Photo by John Todd/ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
The dust has settled, the celebrations are over, and the angst surrounding the U.S. Men’s National Team’s tougher-than-expected qualification for the Hexagonal has subsided. After a run of lackluster performances, the Americans still finished on top of their group, saving their best performance for last.
Carlos Ruiz’s goal put a scare into U.S. fans everywhere, but it only served to delay the inevitable. The U.S. didn’t collapse, but instead responded with the kind of attacking soccer we have spent months waiting for since Jurgen Klinsmann embarked on his first World Cup qualifying campaign as head coach.
So was the qualifying campaign a success? That might seem like a silly question considering the Americans have booked their place in the Hexagonal, but Klinsmann wasn’t brought in as head coach just to push the team along through qualifying. He was hired to help the U.S. reach a new level. To help the team start making progress after what was widely considered a disappointing post-World Cup year from mid-2010 to mid-2011.
So has Klinsmann done that? Has he brought the national team to new heights? As much as his biggest proponents will try to suggest he has, Klinsmann hasn’t yet worked his magic. But as much as Klinsmann’s critics might want to think Klinsmann is disappointing, there is reason to believe the German coach is starting to figure things out and starting to steer the USMNT ship in a good direction.
What was easily forgotten about Klinsmann when he was named U.S. head coach more than a year ago was the fact that, from a pure coaching experience standpoint, Klinsmann was still very much a relative novice. He took over as German head coach after the team’s 2004 Euro campaign and didn’t have a World Cup qualifying campaign to worry about, and before that he had never been a head coach. After guiding Germany to an impressive third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup, he stepped down before eventually taking a turn as Bayern Munich head coach. That job lasted less than one full season before he was fired.
So Klinsmann came into the U.S. coaching job not only having to adapt to his new team, and helping tinker with the squad’s make-up, but he also had to do some more learning on the job as head coach. Early in the World Cup qualifying campaign you could hear Klinsmann talking about CONCACAF qualifying in a tone that seemed to suggested there wasn’t anything tougher about the process than qualifying elsewhere in the world, and while he never called it easy, you could definitely sense his tone change over the course of the group stage.
By the end, he fully realized what U.S. coaches have known for years, that the CONCACAF region has so many equalizing factors that can make a regional power struggle against inferior opponents that, in theory, should be much easier to dispose of.
Klinsmann adapted as the group stage went on, and his willingness to try new players, and change tactics specifically to deal with his competition and the unique difficulties being presented by opponents showed us someone who was learning and growing as a coach.
No, Klinsmann still hasn’t done the job he was hired to do, but the good thing is he is heading in that direction and he has time to get there. He has time in 2013 to not only sort out things like the team’s depth chart, and a more established style that the U.S. can begin to impose on opponents, but he also has the Hexagonal qualifying round to show off how much he learned through the 2012 qualifying group stage.
While Klinsmann is showing some signs of growth, the U.S. team itself is clearly undergoing a transformation. New faces are emerging, while some familiar faces are beginning to either fade from the picture or are looking ready to fade. There are still some weak spots from a depth standpoint, but there are also some encouraging developments with regard to budding areas of strength.
Here are some developments, both positive and negative, that we saw emerge during the past round of qualifying:
Johnson emerges as a standout left back
After years of struggling to find a viable and dependable left back option, a weakness that has cost the U.S. dearly in recent years, Fabian Johnson emerged as a true force at the position. He did miss the final two qualifiers due to illness, but Klinsmann has to be excited about the knowledge that he will have a top-class left back to throw out against a tough group of opponents in the HEX.
Centerback still an area of concern
Four years ago the U.S. had the luxury of knowing their first-choice central defense was the reliable tandem of Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu, a duo that helped lead the team to a pair of Gold Cup titles and a first-place finish in the Hexagonal prior to the 2010 World Cup. As we head toward the Hex this time around, there isn’t a sense that the position is all that stable.
Bocanegra is showing his age, Onyewu has fallen off the radar as he struggles for playing time with Malaga, Clarence Goodson continues to deal with being pushed around a bit too easily and Geoff Cameron isn’t spending much time playing central defense on the club level.
Come 2013, Klinsmann will need to find a physical, athletic and reliable tandem to deal with what will be a tough qualifying group for centerbacks. Every team remaining has forwards who can cause problems and Klinsmann will need to start integrating some younger options to help him bolster the depth. It is looking less and less likely that Bocanegra will be a viable option come 2014, and if Cameron doesn’t see any reps at centerback for Stoke then he too could be a shaky option (you already got that sense in the team’s past two qualifiers).
There are forwards in abundance
No, the U.S. forward stable isn’t going to make anyone think of Argentina or the Netherlands, but right now you can argue the U.S. has its strongest stable of forwards in recent memory. With Klinsmann using Dempsey as a forward quite a bit, Herculez Gomez continuing to be a solid option, and now Eddie Johnson emerging as a real threat, you have a pretty good trio to work with.
Throw in Jozy Altidore, who I still think will ultimately be a key starter in the Hexagonal, and Terrence Boyd, who is a good long-term prospect, and you have a group of forwards that should give Klinsmann plenty of options.
Zusi is the real deal
More than a year ago, when the U.S. was playing in the Gold Cup, Graham Zusi was simply a Sporting KC player just beginning to break through as a starter on his club team. Now, he has emerged as the most exciting midfield newcomer in the U.S. pool, a player who provides a sorely-needed dash of skill as well as versatility.
Zusi’s work rate and technical ability make him a dream for Klinsmann’s attack, and he has also been a player who has helped the team deal with the constant absences of Landon Donovan.
Donovan’s role in a state of limbo
A handful of poorly-timed injuries and illnesses have caused Donovan to miss multiple matches, which has not only begun to raise questions about just what his role is on the team at this point, but has also allowed other players to step in and try and pick up the slack (Zusi to be specific).
Donovan’s comments earlier in the summer about not being sure how much longer he wants to play made us all realize that the days of taking him for granted as a national team fixture are numbered. As much as there are lingering questions about how much desire he still has left for the game, it’s still difficult to not see him stepping up and being a major part of the Hex. His U.S. teams are still expecting that, and Klinsmann is still going to need that.
Bradley and Williams look like the central tandem going forward
After toying with options ranging from Kyle Beckerman to Maurice Edu to Jermaine Jones as a central midfield partner for Michael Bradley, Klinsmann may have found the perfect one when he finally stopped playing Danny Williams on the right wing and put him in his natural defensive midfield role. The result has been outstanding.
With the exception of the win in Antigua, which you could chalk up to the deplorable playing conditions, Williams thrived in qualifying wins against Jamaica and Guatemala, and Tuesday’s win in Kansas City showed us how well he and Bradley could play together. Bradley needs the freedom to surge forward into the attack, and Williams is athletic and tireless enough to do the work in the area behind Bradley. As long as Williams keeps playing regularly for Hoffenheim, and staying sharp, it will be tough to see him losing his spot any time soon.
These are just some of the developments to come out of the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and while there are still questions to be answered about this U.S. team, there are also some good positives to build on. With a coach who appears to be growing into the job, and a player pool strengthened by the emergence of some new talents, the U.S. heads into 2013 with a positive sense that progress can be made and the team is ready to play better next year in qualifying than it played this year.