U.S. national team still a work in progress under Jurgen Klinsmann
Time will tell if newly placed U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is the right man at the right time for a challenging job. But this much already seems certain:
What's lacking in the U.S. program falls squarely into the sweet spot of Klinsmann's apparent skill set. The current U.S. player pool teems with young, talented types who require additional seasoning, who are eager to gain ground along the tactical and technical continuum. To improve individually they need to be pushed in a measured way beyond their current comfort zones -- something that's right up Klinsmann's German alley.
He took the U.S. helm aiming to make individuals better through some modern mix of positive energy, advanced kinesiology and high-level mentoring from a man who has been there at all levels. If we learned anything from Friday's 1-0 loss to Costa Rica, it's that plenty of individuals need that very thing, that extra quality that someone like Klinsmann can presumably identify and cultivate. The Americans needed a wee bit more Friday, a shard more savvy in the touch, a sliver more caginess in the approach. Too many guys just couldn't deliver that little something extra.
(Remember the golden rule about friendlies: results don't matter but individual performances darn sure do. Careers aren't made by bossing the pressure-free friendlies, but players can certainly fall in the rotation by flubbing the matches with nothing on the line.)
Quickly emerging left-sided attacker Brek Shea is the perfect example of someone who could benefit from Klinsmann's tutelage. Shea is a beast in terms of potential and raw ability. We saw it again Friday, when the lefty came oh-so-close to finally unlocking the Ticos' back line. Just 21 years old, he's already an MLS elite, his transfer value escalating steadily. Klinsmann could be the difference between Shea topping out as the next worthwhile U.S.-born-and-bred transfer into Europe (think Clint Dempsey) or arriving as something greater, still. At the very least, Klinsmann and staff could push the pace of Shea's progress, which would boost the World Cup qualifying campaign ahead.
And what about those strikers, whose inability to find goal has become a U.S. challenge to rival the ongoing left back conundrum? Juan Agudelo, Jozy Altidore and Chris Wondolowski, who have shared most of the minutes for strikers this year, have three goals in 21 combined appearances in 2011. Go back through 2010 and add Edson Buddle, Robbie Findley, Herculez Gomez and Eddie Johnson to that list -- all the strikers who played more than two matches in 2010 -- and the two-year total becomes 10 goals in 55 appearances. That's awful.
Even among some veterans, a creeping staleness has intruded. We're talking about Landon Donovan, mostly, as the national team's all-time leading scorer has lost his footing lately in the international game. So fresh ideas from Klinsmann could help pep up his performance, too.
Donovan won't be available for Tuesday's match against Belgium inside Brussels' King Baudouin Stadium (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). He is among a foursome who returned to their clubs following Friday's match as planned, along with Teal Bunbury, Fabian Johnson and Chris Pontius. Meanwhile, Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman, Fulham's Dempsey and Hannover captain Steve Cherundolo will join Klinsmann's bunch, filling out the 20-man contingent.
Dempsey and Cherundolo probably are what they are (although Klinsmann will have his say on the ongoing debate over Dempsey's best spot.) Beckerman, however, is another who may have a small, untapped capacity that Klinsmann can perhaps mine. Remember Klinsmann's critical words 14 months ago following the team's South Africa 2010 elimination, that "something is missing." It's on him now to pinpoint that "something" and then add it.
At this level, these guys can't just be athletes and the craftsmen; they have to be problem solvers, too. That's where the extra 10 percent come in -- that ability to finish the fight, not just to hang around long enough while hoping something good happens. That was more or less Friday's story.
For instance, how to get more from Jose Torres? He's still 23 years old, so he still has time to add some tactical maturity to that capable first touch. His highly technical passing in the middle third is exactly what Klinsmann wants, but squeezing even more juice from the fruit will take something more. Playmaking in the center of the park gets you a paycheck, but the big bonuses are earned in the final third, and that's where Torres needs to progress.
It would help if he had wingers and strikers more clever about their runs, and a little more determined to launch them. Shea seems ready to graduate to the next level there. Clearly, the 18-year-old Juan Agudelo has plenty of room to grow. Altidore (22) as well. Rogers, 24, has been a professional for six years now in two different countries (the United States and Holland), so his ability to progress seems less certain.
Then again, Rogers' choices in the final third have always held him back. So, too, has the precision of his crosses. (In fairness, he's better from the left but was assigned the right Friday. Since Dempsey and Shea enjoy lining up on the left, Rogers might just need to make the right side happen if he wants caps.) So, maybe Klinsmann can get through.
Meanwhile, players like Michael Orozco Fiscal and Edgar Castillo represent a sticky wicket for Klinsmann. He wants to be an instrument of encouragement rather than a beat down for those who make mistakes. So he needs to send a message that young guys can err without fear of knee-jerk repercussion. On the other hand, this is big boy soccer, not the A.Y.S.O., where everybody plays. If Fiscal and Castillo can't handle the job, Klinsmann simply must move on. If he wants to retain public and locker room confidence, he'll do so sooner rather than later -- hence the complicated balance.
Yet another tricky blend in the works: Klinsmann wants to get American players thinking "forward first" with the ball, which sometimes means tapping their inner artist. But ideally they'll do so while maintaining enough of the grinder mindset that has always distinguished U.S. teams.
"The next step they need to get to at that point is to be even more determined," Klinsmann said late Friday night. "There needs to be another piece of determination, another piece of being greedy for that goal. A bit more nastiness is part of it too, but Costa Rica did very well and on all of their one-against-one's they were very nasty. ... The physical part of it is where we need to step up more and be more hungry at that moment and finish off one of our chances."
The answers are out there with this group; Klinnsmann's ability to pull that last 10 percent out of them will tell us whether Sunil Gulati's multiyear pursuit ultimately was worth it.