WELCOME TO THE WORLD CUP—ONE MINUTE YOU'RE FLYING HIGH, THE NEXT YOU'RE PUNCHED IN THE GUT. BUT NO MATTER HOW THE BRAZIL JOYRIDE ENDS, THIS IS CERTAIN: A PRAGMATIC AND POSITIVE COACH HAS TRANSFORMED U.S. SOCCER
IN MANAUS, deep in the heart of the Amazon, the U.S. nearly came of age as a soccer nation on Sunday. Nearly. Drawn into the World Cup's most difficult group, the U.S. outplayed favored Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo, the reigning world player of the year. In the stifling rainforest heat, the Americans fought back from an early deficit, forged a 2--1 lead and stood on the brink of U.S. soccer history—clinching a round-of-16 berth with two straight wins—until Portugal's final chance of the night, in the 95th minute, when Ronaldo's cross found teammate Varela for the gut-punch equalizer. "Football is cruel sometimes," said goalkeeper Tim Howard, and he was right.
The 2--2 tie felt like a loss, and in a weird way it hammered home the point: There are no moral victories for American soccer anymore. This U.S. World Cup team feels different, as though it's making the leap to a higher level that coach Jurgen Klinsmann promised when he took over in July 2011. The U.S. beat Ghana (which had eliminated the Americans from the past two World Cups) and tied Portugal to set up a workable scenario for survival into the knockout rounds. A win or a tie against Germany on Thursday would guarantee advancement, while even a loss would be fine if Portugal tied Ghana or beat the Black Stars without making up a hefty goal differential (five) with the Yanks.
The U.S.'s opening week in Brazil didn't come without concerns: a lack of ball possession against Ghana, forward Jozy Altidore's strained left hamstring 21 minutes into the opener and the up-and-down form of Michael Bradley in his new attacking midfielder position. But there were plenty of good signs, from Clint Dempsey's two goals to right back Fabian Johnson's forays up the flank to midfielder Jermaine Jones's voracious defense and dynamite equalizer against Portugal. "We've got to pick ourselves up and stay positive," said Dempsey on Sunday. "That's the feeling everybody has: We're still in this, we're in a good position and anything can happen. We're Americans, so it seems like we always like to do things the hard way."
Make no mistake, the team's four-point start was a vindication of Klinsmann's cold-blooded confidence in the radical changes he made before the tournament. In March he fired his top assistant, Martín Vàsquez, who'd been his righthand man since 2008, when Klinsmann was coaching in Germany. That month he also shifted the U.S.'s formation from the 4-2-3-1 he had used through almost all of qualifying to a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, the better to give Bradley more attacking freedom.
During the U.S.'s pre--World Cup camp at Stanford, Klinsmann rearranged his players like a chess grandmaster going for broke. He shifted the versatile Geoff Cameron, who can play three positions, to center back in place of Omar Gonzalez. Then Klinsmann moved Johnson, who had been mainly a left midfielder, aiming to capitalize on his athleticism to get forward in the attack while handling defensive duties against such wide threats as Ronaldo. Klinsmann brought the coup de gr√¢ce with his final cuts, dropping 32-year-old Landon Donovan, the U.S.'s alltime leading scorer, and keeping three untested players: center back John Brooks, 21; right back DeAndre Yedlin, 20; and forward Julian Green, 19.
The last time the U.S. made so many changes (in formation, positions and key figures) right before a World Cup was 1998, which turned into a three-games-and-out disaster. Was Klinsmann worried that he was overhauling too much? "Not at all," he said with a laugh during a quiet moment as the U.S. prepped for Portugal at its training base in S√£o Paulo. "Soccer is an environment where you have ongoing changes, always based on the moment, when you look forward and see the areas where you need to improve. You constantly evaluate the value of everyone in that process—staff and players. In a club you only have the transfer periods in the summertime and one month in January [to change things]. In a national team things are constantly moving around, and you depend on the phases that players are going through. Are they on a down phase? Are they rising?"
IT WASN'T just that Klinsmann made so many changes, some of them flying in the face of public opinion (none more than his decision to ax Donovan). It was the ease with which Klinsmann announced those moves. This was a man who agonized over nothing, a man whose breathtaking self-belief sent a message to his players: Don't be afraid to be audacious. But always commit fully to the cause. "You always have to be clear with yourself that this is what you're 100% convinced of doing," Klinsmann, 49, explained before the Portugal game. "You have a clean conscience. But you've got to be 100% sure. It's fine with me if a player says, 'I was convinced of getting the ball,' but then he didn't get the ball."
Through two games at least, most of Klinsmann's moves paid off. With his two-way play at right back, Johnson turned one of the U.S.'s shakiest positions into one of its strongest, so much so that Ghana reacted by switching star midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah to left back to deal with him. Cameron was immense in the central defense against Ghana, clearing crosses out of danger like a hot flipper on a pinball machine, though his shanked clearance on Sunday gifted Portugal a fifth-minute goal. The new U.S. formation has brought out the best in buzzing midfielders Jones and Kyle Beckerman. Then there was Brooks, who came on at halftime against Ghana (after center back Matt Besler was suffering hamstring soreness) and repaid Klinsmann's faith by scoring the game-winner on a header in the 86th minute. Brooks's disbelieving goal celebration (Did I just do that?) instantly became a permanent GIF in the mental hard drive of every U.S. soccer fan.
