Is Jurgen Klinsmann crazy … crazy like a fox? Was the pocket tee-wearing, German-born U.S. National Team coach playing us for rubes all along? Three wins in-a-row do not a career make, but for the first time under Klinsmann there seems to be (gasp) optimism associated with the squad.
Tuesday night’s 2-0 win over Panama at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field was arguably the most complete 90-minute performance since he took over as coach in the summer of 2011. There have been more impressive scalps, including wins over Mexico, Italy and Germany in friendlies, but this game from start to finish was the type of performance fans have been waiting for. The U.S. even scored a couple nice, free-flowing goals hinting at the brand of attacking soccer Klinsmann has played up since the day he was hired to replace Bob Bradley.
The big takeaway for the U.S. over this run of three games, which moved them atop the CONCACAF Hexagonal (two points clear of mighty Mexico with a game in hand) at the halfway mark is time. As in, this is the most time Klinsmann will have working with the entire team uninterrupted until preparing for the World Cup next June. They’ll be a typical January training camp, but those are usually limited to guys playing in MLS or Scandinavian leagues in their winter breaks.
One of the tricky aspects of coaching the U.S. that often gets overlooked is what a logistical headache it can be to assemble players who are spread out all over the world playing professionally. Even when there’s a mandatory “FIFA Day” where clubs have to release players for international duty, much of that time is spent with many key players flying across the Atlantic. Often the U.S. will get one day, maybe two, together to practice. With the constant state of flux over the roster due to injuries and inconsistency it’s going to be difficult to get everybody on the same page in that short of time regardless of the coach.
This “mini-cycle” the U.S. played Belgium on May 29, with players trickling into the camp a couple days before that. (It’s not a surprise the worst American showing in this run of games came against the Belgians when Michael Bradley was tied up with the Coppa Italia.) All told the U.S. squad will be together close to a month, which is enough time to development on-field rhythm and chemistry, to see which player combinations click instead of throwing 11 random guys out there, hoping for the best.
It’s also part of the reason why when Graham Zusi missed the Panama game for picking up a yellow or Jermaine Jones gets a concussion, Klinsmann was seamlessly able to slot Eddie Johnson and Geoff Cameron into the starting XI without needing to tailor a new approach. If Klinsmann only had a day or two to prepare for these qualifiers, chances are it wouldn’t have been enough time to determine Brad Evans is a possible alternative at right back, or Fabian Johnson looks a lot better as a left winger as opposed to a left back.
And credit goes to Klinsmann for finally finding a formation (4-2-3-1) that is getting the best out of his players, namely Jozy Altidore up top who is back to scoring goals and terrorizing opposing defenses. Altidore’s best spell for the U.S. was a couple years ago when he had a running partner up top, namely Charlie Davies. Moving Clint Dempsey out of a wide midfield position and putting him behind Altidore, to free him up is smart and part of the reason the Americans have scored 10 goals in their last four games.
It may have taken almost 30 games but mercifully Klinsmann came to his senses and realized a three-man defensive-minded midfield is not the party.
Before we all get too carried away, when the Hexagonal draw came out a win at Jamaica along with a home victory over Panama — in front of the lively Seattle crowd — wasn’t too much to ask for. In fact, it was the baseline expectation.
Then again, the way this year began with the thought Klinsmann didn’t know what he was doing, the Landon Donovan drama, Altidore’s indifferent international form and all the over dark clouds, it’s hard to refrain from smiling when the Seattle crowd starts chanting “we are going to Brazil” … a full 12 months ahead of next year’s World Cup.