With the USA getting a difficult draw as expected, it's now up to the team's manager to determine how his team will go into three extremely tricky matches.Idealism versus pragmatism. It's been the theme of Jurgen Klinsmann's two-and-a-half year reign as U.S. national team head coach, and it will now get the ultimate litmus test this summer in Brazil.
When Klinsmann was hired back in 2011, he spouted off about changing the American soccer culture from the ground up, including an overhaul of the team's style of play. Whereas his predecessor Bob Bradley achieved his greatest results in wars of attrition, Jurgen's boys would Blitzkrieg right through their opponents.
Though there has been evidence of the Yanks changing to a more proactive style of play, like Bradley, Klinsmann has at least partially parked the bus to achieve some unexpected results as U.S. manager (Italy 0-1 USA and Mexico 0-0 USA come to mind).
Klinsmann can be wild-eyed at times, but he hasn't let his idealism blind him.
“He likes the physical game and also he likes attractive football if he can play it, but also he knows his players 100 percent,” former Germany captain and current ESPN analyst Michael Ballack told Goal about his former coach. “He knows what he has to do against bigger teams, stronger teams, and sometimes it doesn't look that good but it may be successful.”
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On Friday, the U.S. learned it will face Ghana, Portugal, and then Germany in the World Cup's Group G this summer. The Americans will be the underdog in at least two, if not all three games. How Klinsmann approaches these matches will say a lot about how far the U.S. has come under his stewardship.
“He's going to have to play it smart, but he's also probably going to have to live up to a certain extent to everything he's promised over the last couple years,” former U.S. international and current ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas told Goal.
“Klinsmann has talked a lot about being proactive and trying to dictate the flow and the pace of the game,” Lalas said. “Well that's all fine and well to talk about, but how do you go about doing that?”
In theory, pressuring high and retaining the ball would be the most effective way of dealing with the substantial attacking threat posed by Germany and Portugal. In practice, however, an ill-timed turnover or an opponent breaking the pressure could be disastrous.
“It will be interesting to see if when we're talking about reverting to form if they do go into a much more defensive posture and try to withstand pressure, or they come out and they try to pressure Germany,” Lalas said. “That's great except when it breaks down, and now what happens is when it breaks down it's not it breaks down and guys can possibly do something, it breaks down and you've got some world-class players that have that time and space.”
In Group G, the USA will face three teams filled with players who thrive on the counter, including (but not limited to) Mario Gotze and Marco Reus with Germany, Cristiano Ronaldo with Portugal, and Ghana's Andre Ayew. It will be a delicate balance between defense and attack, especially with the team's uncertainty at the outside back positions.
Ballack believes that the U.S. will at least possess the athleticism to counter Joachim Low's high-flying side.
“This U.S. team is in good shape, especially physically they are in good shape,” he said. “They can challenge Germany because we are also playing at this really high pace and tempo.”
Perhaps more than any other factor, the USA's result in its opening match against Ghana will dictate the way it plays against Portugal and Germany. A win against the Black Stars may allow Klinsmann to play more conservatively against the European powers. Any other result though, and the USA may have no choice but to press for a result.
Tactics will be one thing if the U.S. is to achieve a result against Portugal or Germany, but the Yanks will have to be supremely motivated as well. This, perhaps more than any strategic or formational nous, is where Klinsmann can shine.
Ballack, who was Germany's captain when Klinsmann coached the team to a third place finish at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, has experienced the manager's powers of persuasion first hand.
“He likes to talk to his players, he's a coach who has a good speech to players, he can motivate players and especially in a tournament, it's really really important,” the former Chelsea midfielder said. “I was under him a few years and I know what it means to play a World Cup at home under such high pressure, and he took the pressure.”
“Jurgen Klinsmann has made a point of of making sure that they believe that they can beat these teams,” Lalas said.
And the USA should have every reason to believe. Under the German boss, the Yanks have achieved several good results against bigger countries, and looking at recent World Cups, they've been able to do the same.
With the exception of the 1998 World Cup, the USA has obtained a positive result against a higher ranked team in every group stage since they hosted the 1994 tournament. In 1994 it defeated Colombia and drew Switzerland, in 2002 it won against Portugal, in 2006 it drew eventual champion Italy and in 2010, it got an opening-match draw against England.
The U.S. has found a certain level of comfort in being the underdog in the past, and there's every bit of evidence to suggest the role could suit the team again in Brazil.
For Klinsmann, the idealism of his tactical set-up may take a back seat to the idealism he'll try to instill in his players. If the USA is able to surprise in Brazil, it will be because they truly believed they could do it.
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