Jurgen Klinsmann's Team USA Will Reveal Their True Identity in 2013
Let's start with a reality check.
Team USA have a long way to go. They have undoubted character, a charismatic and committed coach and some capable players at their disposal, but this is not a team looking good for the knockout stages at World Cup 2014. Not yet.
Jurgen Klinsmann's USMNT are a work in progress. They were shown up defensively by lowly Guatemala in last night's match in Kansas, and they have conceded six goals in as many games against relatively weak teams in recent World Cup qualifiers.
The same dogged resistance they showed in beating Euro 2012 finalists Italy, back in February, and again against Mexico, in August, has been lacking against far weaker opponents in CONCACAF qualifying.
U.S. fans talked up that heady night in Genoa as a new dawn. Critics will tell you it's been a false one, with evidence in the form of the 4-1 footballing lesson they took from Brazil, away draws with Canada and Guatemala and a defeat to Jamaica in Kingston.
Those performances didn't point to progress. But they haven't cost the U.S. either, with Klinsmann's team safely through to the CONCACAF's Hexagonal round and still very much expected to qualify for World Cup 2014 in Brazil.
Ultimately, that's all that matters. Klinsmann will have next year's friendlies and the Gold Cup to impart the new identity he talked about upon taking the job, and all that comes after World Cup qualification will allow time to experiment and take risks.
Being an international coach is like being a president. You come into the job with bold visions and far-reaching ideas, but they sometimes get lost in the business of getting it done. For getting re-elected, see qualifying for the World Cup.
Said Klinsmann to reporters last night:
We are, step-by-step, breaking in new players into that team and I think you see players that grow into that team like a Graham Zusi. At the same time, we have to take care of qualifying and see some new players come in and make a stamp on the game and developing through it.
Klinsmann knows he has work to do. His U.S. team need to come upon a ruthlessness in front of goal and work better as a unit to close down space and tighten up defensively. There were times against Guatemala that the U.S. players lost possession and were far too spread out.
Such generosity in Brazil, where the U.S. are likely to face at least one top-tier nation in the group stages, will be punished severely.
Another worrying factor is Klinsmann's heavy reliance on Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley—his two best players and the defining factors of the 3-1 victory against Guatemala at Livestrong Park.
Should either get injured, it's hard to see how Klinsmann could come close to replacing them. Everything in midfield seems to come through Bradley, while Dempsey is perhaps Klinsmann's only world-class player (good enough to make it into most other starting lineups) and definitely his biggest attacking threat.
For the sake of U.S. World Cup ambitions—and also to alleviate the pressure on the pair—it's essential Klinsmann identifies a way to thrive without one or both or them before it's too late. Both are in heavy rotation in Europe, and there will come a time, sooner or later, when Klinsmann will go into a big game and need to trust other players to deliver.
Perhaps the Gold Cup will provide a chance for viable understudies to step up. That would help take the weight of Dempsey and Bradley, and also give Klinsmann a Plan B for when he needs it.
Klinsmann clearly has a big task ahead. It's too early to judge him now, but by this time next year—with World Cup qualifying complete and the 2013 Gold Cup campaign to look back upon—we should have a very good idea of whether the German can deliver an improvement on the Bob Bradley era.
For now, I'll leave it to Dempsey—American soccer's great hope—to classify out his nation's current condition.
"We're excited to get to the next round," he told reporters in Kansas. "But we know we need to step up our game."
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