With the United States Men’s National Team entering the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying next month, fans should be getting excited for what the US might be able to achieve.
When Jurgen Klinsmann was appointed head coach of the USMNT just 18 months ago, the expectation of many in the American soccer community was that he would turn the U.S. into the Spanish national team overnight.
Four months and six games later, a series of poor results and anemic attacking play quickly tempered those expectations. In Klinsmann’s first six games in charge, the U.S. was 1-4-1 (following win-loss-draw format) and the team had only scored two goals in those six games.
However, that poor start has turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise.
With expectations back to a realistic level, the U.S. can avoid the type of pressure that has routinely hurt other international squads.
England is a great example of this, as the English media and fans traditionally enter major international tournaments expecting the team to win—and when they don’t, it’s a major controversy.
Those types of expectations put unneeded pressure on a squad.
The U.S. had its own experience with unrealistic expectations when it entered the 2006 World Cup ranked fifth in the world, only to finish the tournament, embarrassingly, in last place.
After the rough start with Klinsmann, and with many American fans wondering if he was really the right man for the job, the team went through some major growing pains. Over the next few months, new faces emerged and old faces began playing their way off the squad.
In the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the team struggled and only secured qualification via a late winner from former castaway Eddie Johnson against Antigua and Barbuda, as well as a comeback win against Guatemala.
And yet, amazingly, despite all these rough patches, Jurgen Klinsmann and the USMNT finished 2012 with a 9-2-3 record and signature results against Italy, Mexico and Russia.
Klinsmann himself, who shockingly has coached less than 100 games in his career, is also still learning on the job and should continue to improve.
While Klinsmann attempted to turn the U.S. into a wide-open attacking team when he first took the reigns, he has taken a more pragmatic approach as time has worn on.
Klinsmann seems to have accepted the fact that the U.S. is not quite ready, nor does it have the personnel, to fully embrace a 4-3-3. He also seems to have accepted the idea that while there are many American youngsters who show promise, the veterans should be given the benefit of the doubt until they lose their place in the lineup. And finally, he seems to have accepted that the team plays best with a dedicated holding midfielder and two strikers.
Sure, Klinsmann still has some wacky ideas, such as the “motivational speaker” he brought in to speak to the team prior to their 2-1 away loss to Jamaica in September.
And Klinsmann still seems to have an antiquated approach to fitness—preferring two-a-day practices for in-season players, morning “empty-stomach” fitness runs and even using an entire week of this year’s January camp for fitness only.
However, his record over the past year has done enough at this point to earn the benefit of the doubt from U.S. fans.
And finally, fans should start getting excited, because the player pool may be the best it’s ever been.
At its core, the U.S. has a great nucleus of proven top-class players in Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Steve Cherundolo and Jermaine Jones.
And the bulk of the US player pool is at the top of their game, with players like Herculez Gomez, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Sacha Kljestan, Eddie Johnson, Michael Parkhurst, Terrence Boyd, Graham Zusi, Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando all having career seasons in 2012.
There is also a nice crop of youngsters starting to push their way into the player pool, with Mix Diskerud, Josh Gatt, Omar Gonzalez, Juan Agudelo and Joe Corona all looking set to make their mark on the squad.
And finally, there is even more potential depth in players like Eric Lichaj, John Anthony Brooks, Joe Gyau, Maurice Edu, Jozy Altidore, Danny Williams, Alejandro Bedoya, Jose Torres, Greg Garza, Edgar Castillo, Conor O’Brien and Steve Clark.
All in all, between realistic expectations, a maturing coach and an improving player pool, things are looking up for the USMNT.
And, best of all, it’s happening at exactly the right time.
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