By Ridge Mahoney
As he challenges his players, demanding they "rise to the occasion," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is facing the same task himself.
The fruits of a three-week training camp first go on display Tuesday against Canada (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Univision Deportes) at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston.
The Canadians struggled through a 4-0 thrashing by Denmark on Saturday, yet despite their youth and inexperience at the international level, they won’t be as rusty Tuesday while facing a group of Americans who haven’t played competitively in months.
Facing Canada a week before the opening Hexagonal match against Honduras will give Klinsmann a fair idea of which players can focus on the task at hand and shake off their own rustiness. Those who played in the 2012 MLS Cup will have been in action most recently among the domestic players; that game was played slightly less than two months ago and featured Tally Hall, Brad Davis and Will Bruin of the hometown Dynamo, and Galaxy defenders Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza.
Few players trained overseas during the MLS offseason; forward Juan Agudelo visited Glasgow Celtic in November and trained with West Ham, as did Graham Zusi, earlier this month. Outside back Steven Beitashour and forward Edson Buddle left camp early because of injuries, which still leaves Klinsmann with an eclectic mix of uncapped players and veterans.
“They all have certain qualities, and we tell them that you are here because you’re good,” he said during a conference call with reporters earlier this month. “Now our job is to make you understand that for the next level you have to get better. You have to rise to the occasion and show us that you want this with everything you have, so the attitude off the field is as important as the attitude on the field.”
Keeping the group more or less intact through the entire camp should strengthen the bonds amongst the players, and against a mediocre foe like Canada this should produce periods of crisper play than might normally be expected in a late January friendly. But with the Honduras game coming close on the heels of this one, and the status of several Euro-based players in doubt, the scrutiny by Klinsmann will be intense.
All good coaches challenge their players, but Klinsmann often does so publicly, which is something predecessor Bob Bradley seldom did. The latest fusillade came in a Wall Street Journal interview, which set the soccer world abuzz and prompted another wave of cheerleading for Klinsmann getting the most out of his players by telling it like it is.
Well, no coach really tells it like it is. (Just recall some of the murky interpretations given by coaches on refereeing decisions, for example.) Much of the coach’s job is telling it as the coach sees it, and persuading players to share that same view. Whether or not the view of Jurgen Klinsmann or Bob Bradley or Bruce Arena or Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourhino jibes precisely with reality isn’t important; how players implement those views is the ultimate test.
Former international midfielder Eddie Lewis once told the tale of Arena stating on day one of the final training camp prior to the 2002 World Cup, “We can beat Portugal,” and repeating that message daily. Arena gave his players the ways and means to do so as well, and they stunned the heavily favored Portuguese, 3-2. Along with providing the tools to accomplish this task, Arena inspired them to believe it could be done.
In the coming weeks and months we’ll see how Klinsmann’s mix of promises and praise is playing with his players. He’s given Landon Donovan an extended leave and supported his walkabout, at least publicly. So, too, has Arena, Donovan's Galaxy coach. One has to think that after the Honduras game, Donovan will be getting different messages from his coaches. Managing personalities and egos along with strategies and formations is how the top coaches succeed.
How closely will the game plan for a friendly against Canada resemble that for a qualifier in San Pedro Sula? Probably not much. Yet in both settings the Klinsmann precepts of possession and movement, playing out of the back when possible, and pressuring the ball at key moments must be applied.
And while much pregame buzz is centered on well Gonzalez plays against Canada and whether his performance earns him a place on the field in Honduras, there are long-term considerations as well.
In June, the Americans play three qualifiers in 12 days. Those dates fall after the seasons in Europe and Mexico conclude, and injuries and fatigue plaguing those players could prompt callups and maybe starting roles for the domestic products currently in camp. The Hexagonal demands depth and there are still questions as to how deep is this U.S. squad. Last June, the USA and Canada played a 0-0 tie in Toronto. The stakes are much greater for the Americans this time.