our leader going into the 2014 World Cup.
There are three reasons I think this is the case, and I’ll argue for each one individually:
(1) The results in competitive matches under Klinsmann have been acceptable
Heeding the advice of both candidates from this autumn’s election—lets look at the most important factor in determining the success of Klinsmann. Results.
Here are the scores of the six competitive matches the US has played in WC Qualifying:
USA 3 – 1 Antigua and Barbuda
Guatemala 1 – 1 USA
Jamaica 2 – 1 USA
USA 1 – 0 Jamaica
Antigua and Barbuda 1 – 2 USA
USA 3 – 1 Guatemala
Home Record: (3W)
Away Record (1W, 1D, 1L)
Now, there are a few key things that need to be discussed here. One thing I noticed when the schedule came out is that the US was frontloaded with difficult matches—the two hardest matches: Jamaica (A) and Guatemala (A) were in the USMNT’s first three games. The last three matches were extremely winnable—in fact they were matches that I would expect the United States to win. This meant that the US was always likely to underperform in one of their first three (really matches 2 and 3) matches. This is CONCACAF, the land of scary fans and horrific pitches—a place where home field advantage has a more dramatic impact than any other sports scenario in the world. Take college football: if a great homefield advantage, say—somewhere in the SEC, is worth 3-4 points, as Vegas suggests it is, a CONCACAF homefield advantage, particularly in Central America, is probably worth, adjusting for scale, around .4 to .5 goals. Remember, CONCACAF road venues have all the horrors of those SEC venues: alcohol-induced fanatics well-lubricated for late kicks– except they lack all the First World Amenities. The recent struggles, in friendlies, of great international sides like Spain and Germany in Central America, support this claim. These are the atmospheres where Klinsmann began his run of meaningful matches as manager. And yes, it places a larger impetus on the US to earn results at home. We must not forget this—and as fans Americans must continue to do our best to create antagonistic and difficult atmospheres for teams when they come to the United States.
Speaking of gaining results at home—there is another fact that I think has been far too overlooked, the USMNT won all three matches at home. This is not something to be given short shrift, a simple “well that’s what they should do”—this is perhaps the critical criterion by which a qualifying campaign in CONCACAF must be judged. The US was very solid in their home matches—even their closest match, against Jamaica, was nowhere near as close as the score line suggested. The US is winning their matches at home comfortably, and this is a pattern that should be complimented and which must be continued.
All in all, this was a scary and tension-filled Third Round for the Americans, but that is as much a fault of scheduling as it is anything else. It’s always going to come down to some degree of luck—especially when you are playing away in CONCACAF, the land of referees who make you wonder if the NFL replacement refs were thrown into soccer matches with only a vague understanding of the rules. It is very much worth noting that the four points dropped in this round were all a direct result of three free kick goals (we did not concede in the run of play in either of the matches we did not win) which is incredibly unlucky when you think about how few serious free kicks the Americans conceded throughout these matches. I know, I know, good teams—the best teams—make their own luck. And there’s something to be said for the Americans defending set pieces better. But overall, this is not something that we should be fundamentally worried about going forward.
The US got the job done, and for the fan watching, there is no reason to look at our results—just our results—and think that this team is underperforming, That said, Bob Bradley earned quality results in meaningful match play. And there are clear problems and weaknesses in Klinsmann’s style of management. But these are improving, which brings me to what I think is the biggest improvement in Klinsmann’s management over the past two matches:
(2) Klinsmann is clearly beginning to grasp the vital distinction between the best players and the best mudders
Interesting fact about the author that is relevant to understanding the above story: For those of you who don’t know me (which, I’m presuming, includes most of you), I ran the noble sport of cross-country for eight years. I ran (admittedly, not as fast as I would have liked) for Bowdoin College (Go U Bears!). Now, one of the things that you learn as a dude running cross country in Maine is that it’s really cold in the winter and you should always make sure you wear something to protect yourself down there when it’s really cold. Another thing I learned, however, is that there are runners who are flashy and fast, but who stink when it is sleeting outside and you have to run through the mud. And there are runners who absolutely excel when the conditions are awful. In New England, I have heard many refer to those runners who excel in dire conditions affectionately as “Mudders.” Make no mistake—this is a term of high praise.
