Neil W. Blackmon
Late in May, Jon Levy wrote on this website that the daunting summer facing the Americans, which could include up to twelve matches, would contain two acts. Both important, Levy argued that success at the end would be measured by whether those acts changed the trajectory of this World Cup cycle from a boyish, hopeful uncertainty to a brash confidence rooted in empiricism that this grueling summer was the moment the Klinsmann era turned for the Yanks. On a dream Sunday in Chicago, with weather more suited for early autumn, the Americans put an exclamation point on a resounding answer to these early summer questions, defeating Panama 1-0 on a Brek Shea goal to capture their first continental championship in six years. At the very least, the victory earned the Americans a berth into a playoff for the region’s spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup, to be held in Russia. That a playoff berth to gain entry into that competition was an afterthought says much more about what occurred this summer.
At a stadium the local Browns fans call “The Factory of Sadness”, the Americans were blasted by Belgium to begin the summer. The sadness turned to ineffable joy from there. Eleven consecutive victories, besting the federation’s previous best by four matches. Three World Cup qualifying victories in a row, meaning nine points and a cheery new American Outlaws number called “We Are Going To Brazil.” A young starlet striker, returned from the wilderness. Thorough domination of outclassed opposition, something Yanks fans have dreamed about for a decade. Depth discovered, and on a level that this federation has never before possessed. A longtime star reborn. A championship won. A statement made.
There are so many signature moments in this “statement summer”, from Brad Davis’ unlikely heroism in Kingston to Brek’s tap-in Sunday in Chicago, only 38 seconds after he stepped onto the field. Collectively, they are a cannon-shot of intent from this US soccer team that they’ll be a very tough out in Brazil next summer. The fact that this signal was sent so often by players on the fringes of inclusion to Klinsmann’s final 23 he’ll send to Brazil next summer speaks to the type of “statement” sent. Not only is there more depth at Klinsmann’s disposal than any US manager has had before, but the players in that depth pool are operating at levels we haven’t seen. It’s full-steam ahead time, and no one wants to be left behind, with players feeding off each other and answering Klinsmann’s demanding call to give your best until your best is better.
Yesterday’s final, a blood and guts affair against a game Panama side was a perfect example of the driving narrative of this “statement summer”: that the United States have more depth than ever before and are witnessing more players at once in peak form than at any time in recent history. The heroes were a veritable “who’s who” of expanding US depth, and a testament to the manager’s commitment to casting a wide net.
Kyle Beckerman is the first example. Klinsmann had utilized the Real Salt Lake man sparingly with the full team, wanting to see more offensively from the pure “6” who Jurgen already knew offered grit and gnash in defense. Having displayed the ability to make quality passes throughout this Gold Cup, Klinsmann answered his manager’s demands yet again Sunday at Solider Field, delivering a “man of the match” type performance that featured a variety of diagonal, switch the field passes, particularly in the first half, when at times it appeared Beckerman and Beckerman alone understood the US needed to be more diverse in attack if they were going to break down a Panama side playing splendid, compact defense. No one is going to confuse Beckerman with Xabi Alonso, but in the Gold Cup knockout stages he added diversity in his distributions and a masterful assist against El Salvador to his resume, while remaining impressive defensively in his ability to shield and cover the defense. His cover play along the wings against Honduras in Dallas and yesterday, where he constantly helped Michael Parkhurst contain Alberto Quintero, remain central to his game, but the fact that he demonstrates attacking understanding to Klinsmann is a development that positions him well 0n the depth chart headed towards next summer.
Eddie Johnson, who was called into the Gold Cup side for the knockout stages after a pair of dazzling qualifier performances against Honduras and Panama, is playing the best soccer in his life. He By recent standards, yesterday was not a great game, but what should be noted is that the Johnson of three, four and five years ago would have disappeared altogether against this type of organized defense. Instead, Johnson kept running, making darting runs at the Panama center throughout the first half, constantly let down by service. He missed an absolute sitter late in the match, but his ability to diagnose defenses and make cerebral runs shouldn’t be discounted, nor should his flexibility, whether as a deputy for Jozy Altidore and Herculez Gomez at the top or on the wing, where he brings width, pace and smarts, often as a substitute with the full team. Klinsmann’s great relationship with Sigi Schmid, the Sounders manager and true architect behind Johnson’s career turnaround, ensures the south Florida product will be in the picture as the team moves forward to next summer. Johnson’s form portends that his influence will be great.
Mix Diskerud was put in a terrible spot yesterday, coming on after the heartbreaking knee injury suffered by Stu Holden, one of the “statement summer’s” finest stories. Diskerud responded with his finest performance in a US shirt, particularly in the second half, where he found space to receive the ball and revved up the tempo, playing quick and accurate passes to Landon Donovan and Alejandro Bedoya down the channels, and then moving in quickly to support in the final third. He earned two close-range free kicks for the latter efforts, a dimension that Klinsmann doubtlessly would love to see from “A team” center midfield substitute option # 1/2, Sacha Kljestan. Diskerud still takes bad angles defensively and can be a bit slow to diagnose what is happening when the other team is in possession, but the effort isn’t lacking. He’ll go back to his club now heeding Klinsmann’s “do better” mantra, and if he can clean up his defense, he might be able to translate being a hero of the “statement summer” into a Brazil roster spot.
