While the United States men's national team prepares this week for its final two matches of FIFA World Cup 2014 qualifying, it does so safe in the knowledge that it has already booked its spot in Brazil next year. As the team's head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann deserves credit for the Americans' impressive performances over the past year.
In 2013, the U.S. won a record 12 consecutive matches, lifted the Gold Cup trophy and qualified for the World Cup with two matches to spare. It wasn't always an easy ride, of course, but in two-plus years as manager, Klinsmann has built depth, won matches and developed the U.S. into a team that plays an attractive, attacking style.
Forty matches into Klinsmann's reign, it's time to take stock of his performance so far. Keep reading for my analysis of Klinsmann's tenure to this point.
Win, Baby, Win
Klinsmann has managed 40 matches thus far. In that time, he has won 25, drawn six and lost nine for a win percentage of 62.5 percent.
His record benefits from a recent 12-match winning run, a team record. The streak included friendly matches, Gold Cup matches and World Cup qualifiers.
Klinsmann's two immediate predecessors, Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena, fared less well. Bradley posted a 43-12-25 record (wins-draws-losses) over 80 games in charge from 2006-2010, for a win percentage of 53.75 percent. Arena went 75-27-28 (W-D-L) from 1998-2006 for a win percentage of 57.7.
It should be noted that before the 12-match winning streak, Klinsmann's record stood at 12-6-8. That translated to a win percentage of just over 46 percent.
Klinsmann has often scheduled difficult matches in friendlies (he continues to do so), and while those matches have not always ended in victory, Klinsmann has spoken of their value to his team.
"It was a negative result but an important game as it gets us right on our toes," Klinsmann told ESPN FC after the U.S lost 4-2 at home to Belgium in May. "I would rather play Belgium 10 more times than El Salvador a thousand times. That is how you learn."
During the winning streak, Klinsmann's team played its best soccer as his influence reached its peak, at least so far. I'll examine momentarily what I believe are two areas of that influence. For now, one more distinction should be made in regards to match records.
One area in which it's difficult to compare Klinsmann to his predecessors is in World Cup performance. Arena led the U.S. at two World Cups. In 2002, he guided the U.S. to the quarterfinals, where the Americans lost to Germany. In 2006, the U.S. went out at the group stage. Bradley led the U.S. to the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup.
Klinsmann did lead his native Germany to the 2006 World Cup semifinals, but it is probably unwise to compare Germany (which has won the World Cup three times) and the U.S. in terms of World Cup performance.
Thus, in comparing Klinsmann's record to his two immediate predecessors, Klinsmann comes out favorably in terms of win percentage largely because of that team-record 12-match winning run. Before his record improved—and this trend continues now—Klinsmann scheduled difficult matches in order to test his team against tough opposition. The strategy seemed to pay off over the summer.
Now I will look at two areas in which I believe Klinsmann has improved the U.S. national team.
In January of 2013, as the U.S. prepared for a friendly against Canada in Houston with an extended training camp, Klinsmann was working a double strategy. The Americans' first match of the final round of World Cup qualifying—known as the Hexagonal—was approaching, but Klinsmann was also thinking long-term.
Few of the players in that January training camp would feature in World Cup qualifying over the next several months, but most would appear again for the U.S. in competitive matches at some point in 2013. With World Cup qualification and the Gold Cup on the schedule, Klinsmann knew he needed, in essence, two complete rosters at his disposal.
Speaking before the match against Canada, Klinsmann told USSoccer.com:
With this really busy year in 2013, this opportunity to see these players in camp for three and a half weeks was more than worthwhile. It was really important because we have to build two rosters for the May and June period with World Cup qualifiers and then for the Gold Cup in July. Now we have a much broader vision and we have a much better understanding of how many players we have that we can bring to the international level. Our pool is getting deeper and is getting more competitive, too. These players are knocking at the door strongly.
Among those who participated in the January camp were a number of players who contributed for the U.S. in 2013, whether it was in World Cup qualifying or the Gold Cup. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler became key components of the first-team's central defense. Chris Wondolowski performed well early in the Gold Cup. Players like Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi and Eddie Johnson contributed in qualifying, the Gold Cup or both.
