Get all of Brian Straus’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
So the world isn’t ending. Put down the pitchforks and torches, cancel the move into that bunker and hold off on the ritual sacrifices.
Facing the unimaginable horror of elimination from the World Cup more than two years before the tournament kicks off in Russia, the U.S. national team gathered itself and blasted Guatemala, 4-0, on Tuesday evening in Columbus, Ohio. Now 2-1-1 in their four-team semifinal round group and scheduled to face St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago in September, coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s team looks to be well on its way to CONCACAF’s Hexagonal—just where it’s supposed to be.
“We’re on track,” Klinsmann said following the win, which he said sent “a very clear message that we are on top of the game and we are in the driver’s seat again.”
Well, not exactly in the driver’s seat. Trinidad (3-0-1) still leads Group C and Mexico is still the reigning Gold Cup champion, 2017 Confederations Cup invitee and already through to the Hex. And by claiming that one home win, while emphatic, over a terrible Guatemala team puts his team “on track,” Klinsmann may be guilty of glossing over a pretty miserable nine-month stretch.
Since the start of last summer, the U.S. has finished fourth at the Gold Cup (its worst performance since 2000), suffered home defeats to Jamaica and Panama (again, we’re counting that penalty kick shootout as a loss because the U.S. was awful) and lost at Guatemala. Klinsmann has pointed fingers at a couple of his players and the officials, thereby creating division and excess drama, while former internationals, fans and the press have weighed in regarding the apparent lack of structure and consistency. While the World Cup campaign may have been salvaged, Tuesday’s rout of Los Chapines doesn’t erase the past year. There were some good signs in Columbus, but the overall trajectory remains somewhat troubling.
Klinsmann will gather his team again in late May for two friendlies against Ecuador and Bolivia and then the Copa América Centenario, which will feature first-round matches with Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay. Between now and then, we’ll exhale, regroup and ponder these three issues after a roller coaster of an international break.
Klinsmann is safe, but still should be judged by higher standard
Fans can pay for all the airplane banners they’d like, but it won’t change Klinsmann’s status with U.S. Soccer. The federation has far too much invested in the German-Californian to pull the plug, and, barring a full-blown qualifying crisis, he’ll be in charge until at least the 2018 World Cup.
But job security shouldn’t mean that he’s immune to criticism or compromise. In fact, Klinsmann still should be held to an even higher standard than his predecessors, in part because of his lofty salary (around $3.2 million) and in part because he promised a(n) (r)evolution in style and player development when he took over in 2011.
Last week, the world mourned and celebrated Johan Cruyff, a man who believed that soccer was equal part style and substance. The game was meant to be played a certain way, and the manner in which you reached the final score, at least ideally, was as crucial as the score itself.
"Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring,” Cruyff famously said.
Like almost everyone involved in the sport, Klinsmann had high praise for the Dutch legend. “He was always ahead of his time with everything he did,” the manager said. “I think a lot of people share that [philosophy] with him. You want to see this type of game, where you set the tone. You control the game. You make it fast. You make it attractive and attacking.”
The U.S. certainly was attacking on Tuesday, but it wasn’t necessarily attractive. The finishing absent in Guatemala City returned, but the goals still came off two fortunate bounces following poor touches by Gyasi Zardes, a set piece and a late, awful turnover by Guatemala midfielder Rodrigo Saravia. The Americans were opportunistic, well-organized and ruthless. That was welcome. But this wasn’t the free-flowing, creative soccer Klinsmann had promised—a sort of soccer has been on display all too rarely, and the two most recent major tournaments have been notable for a significant dearth of it.
The U.S. was the very opposite of creative and dynamic at least year’s Gold Cup and emphatically outplayed in three of four games at the 2014 World Cup, where it was outshot 94-44 and out-possessed 56.5%-43.5% in four games. Both those figures, and several others, represented significant declines from 2010.
Klinsmann wasn’t hired simply to get results. He was hired to change the way the U.S. approached a match, an opponent and the sport. On that level, regardless of Tuesday’s result, there doesn’t appear to have been a lot of progress.
