Following the 2011 Gold Cup final, there seemed to be little doubt that then-head coach Bob Bradley had stood on the sidelines for the United States men’s national team for the last time. The team had been unimpressive all tournament long and then, in the final, blew a 2-0 lead to archrival Mexico to lose 4-2 in humiliating fashion.
When Bradley was let go, speculation immediately turned to former German star Jurgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann seemed like a natural choice. He had lived in California for years and he had the pedigree as both a player and a coach. He had been courted by U.S. Soccer on two previous occasions and, most importantly, he was the anti-Bradley.
It’s hard to be overly critical of Bradley’s tenure for the USMNT. He took the team to the 2009 Confederations Cup final, led them on an exciting run in the 2010 World Cup and won the Gold Cup.
But, it always felt as if something was missing. The team played a straight forward bunker-and-counter style, relying on its tried-and-true tradition of “run fast and try hard.” Sightings of the “beautiful game” came infrequently and fleetingly.
Bradley himself also took criticism for being himself—quiet, stoic on the sideline, reserved and thoughtful in interviews.
Klinsmann was just the opposite and exactly what many fans were clamoring for. He had won the World Cup as a player, played at the highest levels of European club football, coached Germany to a third-place World Cup finish in 2006 and had been at the helm of Bayern Munich (however shortly), one of the most storied clubs in the history of the game.
Klinsmann’s personality was also the opposite of Bradley’s. Klinsmann was outwardly confident, always had the answer and promised to deliver a more attractive, free-flowing style of football.
A Rough Start
Despite high hopes, the Klinsmann era did not get off to the best of starts. The team did come from behind to earn a 1-1 draw against Mexico in his opening game as manager on August 10, 2011, but then went on to lose four of its next five games. Over that stretch, the U.S. only produced one goal. This was not the new style of attacking football American fans were hoping for.
However, Klinsmann did show that he was not afraid to experiment. He pushed the U.S. out of its comfort zone—and the Bob Bradley 4-2-2-2—into variations of the 4-3-3 in those early games. He also began tinkering with new roster choices.
In those first games, Klinsmann gave opportunities to players who never made their mark under Bob Bradley like Michael Orozco, Edgar Castillo, Robbie Rogers and Brek Shea. He also started to rely heavily on dual internationals—besides Orozco and Castillo—as Danny Williams and Timmy Chandler (both not cap-tied at that point) were frequent starters for the U.S. in late 2011.
A Glimmer of Hope
After Klinsmann’s rough 1-4-1 opening, some fans began to question his call-ups and tactics. The U.S. was not able to produce much on the offensive end and the results were not coming. It lacked any sort of attacking flair, and the cries for a playmaker like Freddy Adu or Benny Feilhaber began to get louder.
In November, against Slovenia, the U.S. finally looked like the side Klinsmann had promised, winning a 3-2 game on Slovenia’s home soil. Klinsmann used a 4-1-2-1-2 for that game and things were looking up. The team then won both its January camp games with 1-0 wins over Venezuela and Panama.
The January camp has always been a way of ferreting out new talent in the USMNT player pool and this camp was no different. Two future starters, Graham Zusi and Geoff Cameron, both made an impact at the camp.
In February, however, came the real test—an away game against world power Italy. Surprisingly, the U.S. came away with the victory that day—a hard-fought 1-0 win on a 55th-minute goal from Clint Dempsey—and expectations went sky high all over again.
World Cup Qualifying in Fits and Starts
Following the away win against Italy, the U.S. entered another period of toil. While they did beat Scotland 5-1 in an impressive display of offensive might, that game was followed by a 4-1 loss to Brazil and 0-0 draw to lowly Canada.
Those three games were supposed to prime the U.S. for the opening of the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying, but after a drab and uninspiring 3-1 win over minnow Antigua and Barbuda, the U.S. tied Guatemala away with a 1-1 result.
The team didn’t reconvene until a friendly against Mexico that August, which Mexico somewhat surprisingly allowed to be played at Estadio Azteca and at night. The lack of midday heat, poor finishing from El Tri and an outstanding performance from Tim Howard kept the U.S. in the game long enough and eventually, the Americans capitalized on one of their few forays into the attacking third.
In the 80th minute, an endline run by Shea, combined with a backheel from Terrence Boyd, left Orozco all alone on the far post for an easy tap-in. The U.S. would see the game through and pick up a historic win in Mexico City.
However, that win didn’t translate into World Cup qualifying, and in September, the U.S. lost to Jamaica away. Thankfully, the next game fell in the U.S.’s traditional stopgap, Columbus, Ohio. On September 11, in front of a boisterous, flag-waving crowd, the U.S. pulled out a 1-0 win in the home leg against Jamaica.
The U.S. entered the October qualifiers with advancement to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, commonly known as the hexagonal, still not secure. Jozy Altidore was, controversially, not called in for the final two qualifiers with the U.S. facing the unenviable prospect of elimination.
