On Tuesday night, in what was a meaningless World Cup qualifier for the United States men’s national team, the U.S. pulled out a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Panama. Down 2-1 in the 92nd minute, the Americans capitalized on late goals from Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson to earn the win.
And while the excitement of the game should not be overlooked, or its effect on the CONCACAF qualifying process—which saw the U.S. win save Mexico’s qualifying life and kill off Panama—the late comeback should not be surprising to U.S. fans. It has simply become the status quo in the Jurgen Klinsmann era.
When Klinsmann took over the USMNT in 2011, the U.S. was struggling. They had just lost the Gold Cup final to Mexico 4-2, and the talent pool was a mix of fading stars and never-quite-good-enough role players. Mexico was clearly the dominant team in CONCACAF, and serious worries had sprouted up about the future of U.S. Soccer, as they had limped through the 2011 Gold Cup that summer.
From his first game in charge, Klinsmann made it clear that things were going to change. He began drastically widening the talent pool and spent the first year-and-a-half sifting through numerous formations, looking for the right combination of players and tactics. Things did not always go well, as the team struggled for goals and continuity in the early going. The U.S. even almost saw its World Cup dreams die last October, when they went down 1-0 in a game against Guatemala on the final day of the CONCACAF semifinal qualifying round.
Even as late as this March, the team was struggling. They had lost their first game of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, commonly known as the hexagonal, to Honduras, and a scathing article by The Sporting News’ Brian Straus made the U.S. camp look in disarray. Fans, the media and even his own players were questioning Klinsmann’s methods, his tactical acumen and his seemingly overzealous obsession with fitness runs and two-a-day sessions during U.S. camps.
Since then, the team has experienced a remarkable turnaround, winning 16 of their last 19 games. In fact, the only games they haven’t won in that span were losses to very talented Belgian and Costa Rican sides and an important away draw to Mexico at Estadio Azteca. And, as much as Klinsmann took the blame when things weren’t going the U.S.’ way, he must be given credit now that things have turned around.
Best of all for USMNT fans, the improvements Klinsmann has made to the USMNT in his two years in charge are the same things that will make the U.S. a very dangerous opponent in the World Cup.
The Talent Pool
In Klinsmann’s 26 months in charge, he has given caps to 62 different players for the U.S. He has convinced a number of critical dual internationals that their future lies with the U.S., and he has made every position and every roster spot on the USMNT competitive.
Even veterans stars like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Landon Donovan know they must perform or risk losing their spots. In the U.S.’ game on Friday night against Jamaica, Klinsmann pulled Donovan at halftime after a lackluster performance. Klinsmann has repeatedly called out Dempsey in the press. He dropped Jozy Altidore from the squad last October when World Cup qualification hung in the balance, and Timothy Chandler has become a USMNT refugee since a poor performance in February against Honduras. Even Carlos Bocanegra, who started the first 13 games of the Klinsmann era, was unceremoniously, and seemingly permanently, dropped from the squad in March.
It would be impossible for any American player—none of whom have a playing pedigree anywhere near the German’s—to say that Klinsmann doesn’t know what it takes to be at the top as a player. And Klinsmann has used that credibility to foster a fear/respect among the U.S. players.
The U.S. roster is more competitive now than it has been at any time in its history, and every player knows that they must both maintain top form with their clubs and put forth solid performances with the U.S. each and every time they step out onto the pitch. That kind of pressure and intra-squad competitiveness has made the U.S. a stronger team and a more dangerous team to play.
Faith and Dividends
While Klinsmann’s management style has upset some of U.S. stalwarts—his uneasy relationship with Donovan a prime example—he has also fostered a bond of trust with many U.S. players that has begun to pay dividends this year.
He has given repeated chances to players like Brek Shea and Michael Parkhurst, despite the fact that they have both been ostracized at the club level. He has shown an immense trust, depending on a rotation of Major League Soccer center-backs in Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson to anchor his back line. He has challenged top players like Altidore to move to more competitive leagues. He has given MLS players like Kyle Beckerman, Brad Evans, Chris Wondolowski and Graham Zusi an honest shot at making the team. And he has given players like DaMarcus Beasley and Eddie Johnson a second chance at an international career.
That type of trust in his players has reaped many rewards for Klinsmann and the USMNT over the past year, as many of those players have repaid Klinsmann’s faith with important contributions to U.S. wins. The American players clearly appreciate those opportunities and have shown their appreciation with outstanding, game-changing performances.
For the past five months, Klinsmann has been riding a high of gilt-edge decisions. His late-game substitutes were difference makers in almost every single Gold Cup game, against Bosnia in August, Mexico in September and both World Cup qualifiers in October.
Against Jamaica last Friday, not only did substitutes Edgar Castillo and Sacha Kljestan play well, but Graham Zusi’s presence coming on for Donovan at the half changed the game. Zusi played like a man possessed and notched the game-winning goal. Against Panama on Tuesday night, substitutes Brad Davis and Aron Johannsson recorded the game-tying assist and game-winning goal, respectively.
Against Jamaica last Friday, Klinsmann also realized that the 4-4-2 he started the game with was not working and went back to the 4-2-3-1 that had worked so well for the U.S. since March. Immediately, the game changed from a dreary 0-0 deadlock to an American offensive explosion and eventual 2-0 win.
Klinsmann has become so adept at keeping his finger on the U.S. pulse that at least seven American players (Brek Shea, Graham Zusi, Sacha Kljestan, Edgar Castillo, Mix Diskerud, Eddie Johnson and Joe Corona) have garnered the tag “supersub” over the past four months. With so many “supersub” options, the U.S. is able to turn a game on its head in the second half.
One must also remember that Klinsmann is still learning and he’s becoming a better coach with every match. He has now managed 42 games for the USMNT, one shy of the number of games he managed at Bayern Munich in less than a single season. Over his 42 games with the U.S., he has learned what works and, more importantly, what doesn’t, and he now has the U.S. primed to put their best foot forward.
Anyone who has ever listened to Klinsmann speak can immediately recognize his confidence and enthusiasm. A great deal of that surely comes from his storied playing career, but Klinsmann’s lack of self-doubt, at least expressed publicly, is astounding.
When listening to Klinsmann talk about the U.S. team, he always speaks about the squad in terms of what needs to be done moving forward and expresses an immense amount of confidence in how the team will achieve the goals he has laid out. He is also adept at keeping the media at arm’s length from the squad and keeping everyone guessing.
This past month, he repeatedly claimed he was not going to use the October games to experiment, then fielded a lineup against Panama almost entirely of second teamers. He has repeatedly said that club form is important, yet repeatedly called players who have not seen the field in months. And he always talks about the USMNT as being in a process—nothing is static.
Finally, he has tapped into the American will to win. After Tuesday’s win over Panama, Klinsmann said, “In my culture, the German culture, you never stop before the final whistle.” Americans feel the same way too, and Klinsmann has got them playing that way. That makes them dangerous for whomever they play in Brazil in 2014.
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