By Ridge Mahoney
His final proving ground is still in the future, yet the just-concluded campaign managed by Jurgen Klinsmann may be the most productive yet attained by the U.S. men.
The 7-2-1 Hexagonal record and 22 points coupled with a Gold Cup title matches the 2005 accomplishments managed by Bruce Arena. Yet it should be noted that as impressive as those results were, still the Americans dropped out of the 2006 World Cup after group play concluded. It won the 2009 Hexagonal with a 6-2-2 record (20 points) and reached the World Cup round-of-16, where it lost to Ghana, 2-1, in overtime.
Klinsmann is tasked with bettering that 2010 performance, which would at least match the 2002 team’s advancement to the quarterfinals. During the 27 months he’s been in charge, he’s navigated a steep learning curve regarding the American soccer culture and characteristics unique to Concacaf. His growth as coach of the U.S. team has been severe when compared to his handing of Germany from 2004 to 2006.
“This experience, more so than the German experience to be quite honest, will inform Jurgen going forward,” says former U.S. defender and ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas. “When he looks back years from now, he will see that this really helped him evolve and improve. He’s gone through some things that he’s never experienced before.”
While absences and enforced changes are elements of any such qualification process, the U.S. overcame difficulties and complications unmatched in its six previous Hexagonal competitions since the six-team format was adopted in 1989. (As 1994 World Cup host, the U.S. did not participate in the 1993 qualifiers staged under a different format from which only Mexico emerged.)
A few conditions were imposed by Klinsmann himself. He dropped former captain Carlos Bocanegra, 33, after the Hexagonal opener, a 2-1 loss in Honduras, and has gone with younger players. After Landon Donovan returned from a lengthy sabbatical, Klinsmann kept him waiting until the Gold Cup before issuing a recall. He stood tough on the whimsical behavior of Timothy Chandler, and like Bocanegra, neglected him after the Honduras defeat.
Klinsmann’s mantra centers on a theme that every player must be ready to fill a position and believe -- truly believe, not just hope -- they can perform at the level required. If there’s a central storyline to the national team’s performance of 2013, in addition to a sensational 12-game winning streak, it’s getting results regardless of opposition or circumstance. There’s a sense that no matter what the team encounters, someone will step forward. There’s more to this team than Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard.
“We have unbelievable resources of guys not just coming in because they’re talented, they’re coming in because they’re ready and they actually believe they’ve got a chance,” says former U.S. international and TV pundit Eric Wynalda.
A few examples from the past eight months:
Howard can’t play in the second and third Hexagonal games, so the back line mans up and Brad Guzan posts two shutouts.
Donovan is in the doghouse and Herculez Gomez needs a break, so Jozy Altidore tallies in four straight games.
Brad Evans takes up the cause at right back and collects a ball to score the winner in Kingston.
Brek Shea plays the super-sub role twice in the Gold Cup, scoring in a 1-0 defeat of Costa Rica in group play and downing Panama by similar means in the final.
Graham Zusi’s entry against Jamaica is saluted by fans in his home MLS stadium and he smacks home the winning goal.
Brad Davis comes off the bench and chalks up two stoppage-time assists as the Americans rally for a stunning victory in their Panama City finale, with the clincher coming from a sub, Aron Johannsson, who might well have opted to play for Iceland if Klinsmann wasn’t in charge of the U.S.
So what’s been going on here? Wynalda calls up this quote: “'Good leaders will inspire others to believe in the leader. Great leaders inspire others to believe in themselves,’” says Wynalda. “Eleanor Roosevelt said that, and she was onto something.
“That’s what’s happening. There have been some bumps in the road but Jurgen’s doing a great job.”
This attitude transcends confidence and determination. American players have such qualities in abundance. What many of them are showing now is fearlessness, an absolute assurance that they as individuals and the team as a collective will not fail. They still might lose a game here or there, of course, but whether they are told to start, come on as a sub, play out of position, or watch from the bench, they are essential pieces of the process.