Against Antigua and Barbuda, the U.S. needed a 90th-minute winner from Eddie Johnson—who was seeing his first action for the USMNT since 2010—to pick up all three points. And even with the win, U.S. advancement was not secure heading into the final game against Guatemala.
In that game, in front of a raucous crowd in Kansas City, the unthinkable happened in just five minutes. Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz got in behind the U.S. defense and rounded keeper Tim Howard for the opening goal. U.S. qualifying hopes hung in the balance. The team battled back, winning the game 3-1, but all the good feeling of its historic wins against Italy and Mexico had evaporated.
Disaster in Honduras
Following the U.S.’s bumpy semifinal round of World Cup qualifying, it tied Russia away 2-2 in November and then tied Canada 0-0 in the January friendly. Against Russia, Mix Diskerud scored the game-tying goal despite only playing three minutes of the entire match. Against Canada, Brad Evans was given a second-half run-out at right-back and Klinsmann experimented with a new center-back combination in Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez. All four players would use those moments to push their way into the squad in the months to come.
Opening up the final round of World Cup qualifying in February, the U.S. faced Honduras in San Pedro Sula. It was a brutally hot day and Klinsmann fielded a lineup of mostly European-based players used to playing in wintry conditions. He also decided to employ an off-balance formation for the game, leaving Timmy Chandler on an island on the right side of the field with no help in front of him. And most controversially, Klinsmann made the decision to leave then-captain Carlos Bocanegra on the bench and instead start Cameron and Omar Gonzalez at center-back:
The result was predictable, as Honduras took advantage of the Americans' naiveté (particularly Gonzalez and Chandler) and won the game 2-1.
The Summer of Love
Following the disaster in Honduras, the U.S. had an uphill climb in the hexagonal. A climb that seemed all the more difficult when the Sporting News’ Brian Straus published a damning piece regarding Klinsmann’s lack of leadership, only three days before the team’s March World Cup qualifiers. The story was filled with anonymous quotes from many of the U.S. players and it appeared there were serious cracks in the team’s unity.
To top it all off, the U.S. had a major injury crisis at the time. Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Bocanegra and Landon Donovan, the backbone of the team for the past decade, were all out for the game. Things for the U.S. looked grim.
The U.S. persevered, however, winning 1-0 over Costa Rica in the middle of a blizzard and followed that up with a 0-0 draw to Mexico at Estadio Azteca four days later. The March qualifiers helped right the ship for the U.S. as the team picked up four points in two difficult games and brought two more newcomers into the fold.
In the March games, DaMarcus Beasley was dragooned into service at left-back—an experiment that was a disaster in the Bob Bradley era. Beasley wasn’t spectacular—against Mexico he certainly struggled—but he showed a willingness to battle that had been absent in the years since a devastating knee injury almost ended his career.
In addition to Beasley, Matt Besler was brought into the fold as he started against Mexico. He performed admirably, especially given the circumstances and the quality of the opponent. Both Besler and Beasley would use the March games to cement themselves into the U.S. lineup going forward.
Following the games in March, the U.S. rolled. They struggled against Belgium to open up their summer camp, but then beat Germany and won three straight World Cup qualifiers in impressive fashion. Jozy Altidore ended an 18-month USMNT scoreless streak, while Besler and Gonzalez solidified themselves as the No. 1 center-back pairing for the team. Brad Evans took over at right-back and Graham Zusi again proved the value of his service from the flanks.
The U.S. then parlayed their success in June to a Gold Cup championship in July that saw Brek Shea, Landon Donovan, Mix Diskerud and Alejandro Bedoya all work their way into the squad. Although most teams in the Gold Cup fielded their “B” teams, everything was going well for the U.S.
Bumps in the Road
Following the U.S.’s successful summer, the team opened up their fall campaign with an impressive 4-3 away win over Bosnia, courtesy of a Jozy Altidore hat trick. The game also represented the first appearance of Aron Johannsson for the United States.
In September, the U.S. was soundly beaten by Costa Rica, but recovered nicely four days later to beat Mexico 2-0, in Columbus, Ohio. The win over Mexico punched the U.S.A.’s ticket to the World Cup. Then, in October, wins over Jamaica and Panama kept the good times rolling.
The Present and Future
This November has once again tempered U.S. expectations. A listless draw against Scotland and a 1-0 loss to Austria, similarly lethargic, has once again sounded the alarm bells. While the U.S. was missing key components Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey for those games, its performance over the summer had many touting the team’s depth. That was nowhere to be seen in November, as two non-wins in Europe brought many fans back to more realistic expectations.
And ultimately, the final judgment on Jurgen Klinsmann still awaits. While he has had signature wins against Italy, Mexico and Germany, he has also tied Canada twice and suffered emasculating beatings at the hands of Brazil and, more recently, Belgium.
With the World Cup draw looking potentially nightmarish, Klinsmann will most likely need to lead the U.S. on a spectacular run just to escape the group stage.
And the ultimate measure of success for any USMNT coach remains matching or besting the U.S.’s 2002 quarterfinal—a feat that right now seems fairly unlikely.
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