Under Klinsmann, the U.S. talent pool has become deeper. The Americans still trail far behind some of the top nations in terms of depth—former U.S. international goalkeeper Brad Friedel criticized the program's lack of depth in June—but it has improved enough to see the U.S. win the Gold Cup in the same year that it qualified comfortably for the World Cup with two matches to spare.
In doing so, the U.S. used what amounted to two different teams. That fact pays testament to Klinsmann's depth-building project.
“I think we feel confident about other guys stepping in and doing the job,” all-time goals and assists leader Landon Donovan told the New York Times after September's World Cup qualifying match at Costa Rica. "There’s guys who have wanted to play and maybe deserved to play, and now they’re going to have a chance."
The U.S. lost that match in Costa Rica, 3-1, after influential midfielder Michael Bradley sustained an injury in pregame warm-ups. But the U.S. bounced back four days later, beating Mexico 2-0 at home to secure a World Cup berth. In addition to Bradley's injury, the U.S. had to overcome suspensions to Besler, defender/midfielder Geoff Cameron and striker Jozy Altidore.
Klinsmann praised his players, especially the veterans among them, for showing leadership to bring the team through a moment of adversity.
"It is important that you see them as a group sticking together and being there for each other," Klinsmann told USSoccer.com after the Mexico match. "That’s what they’ve done, so I think it takes it to another level when you have those moments when they really need to stand up.”
It would be wrong, however, to overlook Klinsmann's role in building depth. As Brian Straus writes for Sports Illustrated, Klinsmann has instilled a "competitive culture," calling on 47 players in 2013, with 39 of them starting at least one match.
The benefits of such a strategy became clear in World Cup qualifying. Even without Bradley, the team's most important central midfielder, the U.S. had enough strength in depth to defeat Mexico (a team that is admittedly struggling at the moment) and qualify for the World Cup.
This facet of the U.S. team's play is much more difficult to quantify. But for any observer, the change has been obvious: Klinsmann has improved the first touch of the American players.
By taking a good, controlled, positive first touch on the ball, a player can set himself up to make a pass, beat a defender by dribbling or shoot from a dangerous position. With a poor first touch, all of that becomes more difficult. Most often, in fact, a poor first touch leads to loss of possession.
In improving the U.S. players' skills and emphasizing an attacking style, Klinsmann is doing what he promised upon being hired in 2011. As he told Sports Illustrated:
My philosophy is an attacking style of football. That's just the way I think, and it's how I built the German team for the 2006 World Cup over two years, which was highly criticized over a long stretch of time, and then they embraced it. It's a style of play that takes time to implement, and you need the environment that gives you that time.
It took some time, but Klinsmann has shaped the U.S. into an attractive, attacking team. Part of that has to do with the players, who have improved to the point at which they can compete with top-tier teams. Another part has to do with Klinsmann, who, as we know, wants to play an attacking style.
After the Gold Cup, which the U.S. won with its B-team, Greg Howard wrote for Deadspin:
(F)or the first time in what feels like forever, the Americans were an attacking team. In every single match, the United States dominated possession, playing forward-moving, free-flowing soccer against lesser opponents. They pinned other teams back into their own half, and either scored at will, or wore teams down until the breakthrough finally came. It was beautiful and weird to watch.
Weird, but worth it, as SB Nation's Kevin McCauley wrote:
This team is fun. Finally, for the first time in my lifetime, the United States men's national team is playing really, really entertaining soccer. They stand alone on their own merits independent of their national affiliation, and you no longer have to be an American to enjoy watching them play.
He's right, of course. One no longer has to be an American to enjoy watching the U.S. national team play. Watching them play is fun, regardless of your rooting allegiances. But even more so for American fans, this is a great time to follow the team. More than at any time in the recent past, the U.S. can compete with—and in some cases beat—top-tier teams.
That doesn't mean a World Cup trophy is imminent. Klinsmann himself has cautioned American fans to be realistic. It does, however, mean that Klinsmann has presided over a period of genuine improvement and progress in American soccer.