“I think that’s why everyone enjoys playing for the U.S. and playing for Jurgen,” says Geoff Cameron, who during the Hexagonal played right back, central midfield, and centerback. “He’s so positive and he instills confidence and he believes in your ability.”
Rightly or wrongly, many players in past U.S. head coaching regimes were convinced they had little or no shot at long-term selection. That might have been a function of their own limitations as much as coaching prejudices, but that’s how it works. The head coach has final say, so Davis gets the call and Benny Feilhaber doesn’t. Juan Agudelo might be the young forward of the future, but Terrence Boyd and Johannsson are the present.
Yet a player like Sacha Kljestan, who’s been on and off the national team since his debut in 2007, is still in the chase for a World Cup roster spot. The way Klinsmann works, the player -- like Chandler -- shuts the door, not the head coach.
“A prime example for me is Sacha Kljestan,” says Revs keeper Matt Reis, a veteran of 16 MLS seasons who earned two caps in 2006 and 2007. “He played in the MLS for a number of years and then moved over to a Champions League team with [Belgian club] Anderlecht. Obviously, it’s not one of the greatest leagues but he’s playing week-in, week-out, and he’s a big member of that team. He has to turn it on every week in an intense, high level.
“He comes into the national team with guys like [Alejandro] Bedoya, who’s now playing in France. The more good players you have the better the group is. Jurgen’s done a fantastic job of encouraging guys to go out and do more.”
Intense competition within the squad is a vital element of successful teams and for probably the first time in its history, the U.S. is at least two deep in every position. Now one may quibble with the insertion of DaMarcus Beasley as first-choice left back, but he’s seldom been disgraced in that assignment. And stiff competition in midfield has generated solid performances by second and third choices. Klinsmann has occasionally criticized the will of his stars. He challenged Dempsey’s accomplishments in the Premier League and kept Donovan off the squad following a long sabbatical. He also arrived with promises of sparking play that were scaled back as the arduous process of Concacaf qualification unfolded, but there’s no question he’s sought out players with flair -- Mix Diskerud, Zusi, Bedoya, Shea, etc. -- and wants defenders as well as everybody else to be good on the ball.
Not every player has flourished in forbidding conditions. Some players have stagnated overseas: Maurice Edu and Shea are stuck on the Stoke City bench as Cameron starts on a weekly basis, and one cringes at the checkered international fortunes of Oguchi Onyewu andFreddy Adu.
Donovan has steadfastly maintained his Galaxy status, Dempsey left Tottenham for Seattle. These are not avenues Klinsmann would recommend yet now has enough talented candidates to push every member of the first team to some degree. If they are fit and sharp, they will start, but if not, their places in the first XI are not automatically rubber-stamped.
Cameron believes Klinsmann shares some of the same characteristics, as well as demands, of his manager, former Welsh international Mark Hughes. Like Klinsmann, Hughes played as a forward, but though he’s noticeably less effervescent than the U.S. coach, there are similar objectives.
“He wants mental toughness, an attitude of no fear, and confidence in our ability,” says Cameron. “They want to put the ball on the pitch and possess it and create things offensively and play good football.”
What will the U.S. look like and how will it do in Brazil? Along with a talent pool at its deepest point, it will also be led by a man whose experience and background are unique in national-team history. Playing for a World Cup-winning West German team in 1990 and coaching Germany to third place in 2006 instills a perspective from which to teach his players the methods to cope with demanding expectations, intense pressure, and zealous opposition.
Says Lalas, “Ultimately, what he’s got in his back pocket is that he can go into that locker room next summer and say, ‘You know what boys? This is my world, this is the World Cup. I know what it’s like to win one of these, I know what it’s like to coach in one of these, and I know what it’s like to hit a ball with the outside of the right foot in a World Cup and split defenders’ ... or something like that.
“We’ve never had that in the past. I hope that there is some power to that and that he can harness that power, and he can translate it into good things for the team next summer.”