First there was the June 2013 friendly in Washington, where there was plenty to celebrate in addition to a 4-3 win. The U.S. national team had yanked its World Cup qualifying campaign back on track and U.S. Soccer observed its centenary. Then a year later, there was the group stage finale in Recife, where the U.S. was outplayed and lost but still won, securing passage to the round of 16.
On Wednesday, Jurgen Klinsmann’s Germany trilogy will conclude with a visit to his native land as the U.S. meets the world champions in Cologne. It will be the final game before the U.S. coach selects his 23-man CONCACAF Gold Cup roster (a provisional 35-man list was due to CONCACAF on June 7). And it will mark the conclusion of Klinsmann’s “year of transition,” which has featured significant personnel and tactical churn along with several highs and lows, from a five-game winless streak in October-January to last Friday’s stunning 4-3 triumph at the Netherlands.
For the U.S., Germany feels far less foreign than the sport’s other entrenched powers. American fans watched “Soccer Made in Germany" on PBS in the 1970s and 80s, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller played in the NASL and coaches like Manny Schellscheidt and Lothar Osiander made their marks in soccer’s new world.
In turn, young U.S. players like Eric Wynalda, Paul Caligiuri, Joe-Max Moore and Claudio Reyna, among others, were welcomed in Germany at a time when it was rare to find an American footballer abroad.
Now, of course, the bonds are even stronger. Klinsmann, who won the 1990 World Cup with Germany, brought five players who were born and/or raised in Germany to the World Cup, and there are five (two different) on the team that will face Die Mannschaft on Wednesday.
The U.S. and Germany met at the 1998, 2002 and 2014 World Cups and in the 1999 Confederations Cup, where the U.S. won, 2-0, on goals by Ben Olsen and Moore.
That familiarity may help close the intimidation gap, if not the talent gap. The U.S. has beaten Germany three times total (3-7-0). It’s won only four games combined against the other four European nations that have won a World Cup (4-20-4).
“I just expect it to be fun for everybody involved, especially the players. I mean you’re playing against the world champion. Who else do you want?” Klinsmann told U.S. Soccer’s website. “It’s going to be a special day for all of the German-Americans that are on our team. For us it’s kind of the last exclamation mark we can send before the Gold Cup, so we want to do well. We want to have a good result and leave a good impression and then we will make our decisions toward the Gold Cup. We want to see Germany no later than two years from now when we play the Confederations Cup in Russia.”
Here a few more story lines to follow as this unique rivalry and relationship is renewed:
Confidence is rising
Klinsmann’s team has had an uncanny ability to get results in tough places. There were the 2012 wins in Italy and Mexico City, the 2013 triumph in Bosnia and last September’s win in the Czech Republic. The U.S. has eight wins or ties in 13 matches in Europe under Klinsmann, compared to seven wins or ties in 26 such games from 1992 through 2010.
The most recent came last week, when the U.S. recovered from a 3-1 deficit to beat the reeling Dutch. Rather than simply fold in a foreign friendly, the Americans maintained their intensity as the hosts faltered and scored three goals in the final 20-plus minutes. There’s no better way to meet the world champions on their turf than on a high. This was a team that couldn’t buy a result a few months back and was yielding late leads far too frequently. A win like Friday’s can change the mood.
“Obviously it creates a feel-good factor for us,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “It gives us some confidence going into the Germany game on Wednesday. But I think more than anything, it gives us that belief that when we do play tough teams, when we do play big teams, especially in difficult venues, away form home outside the United States, that we can go and get wins.”
Said Klinsmann, “It’s a confidence builder because obviously when you play the top 10 teams in the world there is always a risk that you might not look so good and lose the game. But then when you actually surprise a lot of people and beat them and end up winning, even if it’s only a friendly, it tells you that you are actually able to do it.”
A hallmark of Klinsmann’s tenure has been his faith, and frequent reliance, on younger players.
