As much fun as the recent wins over Germany and the Netherlands were—and fun, lest we forget, remains a small part of the reason we watch and play the game—it’s almost impossible to reflect on the spectacle that was a pair of come-from-behind victories, six goals, Michael Bradley and Bobby Wood and not wonder whether the past week was an outlier or harbinger for the U.S. national team.
Any attempt to evaluate friendlies is fraught with caveats and exceptions. Players are missing, coaches are experimenting and 100% effort isn’t guaranteed.
Did the Dutch disappear in the final 20 minutes of their 4-3 loss to the U.S. because the Americans were superior, or because the hosts simply lost cohesion and interest?
Germany captain Bastian Schweinsteiger told reporters following Wednesday's 2-1 defeat, “I believe that if we had been up for it and on a normal fitness level, we'd have won the match today.”
Schweinsteiger and his teammates were a few days removed from a long club campaign and faced with next to nothing at stake, save preparation for a Euro 2016 qualifier against tiny Gibraltar.
Who’s to say the world champions couldn’t have found another gear or two? (They almost did—Sami Khedira hit the crossbar in stoppage time.)
Then again, look who was on the field for last year’s World Cup gold and bronze medalists, from Robin van Persie and Memphis Depay to Mesut Özil and Mario Götze. The Netherlands and Germany are deep, experienced and consistently contending, and in many ways represent everything Jurgen Klinsmann is trying to build in the U.S. The coach's progress was in question as recently as March, when late breakdowns, a sluggish attack and a lack of any obvious or steady tactical identity left many wondering where this “year of transition” was leading.
The U.S. was 2-6-4 between the World Cup win over Ghana and April’s “dos-a-cero” defeat of Mexico in San Antonio.
Klinsmann always pointed to next month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup as the destination. Then, as it seemed to approach too quickly, his team went out and shocked the Dutch and Germans, and did so deservedly. There was a shaky opening in both games and some obvious problems in defense. But the U.S. improved over time, attacked with confidence and finished off scoring chances with confidence and aplomb. The six goals came without the unavailable Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore—by far the program’s active leading scorers—on the field.
But was it a fluke, or was it a timely manifestation of Klinsmann’s long-term plan? The answer, of course, surely is somewhere in the middle. These were mere exhibitions, albeit against talented teams. But they were won in a manner that bodes well for the U.S. There were a couple trends, whether planned or organic, that should leave supporters feeling optimistic.
One is the emergence of Bradley as a box-to-box, playmaking force. The 27-year-old was dominant for significant stretches in both games, and after tearing through Holland in the second half last week, he helped set up both goals against Germany. The first came on a perfectly-placed, lofted ball to Mix Diskerud (who finished beautifully) and the second on a dribble and pass to Brad Evans, who then found Wood for the game-winner. Bradley can carve you open with the long ball or do it on the run.
Klinsmann wasn’t wrong about Bradley’s ability to orchestrate an attack. It simply may have been the timing and structure that were a bit off. The manager’s decision to change Bradley’s role so profoundly on the eve of the 2014 World Cup was hard on both the player and the rest of the team. Bradley wasn’t entirely accustomed to the position, and the lack of consistent wide support, plus Jermaine Jones’ box-to-box role, left him crowded or with too much to do. He wasn’t at his best in Brazil.
Things have changed over the past year. Bradley has grown into the role, both with the U.S. and at Toronto FC, where he’s the day-to-day fulcrum and leader of his team. That matters. Although Klinsmann seemed reluctant to bless Bradley’s MLS transfer, the coach’s wish to see Bradley play a primary rather than complementary role is more likely to be fulfilled if he’s doing it year-round. Pressure becomes commonplace. The understanding of how to influence or change the course of a game across the entire field becomes more engrained. The vision and touch required to jumpstart the attack becomes more natural.
In turn, Klinsmann helped Bradley this week by deploying a stay-at-home defensive midfielder (the U.S. was especially effective once Kyle Beckerman entered the Germany match) and reliable outlets on the flanks. Bradley did well against the Dutch with Alfredo Morales in a supporting central role and on his own in a 4-4-2 with Gyasi Zardes and Mix Diskerud out wide. With multiple, more predictable outlets, Bradley was in a better position to succeed.
