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What's next for USA? For Klinsmann, improvement starts with mental side

SAO PAULO – Ever the optimist, even in the hours following a gut-wrenching elimination from the World Cup, U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann saw the glass 15 minutes full, rather than 105 minutes empty, as he addressed the media for the final time here in Brazil.

Belgium dominated the U.S. throughout the vast majority of Tuesday’s 2-1 win in Salvador and if not for a record-setting, meme-inspiring performance from goalkeeper Tim Howard, the Americans wouldn’t have gotten near extra time. But once they arrived and promptly fell behind by two goals, Klinsmann finally saw the soccer he’d been hoping for – the soccer he believes the U.S. can and should play more frequently. It’s not a question of capability, the manager believes. It’s a question of character.

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“It is still a mentality topic that we have to kind of break through in a certain way,” Klinsmann said. “The interesting part is every time we would go down a goal, we’ll shift up. Then we suddenly build the pressure higher up and we give them a real game. There’s still a sense of too much respect often. That’s why I try to play many friendly games against European teams. Yes, you respect your opponent, but you leave then that respect off the field and go and give them a real game.”

After “respecting” Belgium for most of the first 105 minutes, the U.S. poured forward in the final 15, desperate and determined, and scored quickly though reserve Julian Green. Jermaine Jones came close moments later and the Americans nearly drew level on a brilliantly-constructed set piece that ended with Thibaut Courtois’ save on Clint Dempsey. Somehow, at the end, the Red Devils appeared somewhat fortunate to escape a match they controlled nearly from start to finish.

There are reasons to believe that Belgium’s advantage was the consequence of greater talent. From the shifty Eden Hazard to the relentless Romelu Lukaku, and from the incisive Kevin de Bruyne to the impenetrable Vincent Kompany, its players represent a who’s who of Europe’s most prestigious teams -- the sort where Americans have yet to make their mark consistently.

Perhaps that's partly the result of old-world bias, but the discrepancy between the U.S. and national teams that contend for a World Cup title is far too significant. While American linchpins Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones made recent moves because they felt marginalized at big European clubs, Belgium was preparing to field players who were winning trophies in England, Spain, Italy and Germany. Its depth allowed coach Marc Wilmots to save Lukaku until extra time, when he had his way against two fatigued MLS center backs.

“Certain guys who are playing at top clubs can’t even get in [Belgium’s] starting lineup, because there’s other guys keeping them out,” Howard said this week. “It’s a young, hungry, really fit, strong, team. They’ve got all the qualities of being great.”

According to Dutch bank ING, the combined market value of Belgium’s World Cup roster was six times higher than that of the U.S. Naturally, not all pricey teams do well (see Spain, Italy and England). But those numbers, along with the Americans 2-5-4 record over the past three World Cups (under three coaches), paint a picture: the U.S. appears to have round-of-16-quality talent. You are your record.

“This is always the swing game where we are now," U.S Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. “Getting to the round of 16, if we don’t do that we’re very, very disappointed. We get here, and it’s kind of a swing game. We get beyond here, then it’s generally viewed as very successful.”

Klinsmann said here that the U.S. lacked only the will, not the skill, to accomplish that. He considered those 15 minutes against Belgium and the game against Portugal, during which the Americans carried much of the play, as proof.

“It’s still a mentality topic that we’re working on. Not dropping too deep, not giving the opponent the first move all the time,” he said. “We could have turned that [Belgium] game around in the last 15 minutes of extra time. But why not do it earlier? This is the constant discussion we have and that’s why it is so important to have [youth national team coaches] Tab [Ramos] with us, and Javier Perez and Richie Williams, to make it clear we have to start the process earlier with our younger players, that we’re not reacting to our opponent, that we try to take the game to them and play it. If here and there you get a lesson and you lose a game, so be it. But I believe it’s more a mental topic that we have to work on than it is a talent topic.”

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The depth and breadth of that work -- along with his promotion to national technical director he received when signing a four-year extension last December -- will be Klinsmann’s legacy. There have been differing opinions on his tactics and player selection, but ultimately, most national team members are finished products and there’s only so much a particular coach can add. Given its immense work ethic and appetite for competition, the U.S. already may be playing to its current potential. As good as Dempsey and Bradley may be, World Cup winners have more to offer.

Klinsmann’s goal is to create an environment that produces players who have the comfort and confidence, not to mention the physical reserves, to “take the game to them.” Some, like DeAndre Yedlin, already may have it. The Seattle Sounders’ young winger was fearless and threatening on Tuesday night in Salvador. Replicating that, Klinsmann said, will require hard work, ambition and increasing competition.

It will start with the big events coming up over the next few summers. There’s a CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2015, an Olympics and Copa América in 2016 and, Klinsmann hopes, a Confederations Cup in Russia the following summer.

“Every year you have big benchmarks you can approach … Having those competitions each year is hugely important in order to make the team and the players really individually grow,” he said, adding that he’ll continue to lobby MLS to arrange its schedule to avoid playing league games opposite national team matches.

“We can’t do it like we did against Ukraine [in March] with only a European [based] roster and then the next one [against Mexico in Phoenix, Ariz.] with only an American roster. We don’t have so many players at our disposal to win those games then,” Klinsmann said.

Then, the bigger picture – getting players used to the strain and pressure of competing at the very highest level. That entails putting them in environments that are more physically and psychologically demanding then the ones they’re in now.

“When you play a tournament like [the World Cup] … you play every four-five days, so you’ve got to be on top of your game in every one of them," Klinsmann said. "Now in a tournament the maximum is seven games, but if you go through the entire season playing in a rhythm of every seven days, than four is really demanding. It’s about consistency. It’s about living it the right way, all these topics we’ve talked so many times about. It’s about keeping the highest tempo, keeping the highest level of concentration.”

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He acknowledged that national team coaches don’t have a ton of influence a player’s club career. Breaking through in Europe is tough for Americans. Sometimes, like for Bradley and Dempsey, circumstances dictate a return to MLS. It’s Klinsmann’s hope then that either U.S. players eventually will compete weekly at the same level as their Belgian counterparts or that over time, MLS will come close to matching it. He said here that even Fabian Johnson, regarded by many as one of the U.S.’s top performers before injuring his hamstring against Belgium, was missing out by playing for Germany’s TSG Hoffenheim (he’ll be at Borussia Mönchengladbach next season).

“Playing at that kind of tempo, that kind of rhythm, every four days, this kind of has to become the normal,” Klinsmann said. “With Hoffenheim, [Johnson] never played every four-five days because they don’t play in the Europa League or Champions League. … Suddenly [at a World Cup] your body gives you signals.”

In MLS, the pressure is even lighter.

“They need that kind of sense of accountability, the sense of criticism,” he said. “You can’t just walk away with a bad performance and nothing happens. If you have a bad performance, people should approach you and tell you that.”

When they’re used to facing it both on the field and off on semi-weekly basis like Lukaku and Kompany, it will come second nature at a World Cup, Klinsmann believes. Most of his current players can do it weekly. They can do it in MLS or with second-tier European or Mexican teams and they did it for isolated periods in Brazil against the best the planet had to offer.

The U.S. remains hard to beat (despite winning two games over the past three World Cups, it’s been outscored in 90 minutes only three times) and plays with admirable spirit. But this World Cup ended like the last one, with a single victory in four games and an extra time loss in the round of 16. If anything was accomplished, it’s that Klinsmann has spelled out what “improvement” entails. The touch is fine. The tenacity needs to get better. That will require progress on more than just the pitch. 

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