Over the past week, the United States men’s national team picked up a vital four points in their effort towards World Cup qualification with a 1-0 home win over Costa Rica and a 0-0 draw away to Mexico.
Coming into these two most recent World Cup qualifiers, Jurgen Klinsmann had come under heavy fire from fans and was even anonymously criticized in the press by his own players in a recent article by the Sporting News.
So, has the USMNT’s success under Klinsmann been due to luck, or Jurgen Klinsmann’s skill as a manager?
The Argument for Luck
There is little doubt that the U.S. benefited from a number of fortuitous situations over the past week.
First, the blizzard-like conditions in Denver were a huge advantage to the United States. The American players were clearly more used to the cold and snow than their Costa Rican counterparts. The unfavorable weather obviously benefited the inexperienced U.S. back line, which was able to use its advantages in size and speed over the Costa Ricans' technical ability.
Lastly, the U.S. picked up an early goal with Clint Dempsey’s effort in the 16th minute when the surface was still playable. Quickly thereafter, the field became completely covered with several inches of snow, giving the Costa Ricans a slim chance to tie the game.
At the Estadio Azteca four days later, the U.S. rode its luck again. For some inexplicable reason, the Federation of Mexican Football chose a nighttime kickoff, seriously negating any advantage the Mexicans would have had with the midday heat.
Fans of Mexico also would argue that they should have been awarded two separate penalties (although this replay shows that Aquino clearly kicked the ground on his missed attempt in the 77th minute). Lastly, Chicharito’s abysmal finishing for Mexico was clearly uncharacteristic for the normally deadly Manchester United striker.
The Spirit of the Squad
Since the USMNT’s reemergence on the international scene in 1990, the one thing the team has always had going for it is its spirit.
A team’s spirit is not a quantifiable property, but any fan of the USMNT would argue that it is tangible.
Going all the way back to the 1990 World Cup squad and, perhaps more notably, the 1994 team, the U.S. team has rarely been the most talented team on the field. Still, they have continued to win games, even against the giants of international football (Italy, Spain and Mexico are some recent examples) because of their work rate, competitiveness and belief in each other.
In the early days of U.S. soccer, some of this had to do with the fact that many of the players were under contract with the national team. This meant that the U.S. team spent more time together than any other international squad in the world, as it trained year-round. During that era, many U.S. players also knew that if they had any chance of playing professionally (in the days before Major League Soccer), it would come by getting noticed with the national team.
Since then, and with the creation of MLS, the USMNT has continued to be a springboard to Europe. When players get called up and play well with the national team, the offers from Europe start coming in. Now that the vast majority of the squad’s regulars are firmly based in Europe, some have begun questioning whether or not playing for the national team means the same thing to the players that it did in the past.
The results over the past week proved that the spirit of the squad is still strong. But those results also came with a roster composed of many more North American-based players than usual. By comparison, 11 of the 14 players used in the 2-1 away loss to Honduras in February were European-based, as were eight of 14 players used in the Costa Rica win and only seven of the 14 players used in the Mexico game.
How much Klinsmann is responsible for the spirit of the squad is difficult to assess. A large part of the increased use of North American players in these recent games was due to the high number of European-based players who were injured.
Furthermore, Klinsmann’s motivational tactics can border on the absurd—anyone who has seen the video of the motivational speaker he brought in for the U.S.’ World Cup qualifier loss to Jamaica last year can attest to that.
However, Klinsmann’s motivational tactics appear to be effective. One key piece of evidence actually comes from a player who was critical of Klinsmann in the Sporting News article. After blasting Klinsmann’s tactical choices in the Honduras match, the same player said, “He’s a great motivator. He can make you feel you’re better than what you are.”
One revelation that came out of the Sporting News piece was a criticism of the heart of the German-American contingent of the U.S. squad.
With its beginnings in the Bob Bradley era (Jermaine Jones and Timmy Chandler were originally Bradley call-ups), the USMNT under Klinsmann has continued to infuse multiple German-Americans into the squad, including Alfredo Morales, Terrence Boyd, Danny Williams and Fabian Johnson.
