June 26th, 2010: The party was over. Ghana had finally knocked out the US after a tense game with plenty of drama and intrigue. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, after a serious shift of running and working hard to create chances looked knackered and out of ideas as they desperately tried to rescue the game in extra time. Ghana saw out the game effectively with time-wasting but didn’t have much difficulty defending for the last half an hour.
The group stage before that had been all over the place. Heads turned slightly when the USA managed an unlikely draw thanks to an inexplicable error by England’s keeper Rob Green after getting dominated for a good half an hour. The other two games saw the US struggle in the 1st half to carve out openings but turning the screw in the second half to get positive results in the end.
Four years ago, I remember thinking about that game against Ghana and wondering whether the USMNT would be back at this stage again. The following year, I expected good things from them in the Gold Cup, but It was more of the same: unpredictable, open, and slightly more organized but no guarantee of an end product. Against Mexico in the final, the USA went 2-0 up but Mexico dominated the rest of the game, scored a spectacular goal and finished the match 4-2. Bob Bradley, coach of the USMNT, was dismissed
Enter the Klinsmann Era
Despite Bradley’s tactical failures in big games, his successor would have big shoes to fill. He had after all, set many precedents for the Mens National Team including a 2007 Gold Cup win, reaching the 2009 Confederations Cup Final against Brazil, and winning a World Cup group.
But that Gold Cup Final against Mexico proved to be a seminal moment as the USSF bodies decided they needed to make the USMNT a consistent force and the best way to do that was to focus on team development and a more proactive, progressive style of football that would still be quintessentially American in attitude and spirit.
Jurgen Klinsmann, the famous World Cup winning striker, had a few turbulent club managerial spells after managing his home country to a semifinal and 3rd place finish at the 2006 World Cup. But he was ready to make a comeback in the US, a country in which he had settled for the past decade. It raised a few eyebrows, but with his background and experience in turning Germany around in 2006, Klinsmann seemed to be a logical choice.
When Jürgen Klinsmann took over Die Nationalmannschaft, he set out to change the entire culture of German development. Klinsmann’s changes to youth development and tactics altered the German team in ways that are still being felt even as Jogi Löw manages. Klinsmann gave chances to players Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski, and Per Mertesacker – all under the age of 23 at the time and all participants at this 2014 World Cup.
There was also a noticeable shift toward offensive football. At the time, it angered pundits and German nationals. Today, there is an abundance of highly skilled Germans that can play the attacking game. Players like Mario Götze, Toni Kroos, Marco Reus, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, Julian Draxler, and İlkay Gündoğan are all products of Klinsmann’s changes to the German youth structure.
With the United States, Klinsmann knew he had a much greater challenge. The US has no shortage of world class athletes, no surprise given the country’s size, but a dearth of world class athletes playing football. But how would he fix this in only three years time?
Klinsmann took a very non-traditional route to restocking the cupboards of American talent. In Germany, Norway, and Iceland existed several players of worth. Most were “army brats,” players with dual-eligibility according to FIFA rules. In preparation for 2014, Klinsmann called on many of these players to exercise their rights to play for the USMNT. Germans John Brooks, Timothy Chandler, Fabian Johnson; Norwegian Mix Diskeruud, and Icelandic Aron Jóhannsson joined Jermaine Jones as dual-citizens to play for the United States.
Of course, there is also Klinsmann’s greatest recruiting coup – the snatching of Julian Green from Jogi Löw’s German squad. Green has the potential to turn into a real star in the middle or on the wing, and already has a strong club foundation at Bayern München under manager Pep Guardiola. He could be seen at this World Cup scoring on his first touch of the game on a volley.
This, amazingly, is to say nothing of other youthful players such as Joseph-Claude Gyau, Diego Fagúndez, Darlington Nagbe, and Gedion Zelalem, other multinationals who could represent the United States in 2018. In addition to all this, Klinsmann’s status as a technical director means a youth revolution could be underway in the next several years, with this World Cup serving as a loud and beautiful advertisement for the National Team.
Back to 2014
July 1st, 2014: After a heroic effort and surviving the group of death, the US were finally beaten by Belgium. It wasn’t the best performance by the USMNT as Belgium had 39 shots throughout the game and Tim Howard made 16 saves. Yet for all of Belgium’s chance creating, they never really had it secure. The US dominated possession and pressed the Belgians hard to send the match into penalties. They just came up a bit short in a 2-1 extra time defeat.
So yes, we went out at the same stage as we did in the last World Cup, but we dominated CONCACAF qualifying, found some great young players for the future and showed genuine ability to create chances consistently whether it was through the channels, wings, or through neat combination passing in the center. The US became a solid counter-attacking team and like any other team had its weaknesses that it needed to address.
It also took a ‘Golden generation’ team like Belgium who have players at the highest level across the board in Europe. Ghana was a strong organized side when we played them 4 years ago, but they weren’t exactly world beaters. Belgium could legitimately win Euro 2016 and contend for the next World Cup in 2018 so there isn’t much shame in losing to them.
In that sense, Jurgen Klinsmann has removed the uncertainty about soccer in the United States and has instilled genuine pride and expectations for this team moving forward. Not obvious at first glance, but he could just prove to be the most important coach in our soccer history.