Future editions of U.S. Soccer’s media guide will note Alejandro Bedoya scored the only goal in Wednesday’s 1-0 win over the Czech Republic. Press reports will praise goalkeeper Nick Rimando for his stalwart second-half showing and box scores might indicate that Joe Gyau, Greg Garza and 18-year-old Emerson Hyndman made their international debuts.
But that’s all it is – trivia. The performances and moments that shaped Wednesday’s friendly will have no bearing on U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann when he selects his team for the 2018 World Cup. And that’s no slight against those men. Four years can be a soccer lifetime.
In 2010, the veteran U.S. squad that took the field in the first match post-South Africa featured only four field players (out of 15 who appeared) who would make the trip to Brazil. The young players to whom Bob Bradley turned a couple of months later impressed at the time but failed to survive the cycle (for the most part). Mix Diskerud went to the 2014 World Cup and didn’t play while Tim Ream, Juan Agudelo, Teal Bunbury, Brek Shea and Eric Lichaj were left behind.
What was relevant -- or at least a bit interesting -- as the U.S. held on to a win over the Czechs on Wednesday was the on-field philosophy reinforced by Klinsmann. The manager who said he’s targeting the semifinals in 2018 believes there’s a certain sort of soccer that will pave the way, and he tried his best to deploy it in Prague. Wednesday’s game wasn’t necessarily about securing a good result -- that came thanks to the 35-year-old Rimando and the hosts’ failure to capitalize on a dominant second half. It was about setting a cultural and tactical foundation for the program Klinsmann intends to build. We may see different names in Russia, but the philosophy should be quite similar.
He discussed it during a pre-game meeting with reporters in Prague.
“There is a mental and psychological transition we have to go through to get that confidence and attitude to say, ‘No, we start that way from the first minute on, and not when we are a goal down.’ Now we suddenly take the game to the opponent. Now we suddenly put them under pressure. Now we suddenly raise the bar in terms of aggressiveness,” Klinsmann said. “We want to become this proactive team. We want to go eye-to-eye. We want to take it their opponent, no matter what their big name is.”
Klinsmann has been preaching proactivity and possession since he took over three years ago. But he’s also confessed that the collective mentality and confidence has been lacking. Part of instilling that mindset has been a focus on youth, which was evident in Brazil. Klinsmann left the likes of Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst at home while thrusting DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Julian Green into the spotlight. By and large, it worked.
The coach did the same on Wednesday against a veteran opponent preparing for a Euro 2016 qualifier against the Netherlands. Once again, Klinsmann’s youngsters showed no fear. Gyau, 21, plays for Borussia Dortmund’s reserves and struggled at times at the Stadion Letná. His efficiency in the offensive third could have been better and he was beaten on occasion while tracking back. But his confidence with the ball, his willingness to take on defenders and his strength and composure when confronted or tackled were impressive, especially in the first half.
Green took chances as well and Diskerud, typically a supporting player during the 2014 cycle, was handed the keys to the midfield. His timely intervention on a throw from goalkeeper Peter Cech -- Klinsmann has been preaching high pressure -- led to the turnover and rebound that resulted in Bedoya’s 39th-minute game-winner.
There were mistakes and turnovers aplenty for the U.S., but Klinsmann seems to believe that they’ll decline as experience accrues and chemistry develops.
The approach is what matters and it started in back, where goalkeepers Rimando and Brad Guzan worked with the defenders to keep the ball on the ground and pass through pressure when possible. Brooks even pushed forward several times. It was a high (short-term) risk, high (long-term) reward approach.
Klinsmann didn’t deploy a traditional defensive midfielder, either. So Diskerud, Bedoya and Joe Corona, each of whom prioritizes skill over steel, were responsible for linking the back four to the frontrunners. It may prove to be a hint of what’s to come. Gone are the days of tenacity without technique.
Friendlies typically deteriorate once the substitutions start and Wednesday’s was no different. There were gaps in the U.S. lines to begin with, which wasn’t unexpected considering the dearth of experience and training time, but they only grew larger thanks to the changing personnel and the Czechs’ commitment to an equalizer. If not for Rimando, Bedoya’s goal almost surely wouldn’t have stood up.
But that doesn’t matter much, either. Klinsmann wants to build a young, skillful and proactive team and he demonstrated that in Prague. The win was gravy.
“The transition that we talked about the last couple of days with the players, to move the whole thing forward, the play the ball out of the back, to find ways through midfield and not banging the ball long to Jozy [Altidore] and then hoping for the best—it’s getting there,” he said following the match, according to American Soccer Now.
“I think it was a huge step with that younger generation of players. They didn’t get nervous and they were high pressured by the Czech team, and they still moved the ball.”