That was a part of the World Cup-winning foundation he built in Germany in 2004-06 and it was a key part of the story last summer in Brazil (think of Julian Green, DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, etc.). Over the past year, Klinsmann has continued to introduce untested talent, and that requires patience.
There’s no way to know if a player can hack it unless he’s thrown in the deep end, and there have been flashes of improvement from several. For example, Jordan Morris scored against Mexico in April and then assisted on the game-winner in Amsterdam. Gyasi Zardes was heavily involved against the Netherlands, found ways to threaten the opposing goal and combine with teammates and scored in the first half. Bobby Wood opened his international account as well.
“We hope that gives them a boost in terms of confidence, but also gives them more consistency so they kind of expect from themselves to keep that level,” Klinsmann said. “They should expect from themselves to really keep up to those standards that they just experienced. This is our hope that they take all the positive momentum with them.”
Midfield structure flexibility
Different opponents require different systems and responses. While sometimes it seems like Klinsmann’s tactical experimentation robs the U.S. of the opportunity to establish an identity it can rely on, it is helpful to have some flexibility. Germany and Mexico are very different teams.
Germany's World Cup Celebration Parade
The 4-1-4-1 the U.S. deployed in Amsterdam looked like a set-up that could be effective in games where the Americans don’t expect to see a majority of the possession. It clogs the midfield and offers multiple passing and outlet options when the ball turns over. And with the right flank players, it can evolve into a 4-3-3 on the attack. The problem for the U.S. was that it had difficulty denying service to the Dutch frontrunners.
But that’s correctable with a bit more aggression and the right sort of cover for the first defender on the ball.
Another benefit was that Friday’s approach put the team’s best player in position to play to his potential. Michael Bradley was at his box-to-box best against the Netherlands. Because he had an anchor behind him in Kyle Beckerman and support further up in Alfredo Morales, Bradley had the leeway to find spots to contribute without being saddled with the multi-front responsibility that weighed on him at the World Cup. And no American player picks those spots better. He was especially dominant late in the game and had a hand (or, foot) in the final three U.S. goals.
Bradley can do just about anything, but he can’t do everything. The 4-1-4-1 provided the U.S. with sound structure against a talented opponent (including a genuine presence in wide midfield) while offering Bradley the freedom to flourish. It was a good sign, and U.S. fans should hope to see something similar in Cologne. Klinsmann might want to get a longer look at Danny Williams, the Reading midfielder who’s shown some long-term potential since returning to the national team in March.
Concerns in back persist
Several of Klinsmann’s top defenders are unavailable, which means the likes of Brooks, Ventura Alvarado and Brek Shea will continue their international education in Cologne.
The back four struggled against the Dutch. Yes, the U.S. midfield should have done a better job denying some of the crosses and longer passes that created problems for the U.S., but there still were far too many lost marks and open headers for comfort. In addition, the outside backs must improve their one-on-one defending. There was a bit too much space and respect afforded the Dutch attackers last week.
Klinsmann may decide to pull Fabian Johnson back into defense. Although the Mönchengladbach man is dynamic and dangerous when given the opportunity to push forward (he played right midfield against Holland), he’s also the best outside back on the U.S. roster. Timmy Chandler will be familiar with his German opponents, although he’s yet to put together a convincing, 90-minute effort in a U.S. jersey.
Germany will have plenty of weapons as it prepares for its 2016 European Championship qualifier against tiny Gibraltar. It won’t really need them all against the UEFA newcomer, so may be more inclined to show them off against the U.S. Among the World Cup winners at coach Joachim Löw’s disposal are Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, André Schürrle and Mario Götze. Klinsmann and the U.S. will get the test they desire at the RheinEnergie Stadion on Wednesday, and if history is any indication, they’ll likely make a game of it.
“We will tell the players to just rise to the occasion. Enjoy that moment, but give it your all. Really go at them and give them a fight. Show the character that you already showed with the Holland game, and after the game with Germany we’ll have a lot more answers to many of our questions about every individual player and about the entire team,” Klinsmann said. “We want the players to get used to dealing with constant high expectations, and that’s what we get heading into the game against Germany.”