Klinsmann's leadership style is one of extremes. In one moment he's laughing and saying "awesome" like a California surfer dude, which makes sense for a guy who has lived with his family in Orange County since 1998. But in the next, with his giggles still echoing, Klinsmann will reveal his killer instinct. Consider his disappointment in the way the U.S. went into defense mode after Dempsey's goal just 30 seconds in against Ghana. "We're still in a mind-set here that if we score the first goal, it's 'Oh, now we have to defend it,' " Klinsmann said. "After a beautiful goal like Clint's, I want to have the second one. There's no reason to give Ghana the game. Add the second one, and just break their neck."
Just break their neck. Remember: Klinsmann won a World Cup in 1990 as a player for West Germany and was one of the most feared strikers of his era. (His goal against the U.S. lit the fuse for the World Cup '98 debacle.) He brought his ferocity to the coaching ranks when he took over the host team, Germany, before the 2006 World Cup, and after facing initial doubts he won over his countrymen with a mix of charisma, innovation and results as his young team won third place. Yet Klinsmann earned a rep in Germany—in two years with the national team and in a one-year stint at Bayern Munich—as a skilled motivator who needed help from his staff with tactics. With the U.S. he has been more tactically astute, recognizing his players' strengths and adapting his system to them. To hear Klinsmann tell it, he has changed as a coach.
"Over the last 10 years you've learned a lot," he said last week, slipping into the second person. "As a coach you've matured a lot. You improved in so many areas that are connected to the game, so your leadership is very different to the way you did it when you came in [to the Germany job] and hadn't coached before."
As part of his learning process, Klinsmann has steeped himself in U.S. coaching culture, attending Mike Krzyzewski's weeklong seminar at the Duke business school and spending time with Super Bowl--winning Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Klinsmann retains some of his German pragmatism—he was criticized for telling The New York Times before the tournament, "We cannot win this World Cup"—but for the most part he is relentlessly positive. After Ghana scored a late equalizer against the U.S., Howard said his main goal was just to escape with a tie. But on the sideline Klinsmann told his players something different: "You will see! We will get one chance, and we will score! I can feel it!"
Sure enough, Johnson did the dirty work to earn a late corner kick, and Brooks thumped home Graham Zusi's serve to win the game against the run of play. In the days before the Portugal game, Klinsmann preached the same thing to his players that the huge collection of traveling U.S. fans chanted up in the stands: I believe that ... I believe that we ... I believe that we will win! "We're going to Manaus, so the expectation is we're going there to beat Portugal," Klinsmann said. "We're not going there for a tie. We're going to Manaus to beat Portugal."
They had to fly four hours from their S√£o Paulo base to the most remote venue ever for a major global sporting event. After hearing presentations from doctors before the World Cup, several U.S. players got yellow fever vaccinations and malaria prophylaxes. The Arena Amaz√¥nia, a glittering $300 million stadium designed to resemble the straw baskets made by indigenous tribes, seemed like a giant tribute to the film Fitzcarraldo by another strong-willed German, the director Werner Herzog. Builders shipped the stadium's raw materials from Portugal and floated them up the Amazon River, starting construction only after rerouting a tributary. After four World Cup games it will stand as a lightning rod for Brazilian anger toward excessive public spending, but on Sunday it felt like the center of the universe.
ONE MARK of a good team is to win when you're not playing your best, and the U.S. achieved that standard against Ghana. But Klinsmann knew his team would have to play better to beat Portugal, which was desperate for a victory after a 4--0 opening loss to Germany. Behind the scenes, the U.S. coaching staff focused on improved ball possession. "Otherwise it's difficult for the back line to stay compact under pressure," said assistant coach Andi Herzog. "It will be good for us to keep the ball better, and especially to exploit Portugal on their weaknesses." The Portuguese back line was in shambles: Top center back Pepe was out with a red card suspension, while left back Fàbio Coentr√£o was out for the World Cup with a groin injury.
The U.S. had reversed one of its World Cup 2010 trends—it conceded early goals in three of four games—with Dempsey's early wonderstrike against the Black Stars, and the coaches preached the importance of the first 20 minutes against Portugal. Much of the game plan centered on containing Ronaldo. "We have to try to stop him right before he receives the ball and is able to control it," said Herzog. "We have to have one player get in his face and then have another come in like a sandwich. If he has too much space, it's very difficult to stop him."
In the end, the U.S. lapsed into bad old habits, falling behind on a fifth-minute Portugal goal, but the plan to foil Ronaldo largely worked. He rarely flashed into space on the ball or got a head of steam going without running into a U.S. player. "I think we did a great job not allowing him in dangerous spots," said Besler. "It's just funny: The last play of the game he finally gets into open space, and instead of trying to take someone on one-on-one, he takes a touch and whips in a world-class ball."
Once again, though, Klinsmann's tactics were vindicated in the pressure-cooker of the World Cup. With Altidore out, the U.S. shifted back to a five-man midfield, which created a numbers advantage that helped the U.S. win the possession battle for most of the game. And Klinsmann once more showed confidence in his youngest players. This time the impact substitute was Yedlin, a speedster whom Klinsmann repurposed from right back to right midfield on Sunday. The result: Yedlin's attacking run in the 81st minute down the flank helped set up the go-ahead goal by Dempsey.
Klinsmann's eye for identifying and developing young talent—he's the U.S. technical director as well—should have an even greater impact on World Cup 2018, through which he has already extended his contract. But selecting Brooks and Yedlin for Brazil wasn't just about preparing for the future. They're ready now. So are their teammates. And as the U.S. girded for its World Cup moment of truth against Germany, there was no doubt as to how Klinsmann wanted his current team to approach his former one.
Just break their neck.
Want more World Cup coverage? Visit Planet F√∫tbol, our redesigned soccer site, for up-to-the-minute news and analysis from Grant Wahl and to read Viagem Brazil, Greg Bishop's World Cup travelogue. Go to soccer.SI.com