By Paul Gardner
I don't see how losing 4-2, on your home field, can be viewed as anything other than an acute embarrassment. Even when the opponent is Belgium, currently one of the better European teams, playing with virtually a full squad.
But Jurgen Klinsmann and his surely diminishing band of supporters would have us believe that the loss to Belgium had only positives to offer, that even the mere fact of scheduling such a game is a daring adventure, that players need to be assessed, that “this is how you learn” ... and so on.
There is a dash of truth to each of those explanations (which could equally well be termed excuses). But there is another factor that must be considered -- a factor that simply overwhelms all the others: Timing.
We are being asked to believe that the USA men’s national team, Klinsmann’s one and only responsibility, is a work in progress. Still a work in progress, I should say. Klinsmann has been running the show for nearly two years now, and how many certitudes are there on his team? Tim Howard, I suppose, which is OK, and Jermaine Jones, which is downright dismaying. Beyond those two, all is flux.
Klinsmann and his team have run out of time. They are not, at this stage, preparing for the qualifiers. They are slap bang in the middle of them, with crucial games arriving at the double.
Yet what Klinsmann is giving us -- has been giving us ever since he began his work -- does not look like a team. It certainly doesn’t play like a team. But then I can’t recall any time during the past 50 years when that was the case. The USA got through a variety of coaches but all too often looked like a hurriedly assembled bunch of players, not really familiar with each other, and not really up to the task of playing at the international level.
The results, inevitably, were all over the place -- every so often a remarkable win, and equally often an appalling humiliation. When Klinsmann was appointed in 2011, he was undoubtedly expected to put a stop to all that uncertainty and lack of consistency.
As a young man with a smiling, pleasant personality, as the highest paid coach the team has ever had, as the coach who moved in at a time when the playing level of U.S. players is higher than it’s ever been, Klinsmann -- internationally acclaimed as both player and coach -- appeared to be the ideal man to introduce a new spirit and a new professionalism to the program.
If telling players what they should eat and how they should do their exercises and why they should listen to health gurus and why they should play “nastier” soccer are the criteria, then Klinsmann is doing OK. But if producing a functioning team on the field, a team that plays attractive, attacking soccer, a team that is worth watching, a team that fans can rejoice in, then Klinsmann is failing comprehensively.
The USA’s last three games have been painful to watch. That ludicrous game in the Colorado blizzard, the cravenly defensive bore in the Azteca, and now the mauling by Belgium. Three games during which the USA scored only three goals, one of them from a very doubtful penalty kick.
As World Cup qualifiers, those games mattered, and on the scoreboard the USA did its job with a win and a tie. But it is not so much the results -- either encouraging or disappointing -- that are my concern here. It is the almost total lack of good soccer that worries.
Given the advantages that he has, Klinsmann should be producing soccer that can confidently be judged to be at a higher level than that played by either Bruce Arena’s or Bob Bradley’s teams in their better games.
Yet Klinsmann’s team -- despite his importation of a posse of supposedly superior German oriundi -- is not noticeably better. The Germans have made no difference, while Klinsmann’s determination to make unusual and even bizarre player selections are not helping matters.
You can argue -- and many do argue -- that good soccer (the arguers always trivialize it as “pretty” soccer) is not what matters ... just get the points. Functional soccer. OK -- and then what? After World Cup qualification, does the team suddenly start playing differently? Does it overnight begin to look like Barcelona? Bah -- it will continue to be faithful to “what got us here,” which puts in grave doubt whether Klinsmann will ever produce a team that plays even half-decent soccer.
The huge problem with merely functional soccer is that it cannot be developed into anything better. It is always an improvised version of the game, applied to the here and now, spending all its time adapting to opponents.
Which is why good soccer does matter. Emphatically so. A team playing with skill and style can form the basis for growth and development, it can provide a template for future and better teams, simply because it is built on the lasting values of soccer, things that do matter. One had hoped that Klinsmann would bring that approach. It doesn’t look like it. As of now, this late in the day, I can discern absolutely no evidence of a Klinsmann style, not even a hint as to what it might look like.