You may not remember this phenomenon now, because memories in sports tend only to be as long as necessary to underscore one’s predetermined position, but the supposed existence of The Gap defined the state of U.S. soccer when Klinsmann was hired to replace Bob Bradley in July 2011.
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It became like a hit record the country’s soccer media had to assure was included in every show: that there was a gap between the national team programs of the United States and Mexico, and that it was not flattering to the Americans.
When the U.S. visited Mexico’s Azteca Stadium for a not-so-friendly 13 months later, Klinsmann still was being asked about it. His response was that if one team qualified for the Olympics (Mexico actually won the gold medal) and the other team didn’t even make it (as the U.S. had not), then everyone was right. There must be a gap.
It was a typical Klinsmann response. A more typical Klinsmann response: The U.S. defeated Mexico in that game, the first time they’d ever won in the Azteca.
At the time that friendly was scheduled, it seemed a ridiculous exercise: Why send the American players down to Mexico City to certain defeat when they’d have to return in another six months or so in a World Cup qualifying game that would really count? Klinsmann does not coach from fear, however.
His bold decision to take on that game not only sent the U.S. surging forward on its current 25-7-6 rampage, which included winning its World Cup qualifying tournament, the 2013 Gold Cup and advancement out of the World Cup “Group of Death.” That game seemed to send Mexico into a freefall plunge – which included a scoreless draw in that subsequent home qualifier against the Americans -- to where it needed the U.S. to rescue its World Cup qualifying hopes.
As the United States prepares for its World Cup round of 16 knockout game Thursday at 4 p.m. ET with Group H winner Belgium, Klinsmann now is starting to receive criticism for his tactics. He fields three midfielders with reputations as defense-first players. The U.S. was overwhelmed in position in two of the three World Cup groups. This is not anything different than how the Americans played under Bob Bradley.
This is how the new hit record goes.
It’s about as worthwhile as the last one.
When Klinsmann was hired, the goal ostensibly was to turn the U.S. into a more skillful side. “My philosophy is an attacking style of football," Klinsmann told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl in 2010. "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."
That the U.S. has not been transformed overnight into Spain has led to some critiques, which is a bit like wondering why the football coach at UCLA hasn’t turned the Bruins into Alabama by now. It’s unlikely to happen, and if it does, it’s not going to happen for a while.
Klinsmann is not going to magically convince the vast majority of the nation’s best young athletes to pursue soccer ahead of sports more culturally and economically prominent in this country, and if he were to persuade any the impact would not be felt for nearly a decade. He only can work to improve the process for those already in the system.
In that sense, the U.S. record is mixed since Klinsmann took over, but the most obvious failures (the Olympic team’s inability to qualify in 2012) came early in his tenure. The U-20 squad did qualify for the World Cup last year, and though it did not play well in a loaded group it did help ready prospect DeAndre Yedlin for inclusion – and an impactful role – with this World Cup team.
Parsing the possession numbers for Klinsmann’s three World Cup games with the United States is a pointless errand, because the team he built for this tournament was rearranged after just 20 minutes of soccer. And even without injured forward Jozy Altidore, one of the most important elements in the team’s plan to possess the ball, the Americans defeated Ghana, scored two on Portugal and nearly earned an enormous victory and then played a tactically sound game against Germany with the baseline ambition of avoiding a multi-goal defeat that might have imperiled their advancement. This World Cup already has been a spectacular success.
Mexico eventually recovered its bearings under coach Miguel Herrera, and good for them. They performed beautifully at the 2014 World Cup and nearly advanced to the quarterfinals. Remember, though, that team would not have been in the tournament were it not for the tying and winning goals the United States scored on the road last autumn to eliminate Panama from qualifying.
Because of Klinsmann’s performance as U.S. head coach, The Gap is no more. Except the one that sells jeans. They’re doing fine.