Now, such a distinction is quite helpful when applied to the USMNT. There are players who are flashy, quick, aggressive types who get the job done on the big stage (Altidore, Donovan). But there are also the players who are the best mudders (I think the clearest example has to be Cherondolo, though I think newly-capped Alan Gordon might fit the bill as well)—who while they may not be the best lineup to go against Brazil in a World Cup Quarterfinal, they might be the best player to go against Panama in a poorly kept stadium. This is not to say that these are mutually exclusive—Dempsey, Howard, and Bradley are all clearly mudders as well as flashy players—but they are among the invaluable few that thrive on both stages. Klinsmann has shown that he is aware of this fundamental distinction—and his personnel choices against Antigua & Barbuda as well as against Guatemala in the final two matches (again, both wins) highlight that he is beginning to understand that it’s okay to play a team in a WCQ that you wouldn’t dare even imagine starting in a World Cup. Given inevitable injury, roster turnover, and yes, the possibility of shocking retirement that are commonplace in a World Cup cycle—learning to win with these types of lineups early in the process is critical.
These kind of matches are so fundamentally different, and so difficult for a manager like Klinsmann to win, that we should be thankful that the US has had a perceived difficulty at this stage. Klinsmann has learned that this is something very different than playing Italy or Mexico—these are teams that take what Stoke City has made a living doing in the EPL and accomplish it using every dirty and—yes—cheap tactic in the region. The use of such tactics and physicality is far more commonplace in MLS than in the European ranks, and it’s why I think we have seen players like Zusi and, yes, Eddie Johnson, excel in these group stage matches. To conclude, Klinsmann must continue to learn which players are mudders, and rely on those players even if it means benching people who would surely be starting any actual World Cup match.
(3) Klinsmann is very strong when it comes to playing games that require the “best players”—and these are the games that are clearly the priority of US Soccer (as they should be).
This is the crux/crescendo of my argument—I think that when it comes to playing the best teams, the flashy games where skill players and creative attacking and possession matter (aka, not a game played in Guatemala) Klinsmann and his reforms to the USMNT have had a dramatic and positive impact on both the style of play and on the squad’s ability to get results. The US won two big away friendlies this year, both by the score-line of 0-1, and both by impressively holding clean sheets against top opponents. Now, these were friendlies, but the way the US approached these games marks a fundamental difference from the Bradley reign. More recently, the Americans battled back from deficits twice to earn a draw against a red-hot Russian side on the road—and here, they did it with a largely young group. This is a large improvement over the prior regime.
The problem with Bradley’s tactical management was that his teams often went into every game with the same fundamental strategy—a strategy that worked in CONCACAF but failed on the global stage. This was to hold down the fort, boom the ball upfield, cause chaos, and then score on sharp counterattacks when the opponents’ defense broke down or they were caught out after long stretches of attack. However, if the other defense was talented and could reliably handle long balls without ceding possession in the attacking third, it took literally a miracle for the US to be able to win a major match, for they were conceding possession and relying upon a Route One style that would rely upon capitalizing on minimal opportunities and hoping that Timmy Howard would stand on his head and our always-shaky defense could bail the Yanks out. And this worked…sometimes (see, Spain, Confederations Cup, 2009).
But the US couldn’t take the game to equally matched opponents, nor to better opponents, and the lads couldn’t always produce vital goals when it mattered. Worse, the US didn’t even attempt to do so in many matches, including friendlies. Perhaps this is what made the November 2011 match against France in Paris such an eye-opener, despite defeat. The Americans held such a high line throughout, and despite limited success, continued to attempt to dictate proceedings.
