By Paul Gardner
So, another shapeless, luke-warm performance from Jurgen Klinsmann's team. Of course he'll take it, three points on the road, in Jamaica where points have always been hard to come by.
But the soccer was predictably poor. This is an aspect of his team’s performance that seems to matter less and less to Klinsmann. Something he never bothers to mention in his tangled post-game remarks. Something he has never, that I am aware of, bothered to seriously address during his two years in charge.
Is there a Klinsmann vision for this team? Does he want it to play like Barcelona or Inter Milan, like Brazil or like Germany? He talked, when he took up the USA job in 2011, about how soccer should reflect a country’s culture -- told us he “deeply believed” that -- and spoke also of a “pro-active” style of play, and identified possession as a starting point.
So we’ve had two years of Klinsmann-style pro-active possession, and the team looks little different from the way it looked under Bob Bradley. The results are not noticeably better. They are bolstered -- maybe hyped is the better word -- by that win against Italy, the win in Mexico, and now -- just a week ago, the 4-3 victory over Germany.
Three exhibition games in which the performance of the opposition left something to be desired. The game against Germany, in particular, sunk to a near farcical level, with the Germans sending a decidedly “B” team. Well, that happens in these games -- and some will insist that you get a tougher game that way, as the reserves and substitutes give their all trying to claim a place on the full team.
Maybe. But it didn’t happen this time. This was the sort of game that gives friendlies a bad name. The performance by the Germans was shamefully weak. So lacking in effort and spirit that it made a mockery of any attempt to rate the caliber of the American play. Just 13 minutes into the game the German defense allowed Jozy Altidore to hover, unmarked, on the penalty spot as a cross came in from Graham Zusi. Altidore’s volley into the net was a beauty, but the lackadaisical marking by the Germans (one defender a yard behind Altidore, no other defender within three yards) was barely believable. This was not a last-second darting run into space from Altidore, he was literally standing still, waiting for the cross.
Three minutes later the developing farce took a detour into slapstick as the German goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen presented the U.S. with the mother of all own goals.
That just doesn’t happen. When German coach Joachim Loew remarked later that he would “almost call my team sleepy at times” he was understating the case by a huge margin. This was a disgraceful performance by the Germans. To see the game -- a key event in the U.S. Soccer Federation’s centenary celebrations -- close with an all-smiles hug between Loew and Klinsmann did not seem appropriate.
Yet it was all taken with enthusiastic fervor up in the ESPN booth, taken seriously by the chief commentator, whom I need not ID, as though the USA was really beating Germany. That was not what was happening. The USA was clobbering a German team made up of unmotivated reserves, not one of whom is likely to be a starter when Germany takes the field in next year’s World Cup.
All that was learned from the game was that the USA plays better against sleepy-second-stringers than it does against determined Concacaf teams. The result meant nothing. But the result of the previous game, against Belgium, meant a lot. Belgium brought pretty much its full team, and came to play. And the USA performed poorly under the pressure.
But we -- and surely the U.S. players -- are used to these ups and downs by now. They have been a steady part of U.S. national team play for decades now. Now that does tell you something. It tells you that American players do not throw in the towel, do not get utterly demoralized. They bounce back, often quite quickly.
The spirit and the resilience of the American players has never been in doubt. Why should it be? That is the story of American involvement in any sport. Winning has always been damn important, and the fighting spirit has always been there. Yet there have been times when Klinsmann talks as though his players lack commitment, as though they don’t respond when things get tough.
In fact that, along with reminders of how tough Klinsmann’s own playing background was, have been perhaps the most prominent of his comments on the qualities of American players.
If Klinsmann sees his main duty to be that of making American players tougher (or nastier, to use his word) it is not to be wondered at that his team comes up short on the style front.
His results are acceptable -- as they would be for any coach in his position. I have never doubted that the USA will qualify for the World Cup, nor that there will be a few hiccups along the way. There’s nothing either particularly good or bad to be said about the results (for the above reasons, I am not including the friendly results because the USA should be beyond the stage in its development where it has to parade pseudo-scorelines as genuine achievements).
But the absence of good soccer is disturbing. No, the team does not have to play like Barcelona. But it should have a rhythm and a style to its play. After the humiliation by Belgium came the 4-3 win against Germany. If that game was for real, then it should have been a thoroughly rejuvenated U.S. team that played against Jamaica. Yet we got another so-so performance, won by a goal scored in the last seconds of the game.
If the game against Germany was meaningless (I would rate it worse than that, it was totally deceiving -- to those willing to be deceived) then the U.S. performance against Jamaica was pretty much what was to be expected. Either way, it was not good enough. Panama is next -- and can anyone, including Klinsmann, say with confidence that he knows how the USA will perform in that game?