According to one national team player from the same article, the German-Americans don’t have the spirit or competitiveness that has been so crucial to U.S. success over the years.
He said, “They stay to themselves. Jermaine is the leader, and the rest of them follow him. I don’t know if they don’t care.”
Another player said, “It’s like they’re here and they enjoy it, but they don’t care as much as you should to play for the national team.”
However, for this past week’s games, most of the German-American contingent was left off the roster. While U.S. Soccer claimed that Johnson, Chandler and Williams were injured or sick, some U.S. fans weren’t buying it.
Some fans even speculated that Klinsmann made the decision to leave Johnson, Williams and Chandler off the U.S. roster after he found out about the Sporting News article.
Both Williams and Johnson were reportedly released by Hoffenheim for international duty, and then all of a sudden were “ill” and “injured." Johnson had been injured the week before, but Williams played 90 minutes with Hoffenheim last weekend. Timmy Chandler also had played 84 minutes for Nurnberg last weekend.
In the German-Americans' absence, Klinsmann called up MLS fullbacks Justin Morrow and Tony Beltran (both of whom were unused in both games).
If Klinsmann left the German-Americans off the squad to regain the trust of the U.S. squad, it just may have worked. If they were legitimately hurt or ill, the U.S. team proved to itself and Johnson, Chandler and Williams that the U.S. can win without them.
One of the biggest knocks against Klinsmann, both from fans and his own players, has been his questionable tactics and lineup choices in World Cup qualifiers. In the Americans’ away losses to Jamaica last September and the loss to Honduras in February, Klinsmann deployed three defensive midfielders.
In both games, the U.S. attack was non-existent and struggled to find any worthwhile possession. It seemed as if Klinsmann had learned nothing from the Jamaica game when he tried relatively the same tactic against Honduras.
However, this week, Klinsmann went back to a pragmatic approach, utilizing a 4-2-3-1 against both Costa Rica and Mexico. While the U.S. attack was still nothing to write home about, especially in the game against Mexico, it was certainly more effective.
The U.S. lacks a true playmaker in the lineup (something Klinsmann still needs to figure out), but it can at least protect itself defensively better on the wings in the 4-2-3-1 and give itself better width on the attack.
Klinsmann also stuck with Omar Gonzalez in both games after Gonzalez struggled against Honduras. It was a brave (some would argue stupid) choice to leave Bocanegra on the bench in the Honduras game and completely off the roster for the Costa Rica and Mexico games, but it worked.
Gonzalez, particularly against Mexico, was fantastic, and his center-back partners (Clarence Goodson against Costa Rica and Matt Besler against Mexico) played well themselves.
Throughout his tenure as head coach of the USMNT, Klinsmann has made a number of questionable decisions, some of which have worked out, some of which have not.
Klinsmann must be given credit for bringing Herculez Gomez into greater prominence in the squad and getting a better effort out of Jozy Altidore. (While Jozy still isn’t scoring, his effort has improved since being left out of the squad for the October qualifiers.)
Klinsmann has slowly reduced the frequency of Kyle Beckerman’s inclusion in the lineup, and his October gamble of including Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson in the squad produced the game-winning combination in the Antigua game.
Graham Zusi and Geoff Cameron have become important members of the squad under Klinsmann’s guidance, and Omar Gonzalez looks ready to take over the mantle as the U.S.’ center-back of the future.
Klinsmann must also be given credit for his results. While not pretty, the U.S. is now in a good position in the hexagonal in addition to his impressive friendly victories away over Italy and Mexico in 2012.
Going forward, however, Klinsmann still has some hurdles. The United States' performances in the semifinal round of qualifying were not inspiring, especially the away loss to Jamaica, the scare in Antigua and the poor start against Guatemala at home.
The U.S. is also still desperate for a playmaking midfielder to produce more threatening attacks (the U.S. only had one shot on goal in each of last week’s games). Klinsmann also needs to worry about how to re-integrate Danny Williams, Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson into the squad after last week’s article.
Finally, Klinsmann has to prove to his players that he has the tactical chops to cut it at the international level and doesn’t just tell the players to go out on the field and “express yourself.”
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