And it all came together in Amsterdam and Cologne.
“He just took it to another level,” Klinsmann said of Bradley. “People were just thinking, ‘Holy moly, this guy is unstoppable.’ He’s just taking it to Germany and he’s kind of giving the team so much energy and so much belief that you can actually make a surprise happen, and we kind of made two surprises happen with in a couple of days.”
Another positive development that’s likely no accident is the emergence of younger, untested talent that had the temperament for the international game, if not the comfort. Klinsmann clearly believes the latter can be developed. He launched his overhaul of Germany in 2004 by looking for dynamic, confident but unproven players. The 23-man team that won bronze at the 2006 World Cup featured eight players aged 22 or younger. Germany’s 2002 team had two.
Not every young international becomes a veteran one, of course. But Klinsmann’s history suggests he wants players with the athleticism and confidence to put an opponent on the back foot, and that he believes he can influence and groom those players within a national team set-up.
Zardes’s performances against Holland and Germany were much-improved over his March displays against Denmark and Switzerland. He was almost always involved and frequently a threat. DeAndre Yedlin, after a slow half-season at Tottenham, continued to show flashes of his potential as a game-breaking winger, and Wood’s contributions were stunning and spectacular. His finish in Cologne was world class.
Center back John Brooks had a much better game against Germany than he did in Amsterdam, suggesting a quick learning curve. Aron Jóhannsson, now with only 11 caps, showed off some nice skill and an ability to read the play and combine with teammates.
Young internationals will stumble (see Julian Green), but it looks like Klinsmann has an eye for those who will get back up and contribute. And with youth comes speed and brashness. The U.S. was outpossessed badly by both the Netherlands (62%-38%) and Germany (64%-36%). But it hardly mattered, since the Americans were more efficient and threatening with the ball.
“The biggest thing that we take away … is the mental side of it. That we actually start to lose fear or having just too much respect for big names because of who they are and what they did in the past,” Klinsmann said. “We had too much for respect for Germany in Recife in the World Cup, and we had too much respect, probably, for most of the time during the game against Belgium, and we need to lose that respect in a way that we kind of give them eye-to-eye confrontation and make it an aggressive battle.”
There are concerns, naturally. Players like Dempsey, Altidore and Alejandro Bedoya remain vital to the national team’s prospects and identity. The defense remains in disarray—no preferred back four has emerged—and Klinsmann will have to make do at the Gold Cup without Jones and Geoff Cameron. World Cup starters Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez have earned a combined three caps in 2015. We likely haven’t seen Klinsmann’s genuine first-choice 11, which means championship-winning chemistry is going to have to be established relatively quickly. The U.S. will meet Guatemala in a July 3 friendly before kicking off the tournament four days later against Honduras.
So many quotes that came out of the U.S. camp during the past few days revolved around confidence, and how the two wins will give the U.S. loads of it heading into the Gold Cup. But it shouldn’t need that boost. The Americans already are the kings of CONCACAF. They breezed through the 2013 tournament and have won three of the past five overall. They finished first in each of the past two Hexagonals and haven’t lost to Mexico in nearly four years. The U.S. should expect to win the Gold Cup.
Instead, the additional confidence should be focused internally. There, many players still wonder about Klinsmann’s unconventional methods—about whether there’s a point to the nutrition and martial arts classes or the constant tactical tinkering. And Klinsmann has expressed his reservations about whether his players’ career choices or the relative lack of day-to-day pressure faced at the club level are suitable for a national team with top-10 ambition.
If the wins over the Dutch and Germans have any long-term impact, beyond the memories and the highlights, it will be inside the locker room. There, more faith in the process, more trust in each other and a shared sense of a clearly defined mission and trajectory very well may do wonders for the U.S. If that happens, than it doesn’t really matter whether 4-3 and 2-1 were flukes.
Said goalkeeper Brad Guzan, “These two games, we were able to use in terms of confidence, in terms of our belief, in terms of our team spirit, it’s good to be able to get two huge, huge results.”