By Ridge Mahoney
Although the 2014 World Cup is being hosted by Brazil, it's clear U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann believes the path of preparation must go through Europe whenever possible, and for the third straight time in his tenure, that's where the Americans will close out the calendar year.
He’s not only lobbied hard for tougher games, he’s landed them while insisting that a heavy diet of familiar Concacaf foes and the occasional game against a South American team simply aren’t enough. Coupled with his stature as a former German international and coach of the national team, that mindset has yielded a remarkable run of opponents since Klinsmann took over in August, 2011. The Americans have played away friendlies against Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Italy, Russia, and Slovenia.
What do all those countries have in common other than games against the USA in the past two years? All have qualified for either the World Cup or the final round of intercontinental playoffs. In the cases of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Italy and Slovenia, they have lost to the USA for the first time in their history.
Because those games were friendlies, no coaches were ousted, no federation presidents were routed, and not much notice was taken. Yet despite the low-key settings and less than full-strength rosters, the Americans were able to beat good European teams in their stadiums. For a country that for decades has labored to generate results against UEFA teams regardless of conditions, those results are significant, since so many times in the past, a half-strength lineup could play at three-quarters intensity and still sweep aside the USA.
The history of American soccer is strewn with results like those from the tail end of 2009, when, as now, the U.S. had qualified for the World Cup and was wrapping up its schedule. After a 1-0 loss to Slovakia (which had also qualified for the 2010 World Cup) in Bratislava, the Americans traveled to Aarhus for a game against Denmark, another qualifier. Barely more than 15,000 fans turned out in cloudy and cool (46 degrees) conditions.
With a makeshift lineup, the U.S. started well and took the lead. Trailing at halftime, 1-0, to a Jeff Cunningham goal and peeved at his team’s poor play, Danish coach Morten Olsen yanked three starters -- all of them international veterans -- and those subs sparked a furious charge that by the 55th minute had banged in three goals. The stunned Americans never recovered. 3-1 and thanks for coming!
Though they would go on to tie England and Slovenia at the World Cup, a glaring lack of acumen and experience had been revealed. Regardless of who wore the colors that day – Cunningham’s goal was his first for the USA, Edgar Castillo made his U.S. debut -- even stalwarts such as Michael Bradley and Carlos Bocanegra couldn’t contain the Danes.
The current squad is deeper and smarter. This year it won a dozen games in a row, matched its best-ever Hexagonal performance, and dominated the Gold Cup. Though the Americans do not stack up with the good European teams in talent nor savvy or viable national team candidates, they are not so far away. And it is they who can take advantage of an opponent, even a powerful one, that doesn’t show up.
After being embarrassed, 4-2, by Belgium in Cleveland May 29, four days later the Americans took it out on a German team that had just thrashed Colombia and elected not to replicate that effort. Clint Dempsey scored twice and Jozy Alidore started his run of goals in four consecutive games by netting in a 4-3 win celebrated by 47,359 fans at RFK Stadium who had gathered for U.S. Soccer’s official Centennial match.
Certainly a greater motivation spurred the Americans on that day. The Germans were present but not necessarily accounted for. No one cited that result as evidence the Americans are as good as Germany and should be seeded at the World Cup. Yet the victory triggered that remarkable 12-game winning streak.
During the Klinsmann era the Americans have sampled solid South American opposition (Ecuador, Venezuela), tangled with mighty Brazil, and faced Mexico twice in friendlies in addition to their Hexagonal showdowns. Not every game is a major test -- remember the Landon Donovan hat trick in a 5-1 thrashing of Scotland last year -- but a trip to Europe can be definitive.
Klinsmann, though, regards every game as important. For good reason. This roster has those who are lightly capped, and others with just the shred of a chance to reach Brazil next June. End-of-the-year friendlies in Europe couldn’t be more benign than closing out 2013 against Scotland (Friday) and Austria (Tuesday), when you consider the USA played France at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis and Slovenia in Ljubljana at the end of 2011, and closed out 2012 against Russia in Krasnodar.
Against Russia, the U.S. rallied twice from one-goal deficits, and grabbed a 2-2 tie in the third minute of stoppage time on a deflected shot from the edge of the penalty that looped over the goalkeeper and into the net. That was the first U.S. goal for a player making just his third international appearance.
His name? Mix Diskerud. Has his stock risen since then? Most definitely. So do games, even friendlies, against European teams matter? Yes they do.