Alejandro Bedoya struggled early in this tournament, but Klinsmann threw him back into the fire for the final two matches of the Gold Cup, demanding that the winger provide width and not be afraid to incut, attack the defense and try to make something happen. Bedoya did just that in Dallas and again Sunday, where he was one of the only dangerous US players in the first half, and where he provided the service (really, Shea just stole the goal) that led to the title-winning goal. Bedoya still struggles in traffic with the ball at his feet, and he’s not always accurate in his distributions, but he’s probably the quintessential example of how American depth has progressed under Jurgen Klinsmann. Just a few months younger than Graham Zusi, it is hard to see a way that Bedoya gets onto the World Cup side if his teammates remain healthy. That’s a testament to US depth, not to his inability to play and influence games, and that’s a great problem for a manager to have.
Speaking of “good” problems, the return of Landon Donovan is the best sort of issue. Klinsmann has demanded the best Donovan ever. Heady stuff, to be sure. But yesterday it was again Donovan who took the game by the teeth, varying runs that were predominantly central in the first half to wider, more cutting runs and overlaps in the second, sucking Panama’s organized defense out and beginning the process of unlocking the defense that Shea finally finished midway through the second frame. With five goals and seven assists, Donovan was unquestionably the player of the tournament, and, as I’ve written, the debate has ended about whether he can help the full team in the near future. All questions now are about deployment, not use, and it was fitting that Donovan was smiling as wide as Walter Payton used to on Soldier Field yesterday when asked about helping the team in the fall. He’s eager to do it. He’ll accept his role. And that will make the US better.
Klinsmann will continue, even with this increased depth, to demand more. He urged perspective after the match. “We all know that there are different benchmarks out there,” Klinsmann told Sports Illustrated. “The global game is played in South America and it’s played in Europe, and there are a lot of other benchmarks waiting for us. But I think it’s important over time that you see progress from the group, that they all understand it takes a lot more to become really good.”
He’ll urge Donovan to do more. He’ll challenge Sacha Kljestan to play as well for his country as he does at his club. He’ll praise Matt Besler for his sterling play for his country, and then ask him privately whether it would be worth it for him to see if he can do that in a better league against the types of elite strikers he’ll have to deal with in Brazil.
There are rewards for answering these demands. Ask Clint Dempsey, perhaps the first to buy in, about that. Weeks after being named to the Barclay’s Premier League best 11, Klinsmann said publicly that Dempsey needed to challenge himself at a better club. He has done so. He is now the captain. Geoff Cameron left a league where he was a star for Stoke and earned a job as a regular. He’s now an indispensable “glue guy” for Klinsmann’s “A” team. Ask Joe Corona, the youngster that Klinsmann said needed matches and confidence. Corona started the Gold Cup final yesterday after a breakthrough tournament. You don’t have to be a star to be rewarded. Every player that helped the US win the continental championship was rewarded for their commitment by Klinsmann yesterday, as he personally had them all flown to Chicago for the final match. It’s a gesture that is equally compelling and motivational. Thank you for your commitment, it says. See what happens when you keep working, it says.
Jozy Altidore’s play in this “statement summer” is perhaps the best example of the Klinsmann mantra to keep improving yourself. Lost in Klinsmann’s personal wilderness for two years, Altidore flourished this summer, keying the nine point qualifying trip with multiple goals and constantly threatening play. All of that is thrilling to the manager, but Klinsmann will want more. He’ll want him to earn a starting gig at Sunderland, where he’ll be challenged by elite-level defenders regularly. He’ll want him to score against Mexico in a tight game when his team needs a spark. He’ll want him to improve his hold up play, to keep working on finding the game when the play isn’t coming to him naturally. He’ll do this because there’s still more for this team to do, and after this summer, he believes they can achieve it. Why stop at a continental championship?
You made a statement this summer, Klinsmann says. Go make a bigger one, Klinsmann said. “A month from now we’re already talking about World Cup qualifiers and the next benchmark,” he noted. “But I think today they deserve the biggest compliment. They gave me a nice champagne shower. And we will enjoy this moment because those moments are also there to celebrate.”
There will be more moments to celebrate if the players continue to be invested in Klinsmann’s demands to constantly improve oneself. On the micro level, these demands drive players as individuals to higher levels. On the macro level, more depth makes those higher levels sustainable. The Yanks largest statement this summer is simple. They’re ready to invest in their manager’s belief that their best can be better, that bigger statements can be made.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.