Five things we learnt: Klinsmann deserves more time, final squad was the right one, and emphasis on fitness paid dividends
The Klinsmann project remains a work in progress
The immediate aftermath of the Belgium-USA match saw conflicting feelings. Pride in the way the team fought to retrieve the two-goal deficit in extra time, with an insistence that a rush to judgment was somehow unseemly in the circumstances. However, a smaller but vehement group wanted to hold Jurgen Klinsmann to account for not providing the change in style promised after 2010.
Whether some of the latter is down to the resistance that Klinsmann the cheerfully ruthless modernizer has encountered, is open to question, and as a foreigner replacing establishment man Bob Bradley, he needed every bit of his reputation to deal with the politics of US soccer.
But a fair amount of indulgence was given to Klinsmann by those, such as myself, who felt that he deserved to take the team through at least one World Cup before a full progress report be attempted. Tournament play is its own animal, and sometimes the teams who do well are those best organized to their collective strengths.
On that measure, Klinsmann getting the team out of a group that contained Ghana, Portugal and Germany, is a successful base camp for what comes next, and gives him enough of a mandate to continue with his task of “connecting the dots”, as he described his technical development task to me in April.
The final 23-man squad answered most questions. In the end only two outfield players didn’t see the field: Mix Diskerud and Timothy Chandler.
Chandler may have played himself out of contention with a rough outing against Turkey last month, and was kept out by DaMarcus Beasley rolling back the years in his fourth World Cup.
Diskerud had offered sparks of confidence and vision in midfield over the past year, but it was Julian Green who Klinsmann turned to to provide a spark of inspiration against Belgium. Green grabbed a goal, but his introduction proved that Klinsmann was prepared to trust him in the most testing of circumstances.
Green’s introduction did raise another hypothetical posed by those criticizing the final 23 — if the USA was in a hole late on in a knockout game, was there anyone better than Landon Donovan to come off the bench? Donovan was the most visible of those who failed to make the final roster, but his age and reduced fitness capacity was always likely to clash with Klinsmann’s emphasis on willing runners. Green’s goal at least silenced some of those criticisms.
It’s in attack that the USA looked most stretched by the roster selection. Aron Johansson looked lost covering for the injured Altidore against Ghana. Clint Dempsey worked hard up front by himself, but Altidore’s injured hamstring left his team mates and coach hamstrung. Chris Wondolowski is a poacher, rather than a player to hold up the ball, and there were no other dedicated forwards on the team.
Should Klinsmann have taken Eddie Johnson? He has an impressive renaissance at Seattle, but the face is Johnson has been in wretched form for DC United. Klinsmann took the strikers in form and when required trusted them to do a job. The rest was down to them.
It was a decent tournament for MLS
In February I attended a pre-season media day at New York’s Red Bull Arena, where each MLS team was represented by a player or two. What was remarkable was the sheer number of national team players recently returned to, or opting to stay in the league — a phase that started with Clint Dempsey coming to Seattle and continued via Michael Bradley. Others such as Landon Donovan, Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzalez had signed new contracts with the league.
The fitness verdict is still outstanding
In Philipp Lahm’s autobiography, the Bayern Munich player was critical of his former national team and club coach Jurgen Klinsmann for concentrating too much on fanatical fitness regimes. It was a claim that played into the “Klinsmann is a motivator and Löw a tactician” mythology that gained traction in the wake of the 2006 World Cup, and it’s a claim which had since become something of an orthodoxy.
But then Klinsmann’s regimes are still in use at Germany and Bayern. Moreover, Löw’s tactical adjustments, in this tournament at least, have not always suggested the mind of a master. Klinsmann’s emphasis on fitness is still intact. The preparation in team camp was sustained and intense, and the coach and senior players spoke of the edge that might be gained deep in games.
Belgium, the late-goal specialists, were arguably the ultimate test of this belief, and while the USA were forced into attack by trailing early in extra time, they also had the Belgians reeling for the second period.
Bradley, who had run more than any player in the tournament (to little discernible effect, claimed many) finally looked to be pulling strings and still full of running in extra time — though that sight, and the sight of a panicky Belgian back four, also served to remind those watching of what might already have been a fatal timidity earlier in the game.
But if the US were conditioned to battle their way out of a grueling group to at least have a puncher’s chance in the knockouts, then the tournament was a modest success on that front, with a few important caveats. When Altidore pulled up with his hamstring strain, then Besler was withdrawn soon after in the opening game, legitimate questions could be asked about the intensity of the team’s preparations — when injuries that are often fatigue-related were occurring in the first half of the first group game.
No need for scapegoats
It’s the nature of knockout games that “what ifs” become the hooks we hang the stories of a tournament on. Besler bouncing off the rampaging Lukaku, the beautifully worked extra time free-kick that saw Dempsey’s shot smothered by Thibault Courtois, Green’s dramatic introduction, a montage memory of Tim Howard blocks, Chris Wondolowski’s late miss – these will inevitably be recast as the isolated incidents that tell the story of the Belgium game – and the tournament by extension.
Wondolowski claimed to have “let down” his team after the game, but he shouldn’t carry that moment with him. Wondolowski was intended as a substitute for the Dempsey role, not to take his place as an ineffective target man.
And while the fan in any of us remembers those individual goals and misses, it’s unfair to blame Wondolowski for the USA’s exit.
You can argue he’s on the field to take the one chance he gets, but there are several Belgian players heading into the next round who were given rather more spurned chances to make an impact, with no significant dents to their individual reputations.
They wore down USA to where Lukaku’s introduction was a tipping point – and they’ll be assessed accordingly. Now that the dust has settled a little, the same should go for the USA.