Prior to Klinsmann, the Yank weren’t playing a possession game—the US were hoping for the breaks to go their way and waiting for the opponent to screw up more than the USMNT’s mediocre defense did. This works in CONCACAF—this might even be the best strategy when playing away at CONCACAF (except in the Azteca)—when the talent differential is sufficient enough to assume that even if the US plays Route One boomball they will still produce goals against inferior competition. But it simply doesn’t work against top class opposition, and it takes away the potency of the talented midfield weapons (Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey, Shea, Danny Williams) that the US have at their disposal.
Klinsmann has shifted this. He is basically saying that we should play like a top team—even if we lack the defensive talent to shut down opponents’ attacks. And the somewhat paradoxical result is that the USMNT’s weak spot, its defense, is playing less of a role in determining the outcomes of games. It’s still a vital component, but our strength, our midfield, is being given the opportunity to possess and create against top teams. And it’s working—it was how we beat Italy and (to some extent Mexico, at least in terms of effort) away, and it’s this possession-style game (displayed brilliantly during the Jacksonville friendly against Scotland) that Klinsmann will have his team use at the World Cup in 2014. Because of this, the United States are a far more dangerous and potent team then they have been at any point in their history. What’s more- it would appear Klinsmann is building a side geared towards a sustained run in the World Cup, not one simply designed to qualify.
Now, these three things all considered, one certainly can’t ignore some of the shortcomings of the Klinsmann regime. As noted above, the Third Round came down to one week in October. And there have been curious rosters and omissions. (Where in the world is Omar Gonzalez? Can someone explain, post knee-injury, why he isn’t getting a call-up?) In the end, however, these are the types of complaints and gripes that exist with any international manager. Sample sizes are smaller, roster choices are more heavily scrutinized, scheduling conflicts exist. Klinsmann has, despite these shortcomings, shown us a team (admittedly, largely only in friendlies), that can play a style of football that is not only more attractive than the sit-and-counterattack via Route One that Bradley often employed on those levels—but a style that can win games. This is becoming an increasingly dangerous team, that employs speed and a variety of attacking styles and weapons so sorely lacking under Bradley.
Bradley was a coach who excelled at this stage—he knew how to grind out qualifying and to make US fans feel confident that they would qualify. But on a bigger stage, his teams would employ the same tactics as in those mudder matches—the opposite problem to what Klinsmann tried to do early on in this Third Round. And they would invariably disappoint. And remember, many of the folks who don’t think Klinsmann’s efforts to rebuild/create a “proactive, definitive American style” will work have no genuine alternative outside of the tactics utilized by the prior regime– the great irony being this is precisely the regime they criticized so mightily. Too many want to scream fire when there isn’t one, or at the very least, as the Lumineers suggest, if there were a bigger fire, well- we’d be on the roof.
The larger message that I mean to convey is this—World Cup Qualifying is ultimately relevant for only a single thing, getting to the World Cup. You want it to be comfortable, but ultimately all that matters is just that you get it done. The path to the World Cup—especially for the US—has had no bearing on the success of the team when we get there. Seeding matters: but the US chance of garnering a pod where they are top-dog, even if they qualify at the top of the Hexagon, is extraordinarily small. Continued friendly victories against quality sides can improve FIFA ranking, though—and this could be the key to avoiding a Group of Death based on the pod systems. With that in mind, I am supremely confident that Klinsmann will get the job done—it might not be as comfortable as Bradley did it, but the lads will qualify for Brazil. And they will be in a pod that enables a decent run. And when that occurs, you will all be thankful that Klinsmann is at the helm.
Most of all, what Klinsmann adds is the development towards a much more dynamic and dangerous team at the top levels. He is building and shaping a team that will be far more dangerous when it really counts. It gives US Soccer fans a reason to be excited for 2014 (and 2018). As for the close calls in qualifying—they should not worry fans with regard to the skill level of the team in the World Cup, they should only worry fans if the results aren’t actually there. Klinsmann has the same competitive record in WCQ that Bradley did at this point (in what has to be considered a stronger group/region). The results are there, and that’s all that matters about these sixteen qualifying matches.
Sean McElroy is a longtime The Yanks Are Coming contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him, and his LA Galaxy/Fulham ravings and rantings on Twitter at @fulhamerican.