The United States should not be having so much difficulty getting through World Cup qualifying.
The team hasn’t had to sweat it out this much in a long time. And, yes, maybe it would have had an easier go of it under Bob Bradley.
But the reason Jurgen Klinsmann was hired as coach of the U.S. national team is because he has the qualities to take it to a level beyond what a domestic coach could.
Bradley and Bruce Arena were familiar with regional foes and usually seemed in command of the situation in CONCACAF competitions. But even they sometimes needed good fortune – the ’07 Gold Cup semifinal win over Canada in Chicago, aided by a Surinamese linesman’s incomprehensible offside call, comes to mind.
Klinsmann does not have as much experience coaching as his predecessors, and has little first-hand familiarity with CONCACAF, a quirky and logistically challenging region. Klinsmann also took over a team in transition. So, there has been a learning curve for Klinsmann and a change in the dynamics of what had been a set core of players until recently.
What Klinsmann signed on to do, though, is something for which he is uniquely qualified. Klinsmann brings the knowledge of having competed at the highest levels of European play, both as a coach and player, something no American can duplicate. He has contacts, credibility and intangible qualities no U.S. coach can match. And all of that will come into play during his tenure.
But, of course, the team has to first get through the Hexagonal. If the United States had to struggle so mightily to get past Antigua and Barbuda, how tough is the Hex going to be?
Klinsmann’s learning curve is smoothing out some, so that should help. And the team is galvanizing, solidifying its identity. But, again, no matter how much Klinsmann has been keeping expectations in perspective – saying that qualifying is always difficult, no matter the continent – the United States should not be getting tested so severely by Antigua and Barbuda.
What Klinsmann has difficulty comprehending is that the United States dominates against the region’s minnows, though he should be able to relate, because Germany has similar situations, even against well-prepared foes such as Poland and Sweden. The Germans always believe they will overpower the Poles and Swedes and the Poles and Swedes go in knowing they themselves will likely cave in (at least before this week, that is).
The U.S. gained that advantage over Mexico in the last 20 years. But, now, the equation is changing in CONCACAF. Mexican players have gained confidence and sophistication with European clubs. And Mexican coaches are developing players with greater physical statures.
Conversely, Klinsmann has attempted to streamline the U.S., promoting Edgar Castillo and Jose Francisco Torres. The idea is to find players with greater agility and flexibility, to fit the right body types into the right positions. Now, Klinsmann seems to have abandoned that idea. Klinsmann has reverted to a Bundesliga version of Ireland’s FAI (Find Any Irishman) teams under Jack Charlton. The German-Americans ratchet up the competitive level of the U.S. team. They also add composure, and that includes Jermaine Jones, who lives on a fine line between chaos and control, though you sense he knows exactly what he is doing.
During U.S. winter training camps, Klinsmann brought in Jones, despite injuries. And Jones’ hard-driving style upped the intensity during practice, which is what Klinsmann wanted. There is a crudeness to Jones’ play, and that is not necessary. A player in that position can be like former Brazil star Dunga, a Marine-tough enforcer but with a touch silky enough for ‘90s era Serie A.
Klinsmann is coaching the United States because he can prepare the team for Euro opponents. A weakness of U.S. coaches is that they simply do not have the tactical nous of their European peers. It is not their fault. They are not in a position to gain this experience. So, every four years the U.S. runs into tactical challenges in the World Cup.
And, as U.S. players such as Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey progress, they are going to be more demanding of their coaches. U.S. national team coaches from now on will simply have to have had European experience to match the players’ level. Klinsmann can do that, and more. Klinsmann can actually show players what to do in a hands-on way. He is contemporary and credible.
Hundreds of details go into preparing for international matches. Decisions and judgments are made constantly – and Arena and Bradley got a high percentage of them right. But Klinsmann can make these calls when it counts – at Brazil 2014.
But, first, he has to figure out all the angles of the Hexagonal.
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