Concerns over continuity remain
In defense of what appeared to be numerous personnel and tactical changes under Klinsmann, U.S. Soccer trotted out this statistic on Tuesday: Klinsmann has used 80 starting 11s in his 82 games in charge. That seems like a lot, until you compare it to Bob Bradley’s 77 in 80 or Bruce Arena’s 129 in 130. For a national team coach, change is part of the job.
But the eye test makes Klinsmann’s tinkering seem a bit more severe. Not only is he using different players, he’s frequently changing their positions and the team’s formation. There’s doesn’t seem to be a tactical foundation on which the players can count when they arrive in camp (several have hinted as much).
Klinsmann insisted this week that he never plays anyone out of position—cue tape of Alejandro Bedoya as a defensive midfielder against Brazil—but it’s clear he often doesn’t deploy his charges where they’re most comfortable or where they’re accustomed to playing for their clubs.
Friday’s loss in Guatemala was a perfect example. Geoff Cameron was at right back instead of in the middle. DeAndre Yedlin was at right midfield instead of right back. Michael Orozco was at center back despite playing rarely for Club Tijuana. Edgar Castillo is suddenly the first-choice left back after two years out of the picture. Mix Diskerud was asked to play as a box-to-box pivot and Michael Bradley, once again, was asked to do almost everything.
Were any of these players technically out of position? It’s semantics, and one could argue that based on their history and a broad definition of what they do, none were. But so many were playing out of their customary position that the U.S. looked disjointed and confused. The first loss to Guatemala since 1988 followed.
Klinsmann corrected a bunch of those mistakes on Tuesday. But Graham Zusi’s participation, while helpful, lent the appearance that there’s still a lack of planning. The Sporting Kansas City midfielder wasn’t among the 26 players initially selected for the qualifiers, but thanks to several injuries he was brought to Columbus on Sunday evening. Darlington Nagbe showed well in reserve duty in Guatemala City, Lee Nguyen and Ethan Finlay demonstrated promise in January camp. Zardes can play withdrawn and Diskerud is more effective with limited defensive responsibilities. All were in camp for the duration. Yet Zusi started (and scored). If he was so vital to the U.S. effort, why wasn’t he called in to begin with?
Again, it wasn’t a bad choice to bring Zusi aboard. There just was a feeling of randomness about it all. There’s no established back four, center back pairing or starting goalkeeper and no sense of whether Klinsmann believes the midfield should be anchored by an established No. 6 or pivot. These things help create continuity and certainty. It’s easier to plug new players in when they arrive with a sense of how the team is going to play. But we still don’t know how the U.S. should look when it’s at its best, or even what it does best, and Klinsmann is five years in.
At least he now has another two years to figure it out.
Building a core and a future
Clint Dempsey is 33. So is Kyle Beckerman, whose influence on Friday and at the World Cup suggests the U.S. is stronger with a true defensive midfielder. Jermaine Jones is 34. Bradley, Bedoya, Zusi, Castillo, Matt Besler and several others will be in their 30s by the time the 2018 World Cup rolls around. Some may not make it. Others may have evolved. There need to be some significant additions to Klinsmann’s core over the next year and a half.
To his credit, he appears to have found a long-term right back in DeAndre Yedlin. Fabian Johnson is Klinsmann’s best dual-national recruit and Nagbe and John Brooks have the potential to join that core permanently before long. But Klinsmann’s progress as U.S. Soccer technical director has left much to be desired.
The youth national team program and Development Academy have been expanded under his watch, but the performance of the former has been poor. The U-23 team folded against Colombia on Tuesday and will miss a second straight Olympic tournament. And neither the U-20 or U-17 team made it to the final of their most recent regional championship. If Klinsmann is developing the next generation of senior internationals, it’s not showing up in the results.
A look at past U-20 and U-17 champions suggests that youth success often fails to translate to senior success, but recent U.S. youth sides have failed to show much progress toward the soccer Klinsmann wants to play. And one could argue that while senior players are who they are, younger athletes theoretically are more malleable. So far, it’s difficult to point to more than a couple U-23 players with obvious short-term senior potential.
Tuesday’s win bought Klinsmann more time. He’ll need all of it to build a contender for 2018.