Several years into the tenure of Jürgen Klinsmann as head of the United States’ Men’s National Team, casual and serious fans of the beautiful game have a brief period to take stock of the roller coaster that has been the American soccer experience before it begins anew with a friendly on September 3rd. Gone are the days of complete domination of the Yanks by their Mexican nemeses. Dos a cero has become a national narrative, adding new chapters at both the senior and youth levels (Mexico 2 or not, the U-17s at Copa Naciones kept a strong tradition alive).
Klinsmann’s 2013 was the most successful calendar year in the history of American soccer, a fine achievement indeed given the trials and tribulations assailing the Yanks during the final days of the Bob Bradley tenure. Brazil’s most recent edition of the World Cup, despite ending disastrously for the host team, marked an incredible surge in the American soccer fandom, surpassing even the highly successful (in terms of fan interest) 2010 edition of the World Cup that took place on South Africa’s shores. Water coolers, Twitter, even grocery stores and gloomy office cubicles were abuzz with discussions of John Anthony Brooks’ smashing header to put the ghosts of 2006 and 2010 to rest, agony at Ronaldo’s brilliance in snatching a draw from the jaws of American victory, and the valiance of the Yanks’ effort against Belgium in the dying throes of extra time.
Much to the chagrin of a few elder statesmen in the American sports writing landscape, the world’s game took center stage in the American consciousness, if only temporarily. By most tangible standards, the Klinsmann era has been one of remarkable success and growth for the American game, even if a great deal of said progress has been beyond the scope of the German guru’s control. Yet, by Klinsmann’s own standards, his time at the helm has accomplished little and, in fact, should be regarded as a bit of a failure thus far. Tactically, developmentally and, in terms of sheer results, Jürgen is facing a watershed moment.
Moving forward, this World Cup cycle will define Klinsmann as either the man who catapulted the United States into a place among the elite soccer nations, or as an energetic visionary who over promised and under delivered.
Klinsmann has stated numerous times that the national team must develop its own identity, a collection of traits that define American soccer players and their style of play the second the Stars and Stripes step on the pitch at any level. American teams are stereotypically known for athletic prowess, fighting spirit, team cohesion, and little else of any real consequence. For the four decades marking the American absence from the World Cup, the United States could not even beat enough CONCACAF minnows to be much more than a laughingstock.
Gutty performances at World Cup 1990 and 1994 did more to help the world’s perception of the American game, only to be shattered by the disaster in France during 1998. Fast forward to the present and, aside from a minor blip of success in South Korea, the United States has added a few more skillful players, but achieved little to shed the label of emerging soccer nation (to borrow a euphemism from political science). Klinsmann’s stated goal is to instill a more creative, attacking, controlling spirit into the American game, allowing his teams to go toe to toe with any nation in the world on any given day, in any given tournament. To be sure, Klinsmann has plugged a great many of the defensive holes that plagued Bob Bradley’s teams so often, especially early in matches.
As borne out by the most recent World Cup, however, the American national team still suffers from a dearth of creativity in the attack. In fairness, there were sweet, sublime flashes of prowess that delighted the collective American audience, the opening salvo against Ghana coming immediately to mind. The combination play between Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey was spectacular, Dempsey’s finish superb, and the banishing of the Ghanaian specter a boon to United States’ fans as a whole. That magnificent sequence has been the rare exception during the Klinsmann era, however, not the rule. More often than not, American goals are the result of set piece wizardry and gumption, rather than intentionally clinical finishes from the run of play. The lack of bite in the American attack is the result of two intertwined, yet distinct, failings. Namely, the national team has a very limited talent base from which to draw, a fact made worse by Klinsmann’s inability to find a proper formation to emphasize the positive traits of his players, while disguising or limiting their shortcomings.
The current pool of talent that makes up the foundation of the United States’ national team is long on athleticism, defensive ability, and central midfielders, yet little else in terms of polished talent. Leading up to the World Cup in Brazil, and indeed even during the tournament itself, the painfully obvious flaw for the United States was the absence of a playmaker. Clint Dempsey had, and has, attacking flair, yet does best when receiving an incisive cross or touch pass that puts him in space with a clear path toward goal.
Klinsmann, for reasons both personal and professional, left home the most successful, talented American outfield player ever, Landon Donovan. Even with Donovan in the fold, the American team lacked a consistent general who could provide an attacking spark match after match, even when facing different challenges. A player capable of dominating the attacking third, providing passes to teammates on the move, ripping shots on goal, and generally being a thorn in the side of the even the toughest defenses is nowhere to be found.
Each of Klinsmann’s midfield starters was essentially out of position or playing an unfamiliar role on the biggest stage in soccer. Bedoya plays centrally for Nantes, not on the wings, Bradley is more of deep-lying defensive playmaker, etc. Obviously, such a state of affairs lends itself to a more conservative approach to play, emphasizing avoidance of errors and defensive integrity over attack an opponent’s weaknesses. Exacerbating this mental hindrance and talent deficiency has been the plethora of formations Jürgen Klinsmann has tinkered with while seeking to make his team a successful one.
Even at the helm of Germany in the run up to the 2006 World Cup, Klinsmann was tinkering, trying multiple personnel combinations and tactical formations in an effort to find one that made his team a force. A respectable third place finish at that World Cup, surprising at the time for many openly pessimistic German fans, vindicated Klinsmann’s machinations at the time, though a subsequent stint at Bayern Munich did not end nearly as well. Fast forward to the present and Klinsmann remains the quintessential tinkerer.
