Column: Klinsmann Experiment A Success For U.S.
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Jul 2, 2014, 10:12
"We are excited to have Jurgen as the head coach of our Men's Nation National Team. He is a highly accomplished player and coach with the experience and knowledge to advance the program. Jurgen has had success in many different areas of the game and we look forward to the leadership he will provide on and off the field."
Those were the words written by United States Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati when it was announced Jurgen Klinsmann had been hired at the next coach of the Men's National Team. It was the culmination of a five-year flirtation period with Klinsmann by Gulati who viewed the former Germany striker as the person who could help close the Americans' gap with Mexico and the rest of the world in terms of soccer superiority.
However, the hiring did not come without its detractors. Of course Klinsmann had experienced an abundance of success, winning the World Cup and European Championships as a player before leading Germany to a third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup. But there were also eyebrow-raising failures.
His stint at Bayern Munich lasted just one year after his tactics were not embraced by the club nor management leading to his ouster. Yet, almost three years after his hiring, it's safe to say the Klinsmann experiment has worked.
Gulati handed over full control to Klinsmann in order for him to properly build a culture with the Men's National Team. It's part of the coaching philosophy he described to Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl before his was hired.
"My philosophy is an attacking style of futbol," he said. "That's just the way I think, and it's how I built the German team for the 2006 World Cup over two years, which was highly criticized over a long stretch of time, and then they embraced it. It's a style of play that takes time to implement, and you need the environment that gives you that time."
With the World Cup being the ultimate measuring stick of international soccer coaches, it would be hard to say Klinsmann's nearly three-year tenure has not been a success. While Klinsmann did not lead to the U.S. to an achievement it has never reached before — the Yanks had advanced out of the group stage before although never in back-to-back World Cups — he did guide them through the toughest draw of any team.
Put into the obligatory Group of Death with FIFA's No. 2 ranked Germany, No. 4 ranked Portugal and American-Kryptonite No. 37 ranked Ghana, no one predicted the Yanks would even manage a single point. But they did more than that.
The U.S. defeated Ghana for the first time in history, grabbing a late-victory with a dramatic goal scored by defender John Brooks. Then, they nearly sent Portugal home with a loss before Cristiano Ronaldo's brilliance finally appeared in stoppage time to tie the game on a world-class cross. The four points through the first two games was enough to get the U.S. to the Round of 16 even following a 1-nil loss to Germany.
But now that the Americans were eliminated by Belgium in a game which went 120 minutes, how far has Klinsmann taken the Americans? Did he earn the benefit of the doubt after the criticisms received after leaving the Yanks' all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan off the World Cup roster?
Well, start with his lineup decisions. While those in Germany continue to say Joachim Loew made the tactical decisions for Klinsmann, he has shown a magic touch with the U.S.
Brooks, a surprise selection, merely scored the goal of the tournament against Ghana. DeAndre Yedlin, the young Seattle Sounders' left back with all of two years professional experience, did nothing but terrorize opponents whenever he reached the pitch. Then, Julian Green, the 19-year-old, scored a magnificent goal off a volley on his first World Cup touch.
It allowed Klinsmann to earn the last laugh with his lineup decisions, but how far has he taken U.S. Soccer?
Under his careful watch, the Americans have accomplished a lot of firsts under his tenure: first-ever point at Estadio Azteca in a World Cup Qualifier, first-ever win at Estadio Azteca, first-ever win against Italy and the most successful single year in U.S. soccer history marked by a 12-game winning streak.
And while it did not look like it through much of a World Cup where the U.S. struggled to possess the ball and attack with a proactive style Klinsmann has clamored for, they made progress. Against Portugal, it was the Yanks pushing forward in attack. It was the U.S. defenders playing a high-line with both Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley attacking the flanks and causing fits for the opposition.
That mind-set was there again for the world to see with the U.S. in desperation mode after Belgium took a 2-0 lead in extra time, a sure dagger through the heart of the U.S. until it wasn't. No longer defensive-minded, the Yanks pushed forward with everything they had, starting with an over-the-top chip pass from beleaguered Michael Bradley to Green who volleyed it straight into the net. Then, a playground type of play nearly resulted in Clint Dempsey scoring his third goal of the World Cup and tying the game in dramatic fashion.
But it was not enough. The U.S. was forced to defend in their own end for much of 390 minutes of action in Brazil. It isn't all about the quality of opponents — although that plays a part — but a mindset which has not yet changed. The American players still view themselves as the scrappy underdog which has a severe talent drop-off from the rest of the world.
It isn't that way anymore.
The U.S. survived the Group of Death, stared down Belgium for 120 minutes and nearly completed a dream comeback. The Americans have not reached elite just yet, but with Klinsmann at the helm, it's no longer a pipe-dream for a squad whose talent is finally matching its fiery tenacity.