Defenders Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron think the concept that the USA is still best suited to a counterattacking style may be revised this month, pending results in the 2014 World Cup.
Since taking over the national team 34 months ago, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has emphasized technique and possession while acknowledging the characteristics of his player pool. Rather than revamping the team’s persona with players based in Mexico, as he professed when he took the job, he’s opted for a strong mix of European and MLS representation. Only left back DaMarcus Beasley plays in Mexico.
The transformation under way -- and it is still very much a work-in-progress -- is typified by how all the players, including the defenders, talk about the lofty standards of technique and touch set by Klinsmann, who as a player represented Germany 108 times, scored 47 goals, and won titles at every level.
“It’s been a long process and I’ve been in there since the beginning,” says Cameron, who earned his first cap in 2010 under predecessor Bob Bradley and has gained a regular spot since Klinsmann assumed command. He is one of numerous players on the roster who has played on both sides of the Atlantic, and as a collegiate product and MLS pro now employed by Stoke City of the English Premier League, a vital piece of the Klinsmann puzzle.
“It’s been interesting, going from the team just coming together and trying to find its form and its identity, and slowly forming into a team. It’s been a pretty special experience. People know what they can offer and what they can contribute, and it’s a matter of guys jelling.”
How well they’ve jelled gets the acid test in this group, one of the toughest ever faced by the USA in a World Cup, beginning with Monday's match in rainy Natal against Ghana. A counterpunching game plan might be the shrewdest approach in a group that also includes European heavyweights Portugal and Germany, but at this point at least, the collective mindset is markedly different. One crucial message in the Klinsmann mantra is that teams that can keep the ball are usually those best equipped to do something with it.
“We want to be on the front foot,” says Besler, whose passing skill is as important a component as his tracking, marking, heading, and tackling. “We’re not going to sit back for 90 minutes trying to get something off of a set piece or maybe off of one counterattack. We want to be a team that possesses the ball and that’s able to create multiple chances throughout the game.”
Counters and set plays have been staples of the American attack for more than two decades, though the 2002 and 2010 teams showed impressive periods of possession play. There have been sporadic displays of cohesive combinations and intelligent movement under Klinsmann while topping the Hexagonal and winning the 2013 Gold Cup. The coach has also overseen historic away victories in friendlies at Italy and Mexico, plus away wins in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia. But the limited supply of demanding matches is a constant thorn for the U.S. Soccer coaching staff and the players.
Klinsmann picked only five players with past World Cup experience; during his reign, stalwarts such as Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson were dropped. The inclusion of young, unproven players such as defender John Brooks and midfielder Julian Green has roiled up speculation Klinsmann is more concerned more about the next World Cup than this one, as did his comments that it’s not realistic to think the USA can win the tournament.
“The group is really young,” says Jermaine Jones, who is 32 and one of the few players from the pre-Klinsmann era. “I was in the Gold Cup team and there was like Carlos and the older players. This group is a young group and maybe this group is not only the group for this World Cup but they have for the next years so they can say they have a small group of a very good national team.”
The opener against Ghana, which dispatched the Americans from the last two World Cups by the same score of 2-1, provides an obvious chance at redemption for the group defeat in 2006 and round-of-16 overtime heartbreak four years ago. The pre-match coverage has been laced with references and highlights from the last two meetings. Yet far more important than the past are the points at stake.
“Statistically, the chances of advancing go way up now if you’re able to get a point or three from the first game,” says Michael Bradley. “We’ve certainly made no secret of the fact that all the focus at this point is about Ghana and making sure that we do everything we can so that on June 16 we step on the field and are ready to leave it all out there knowing that a good result puts us in a really good spot.”
Final preparations were disrupted when snarled traffic prompted cancellation of a closed-door friendly against Belgium that was to be played last Wednesday. The team arrived in Natal Saturday and trained in a steady rain that slackened somewhat on Sunday. Forward Aron Johannsson and midfielder Brad Davis were bothered by injuries during the run of three warm-up matches and did not play against Nigeria.
Klinsmann may opt for the same starting XI as he deployed in the last warm-up match against Nigeria, a 2-1 victory, nine days ago. Great attention has been placed on how the team will line up for the opener; the head coach has steered speculation away from formations and emphasized form, fitness and focus. His extensive work since taking over has been rooted in finding and refining the right blends and combinations of players to control critical areas of the field on both sides of the ball, and assemble those pieces into a cohesive whole.
Fairly or not, the measure of what has been done since a loss nearly four years ago in Rustenburg starts off Monday against the same opponent.
“In some ways, it’s almost magnified for us because we don’t play in European Championships, we don’t have a Copa America,” says Bradley, who ended a decade of club play in Europe last winter to sign with MLS and Toronto FC. “Obviously, our Gold Cups are important, but we also have to be honest and say that they aren’t on the same scale as those tournaments.
“And so, for us, the big chance comes once every four years. The work at the end of the day gets put to the test at the World Cup. And, on one level, you can say that it’s such a small sample size because obviously there’s so much that goes on for four years, in terms of work and training and games that you hope pays off.”