His American charges were placed in several formations through qualifying and friendlies leading up to Brazil 2014, none of which were particularly systemically successful. The American charge to victory in the 2013 Gold Cup was marked by several closer than desirable results, the tendency of CONCACAF teams to park the bus and counterattack notwithstanding. Subsequent matches saw more of the same. General American futility moving forward stemmed, and currently stems, from the propensity of Klinsmann to use formations that emphasize defense while isolating primarily offensive players far up the pitch, with little connective “tissue” coordinating breakouts when on the counter.
Between the 4-2-3-1 and 4-5-1 that Klinsmann favored (depending on individual classifications and semantics), little fruit was shown to support the Klinsmann promise of greater attacking prowess at the international level, reminding many of the team’s struggles under Bradley. Despite all attempts at the contrary, Jozy Altidore too often is isolated in the opponent’s attacking third, with little to do aside from win the occasional header and attempt to beat multiple defenders off the dribble, hardly his strong suit.
Rather than a new attacking dawn, fans of the red, white, and blue have seen a reversion to previous incarnations of the national team offensively, producing eerily similar results to prior World Cups: advancement from the group stage, then a gutsy and disappointing exit in the knockout round. While the American spirit has never been in doubt, its technical acumen certainly has been nothing more than a myth. The great Cruyff expressed as much following the latest dignified American exit from the round of 16, though in a hopeful tone for the future.
Klinsmann’s tactical decisions, dictated in part as they are by the makeup of the American talent pool, have not lent themselves to the attacking, dictatorial style he espouses as the future of American soccer. While Klinsmann deserves criticism for some of his decisions, a caveat remains. His vision of attacking soccer stems from the use of a4-3-3, a system that can be highly formidable in the right hands, or a complete bust in the wrong (see Portugal). As described above, there are hardly any of the appropriate talents to run such a system, at least leading up to 2014. Excitingly, Klinsmann seems to have addressed the shortcomings of his talent pool with his most recent call up of extremely young, precocious talent. The halcyon days of Jozy running into a brick wall all by his lonesome seem to have passed.
For the astute reader, the previous sentence may seem oxymoronic when remembering that I mentioned that Klinsmann’s development of American talent has been a disappointment at the very beginning of this article. In a bit of artistic license, it should be clarified that Klinsmann receives more of an incomplete in this area, since the fruits of his changes were only ever going to be seen post-2014. Development is a time-consuming process, not an instant change.
Klinsmann’s 2006 team looks very different relative to the 2014 World Cup champions, and that is thanks to his changes to the German system of development, as well as the investment of German clubs into the development process. To the present, Klinsmann development has been subpar at best. No real new American talent emerged to seize a spot in the American starting lineup, infusing the team with exciting skills or technical acumen. New players were added to the team, but none was an impact starting player. The same faces occupied the same spots, with new role players obtaining minutes in necessary circumstances.
The only exciting, truly new player in the fold for 2014 was Julian Green, and he is the product of excellent recruiting by Klinsmann and his staff. Matt Besler was a new face in the American side, yet he remained a good, not great, addition to a position that has seemingly been in constant flux since Oguchi Onyewu suffered his serious knee injury under Bob Bradley.
For this new cycle, however, hope springs eternal. The 2015 Gold Cup, 2016 Olympics, numerous youth world cups and the 2016 Copa America offer numerous opportunities for emerging American talent to be unearthed. And, as any American fan who follows youth soccer will tell you, there are a great many talents to be excited about. Waves of American youth players are flocking to Europe’s shores, seeking the training and opportunity necessary to take the next step. Names like Joseph Gyau, Junior Flores, Emerson Hyndman, and a host of others are currently in the crucible of European academies. In the Western hemisphere, Tommy Thompson, Luis Gil, Paul Arriola, and others are working to make names for themselves in the professional ranks.
American youth teams are making deep runs in tournaments like the aforementioned Copa Naciones, Copa Atlantico, and others. And the difference in styles of play between these youth teams and the senior team is stark. Players are linking well, making supporting runs, demonstrating a wealth of skill and soccer intelligence that all too often is lacking on the senior level. As such, the games against the Czech Republic in a few days, Ecuador in October, and other upcoming matches should see the integration of new talent and give a much clearer picture of the results of Klinsmann’s efforts.
Finally, we reach the results Klinsmann achieved in his first cycle as head of the American national team. Aside from the Gold Cup title in 2013, there has been no hardware or truly remarkable results for American fans to revel in. Last year was statistically the winningest season in American soccer history (on the men’s side) to be true, yet there was little difference to distinguish the play of the Yanks under Klinsmann and their play under previous managers. Sputtering offense, defense that was inconsistent, and more than a few heart-stopping moments against less talented teams that, in all honesty, had no business staying competitive with the Americans as long as they did.
Klinsmann did achieve a win against Italy in Europe, a feat that had eluded his predecessors for quite some time. And yet, through it all, the national team failed to take that next step, the step into the elite. Certainly, the American team is no longer a laughingstock, putting in great performances against tough teams in tough environments. The 1-0 defeat to Germany in Brazil looks positively rosy compared to the 7-1 destruction that same German team put on the host nation in the semifinals.
The point remains, however, that Klinsmann failed to deliver in the first World Cup cycle of his tenure what he was hired to do. The United States has yet to truly arrive. Starting September 3rd, however, we will truly see how Klinsmann will change this country’s soccer fortunes. With an extremely young roster of emerging, not polished, talent, the Czech Republic game may end ugly, but will showcase Klinsmann endgame. Hopefully it will be the next step, not two more in retreat.