Ives Galarcep: Though work is still to be done, Klinsmann leading USA down successful path to World Cup

After 25 months in charge, and a fair share of ups and downs, Jurgen Klinsmann has the U.S. national team heading to Brazil riding a wave of confidence and good form.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — After more than two years in charge as head coach of the U.S. national team, it is easy to forget just who Jurgen Klinsmann is.

To many USA fans, Klinsmann is the fun-loving, always-smiling coach who isn’t afraid to show emotion on the sidelines. What can be forgotten by some is the fact that Klinsmann the player was a special talent who won many of the sport’s most important trophies. What made Klinsmann such a special player was his intense dedication and tireless work ethic, as well as his ability to combine a sharp wit with an undercurrent of ferocity that fueled his drive to succeed.

Two decades living in California may have chilled Klinsmann out to some degree, but that competitor’s heartbeat still moves him, and the same traits that made him a World Cup-winning player are now helping him thrive as a coach.

All he has done is transform the USA into an attack-minded squad with never-before-seen depth and an aggressive mentality that has the Americans playing with confidence and accomplishing new goals in a variety of ways.

“He’s a super positive guy. He never lets it show when the chips are down,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said when asked what makes Klinsmann successful as a coach. “I think we’ve answered the bell a bunch of times. Guatemala in Kansas City. The snow game, when it was all this internal strife and we hated each other. Playing like crap in Costa Rica and coming back. We’ve answered the bell, and it’s part of this group’s resiliency.”

The group’s toughness has been forged in large part by the effort Klinsmann has put into creating a system that doesn’t allow players to take national team playing time for granted.

“The best thing he’s done is create lots of competition, and so every time you step on the field you have to perform or you’re not going to step on the field the next time,” said Landon Donovan. “It’s not in a pressure way, but it’s in a accountability way, and if you don’t do well and you don’t perform you might not play the next game, and it’s been good for everybody to feel that.”

Donovan was, and is, the poster child for Klinsmann’s emphasis on accountability. When Donovan took time off because of a need to recapture his love for the sport, and decided he would be skipping a trio of important World Cup qualifiers, Klinsmann responded by not calling up Donovan for the June qualifiers. It was a risky but important message that needed to be delivered. Not just to Donovan, but to the entire player pool.

The team responded to that message with a 3-0 run through qualifying in June that not only showed the team it could win without Donovan, but that Klinsmann wouldn’t be afraid to cut anybody loose who wasn’t good enough, or wasn’t committed enough.

Donovan responded to being exiled with a Gold Cup tournament for the ages, while also making it clear he understood Klinsmann’s decision to leave him out. With Donovan on board with the message, it made it that much stronger.

Tuesday’s triumph over Mexico was just the perfect capper to a dream summer for Klinsmann, who seemed to do almost everything right when it came to roster and lineup selections, and motivating his team. The success he and the team enjoyed was a far cry from how Klinsmann’s early tenure as head coach went.

Wins and goals were proving tough to come by, as the team went through his first six games managing just one victory and two goals. He kept his smile and positive outlook even as criticism began to build along with questions about whether the United States made a mistake hiring him.

Klinsmann stuck to his philosophies, both in terms of emphasizing pressure defending and attacking soccer, and in terms of fostering serious competition for playing time. Eventually, the results started to come.

The 25-month period between Klinsmann’s debut match, a draw versus Mexico, and Tuesday’s World Cup-clinching triumph against the same team has included its ups and downs, but there is no denying that the USA has made progress under the German coach, who also must be fully aware that his real job is just beginning.

U.S. Soccer didn’t hire Klinsmann just to qualify for the World Cup, something the USA had done six consecutive times before he arrived. Klinsmann was hired to help turn the national team into one that can compete with world powers, and go beyond merely qualifying for the knockout rounds of the World Cup.

The early returns suggest progress is being made in that regard. Wins against Italy and Germany (albeit a far from full-strength German team) as well as an impressive road victory against Bosnia and Herzegovina show a USA team that isn’t afraid to stand toe-to-toe against good European sides — something the Americans will need to do in Brazil to ensure success at the World Cup.

“I think we’re young enough at the moment that these next 6-8 months, we’re going to grow. We’re going to get better,” Howard said. “I really like the mix, with the Mexican-Americans, and the German-Americans. A lot of young guys sprinkled in with some of us old guys.

“I just think the mix is right and we just need to mature a little bit more, and I feel good about our chances (at the World Cup)."

Klinsmann and his team have some time to prepare for that next task, but the signs are promising that this USA team can be a deep team, and a fun team to watch. It has taken Klinsmann’s attack-minded philosophies on board, and incorporated the edge that comes with strong competition for playing time. The result is a team getting results, and riding a wave of confidence that should serve it well in Brazil.