Klinsmann-led U.S. squad readies for Costa Rica, Belgium
The "Klinsi" era of U.S. soccer, one roiling boil of positive energy so far, is moving into a slightly more productive phase this week. With howdy sessions and handshakes now behind them, coach Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. national team is getting down to business in Carson, Calif., prepping for a pair of friendlies.
Two matches provide the mile markers here -- Friday in Southern California against Costa Rica and next week in Brussels against Belgium -- but the focus this week is more about evaluations, mental and physical. Klinsmann wants to gather further information about where the program stands, individually and in the collective. Only then can he better target the specific areas that need tweaking, reinforcing or, perhaps, reinventing.
The new boss' public introduction last month, a draw with Mexico in Philadelphia, was the hasty punctuation mark on a two-week introductory whirlwind. Pomp and publicity were abundant, but time ran short for substantive training sessions. This week, as players reported to the team's training ground at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., they were greeted with an extensive battery of tests.
Mark Verstegen, an American who worked alongside Klinsmann with the German national team before the 2006 World Cup third-place finish, is overseeing physical evaluations. And this isn't just running and stopwatch stuff. He's scientifically testing range of motion, VO2 max (the body's ability to transport and utilize oxygen), flexibility, stability and broader stamina -- all points of emphasis as Klinsmann stresses the importance of a year-round commitment to athleticism.
On the field, the workouts have been slightly more instructive as the pragmatic German taskmaster, once a world class striker, hands off little bits of direction to the assortment of new and old national team faces. There's more tactical talk, too.
"The last camp [in Philadelphia] was so quick," winger Robbie Rogers told U.S. Soccer's Studio 90. "It was exciting to meet everyone, but we didn't get to do too many things together. So I'm expecting in this camp to really get to know the coaches well, their style of play and just to work with the guys and know the guys."
The style leans more toward attacking and risk taking. It's all calculated, of course; Klinsmann certainly isn't advocating defense as an afterthought. But risk assessment parameters are changing, with less fretting about mistakes and consequence. That's the "Klinsi" positive energy at work; it's never about the mistake, per se, it's always about encouraging players to correct the error next time.
Meanwhile, Klinsmann is keeping the U.S. storylines fresh by introducing different players and assistants, including Monday's unofficial announcement that Martin Vasquez will become his top assistant.
Nothing has been signed, but this one appears done. It's an important development because Klinsmann is a known delegator, so Vasquez's imprint may be greater than usual as far as assistants go. The German-born Klinsmann and Mexican-born Vasquez became friends years back while each lived in Southern California. Vasquez inhabited a similar position during Klinsmann's short and ultimately unsuccessful stint at Bayern Munich. Lately, Vasquez was in charge of Chivas USA for one chaotic campaign; he quit at year's end amid accusations of ownership meddling.
Tab Ramos and Thomas Dooley, assistants du jour in Klinsmann's first camp, apparently earned second interviews. They are in Carson as staff tryouts continue. Former national team captain Claudio Reyna is also in Carson, but his directive is more about long-term strategic development through his role as U.S. Youth Soccer Technical Director.
As for personnel, there's plenty to discuss there, as well. Kyle Beckerman, Steve Cherundolo and Clint Dempsey were named to the original 24-man roster but won't appear for various reasons until next week's match in Belgium. Michael Orozco Fiscal is back in camp despite the shakiest of nights against Mexico. The significance won't be lost on teammates, who might rest a little easier knowing one bad night won't scuttle a national team career.
"The players, step-by-step, will realize I am somebody who will back them," Klinsmann told reporters earlier in the week. "I let the youngsters go out there and make mistakes and I don't scream at them and criticize them for that. I encourage them as long as after the mistake they run back and try to cover as well."
FC Nürnberg's Timmy Chandler is back in the U.S. camp for the first time since his eye-opening spring debut. That should allay concerns that something was amiss with the German-born defender-midfielder, who was held back from U.S. summer activity with only hazy explanations. Also, Fabian Johnson was named to the side but can't play just yet, held up by FIFA paperwork as he switches international allegiance.
Otherwise, the roster looks similar to the one against Mexico. What Klinsmann has in mind, especially for intriguing young attackers Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo, is hard to say; players were slow to trickle in this week and early workouts were still a bit sparse.
A disparate pairing of middleweights represents the opposition. Friday's opponent at the Home Depot Center is historically one of the stronger CONCACAF sides, even if the Ticos haven't been much to shout about lately. They were undistinguished during last summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup, hammered by Mexico, drawing with El Salvador and then blowing out lowly Cuba in group play. A quarterfinal loss in penalty kicks to Honduras says a lot about where the current Costa Rican version stands, and things hardly got better when the Ticos went out quietly as guests at Copa America in July.
Suffice to say, current versions hardly resemble the sides that qualified for World Cups in 2002 and 2006. It's no wonder Ricardo Lavolpe -- U.S. fans may remember him from days in charge of Mexico -- and the federation agreed to split earlier this month. Interim boss Ronald Gonzalez called up a mix of young and old similar to Klinsmann's assembly. Included are five players from Costa Rican champ Alajuelense and four MLS starters: Real Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio, New York Red Bulls left back Roy Miller, Chivas USA center back Michael Umaña and Portland midfielder Rodney Wallace.
Next week's contest against Belgium poses a greater threat, and not just for the travel and time change involved with Tuesday's contest inside the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels. The site is historic, even if the facility itself may not be. The site was once called Heysel Stadium, where 39 people died and some 600 were injured as a result of rioting before the 1985 European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus. Little remains of the old stadium, which was partly rebuilt in 1995.
Speaking of rebuilt: Belgium soccer dipped in the last decade, failing to qualify for a World Cup since 2002 and for a European Championship since 2000. Under coach Georges Leekens, however, the Red Devils aren't out of the running for a Euro 2012 berth, currently sitting second in Group A behind Germany.
If first choice center backs Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) and Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal) make the lineup, the defense will be stronger than anything the United States has seen in months. Up front, promising Chelsea 18-year-old Romelu Lukaku could become Belgium's best striker in years.