On Monday night, the United States men’s national team won a dramatic victory in their World Cup opener, defeating Ghana 2-1 on the strength of an 86th-minute goal from John Anthony Brooks.
The win was another feather in the cap for U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but the game also left fans with plenty of questions.
In Klinsmann’s tenure as coach of the USMNT, the team has beaten Italy, Mexico and Bosnia away, tied Russia and Mexico away and beat Germany at home. They topped their CONCACAF World Cup qualifying group, won the 2013 Gold Cup and, now, have finally beaten Ghana in the World Cup.
However, for each of Klinsmann’s accomplishments, there has always seemed to be an asterisk. The win over Mexico in Estadio Azteca was against their “B” squad and the win over Bosnia-Herzegovina was a comeback that came after they had pulled many of their starters. The tie against Mexico came amidst the total collapse of the Mexican national team and the draw against Russia came on a deflected shot in stoppage time.
The win over Germany was against their “C” team and the Gold Cup last summer was played primarily by back-up teams. And considering Mexico’s form during qualifying, there was no reason for the U.S. not to top the hexagonal. Finally, the win over Ghana was more than a bit lucky considering the U.S.’s poor performance overall.
The U.S.’s World Cup qualifying campaign was also fraught with ups and downs, such as the draw to Guatemala away, the stoppage-time goals required to down Jamaica and lowly Antigua and Barbuda, the need for a come-from-behind win at home over Guatemala to guarantee advancement to the final round of qualifying and losses to Honduras and Costa Rica in the hex.
Still, there are plenty of things Klinsmann does deserve credit for. He has had to deal with the challenges of an old guard of fading ability at a time when the next generation of players was not yet ready to step into their place. He has had to deal with the difficulties of having half his team play in North America and the other half in Europe—forcing him to often field hodge-podge lineups lacking a true first XI or any sort of cohesion. And, exceptions aside, wins are wins, regardless of their circumstances.
On the recruitment front, no one can doubt Klinsmann’s accomplishments. He has secured the services of dual-nationals Brooks, Julian Green, Aron Johannsson, Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Mix Diskerud, Omar Gonzalez, Terrence Boyd, Joe Corona and Danny Williams. Those 10 players alone could easily form the starting lineup in the 2018 World Cup and many are already important contributors.
Klinsmann must also be given credit for keeping the faith with Brooks, who suffered through an up-and-down Bundesliga campaign in 2013-14, including being benched at numerous times and, at one point, being forced to miss training because of a back tattoo that had not healed quickly enough. And, after Brooks’s disastrous performance for the U.S. against Ukraine in March, no one thought he’d even make the World Cup team, let alone play a starring role in the tournament itself.
The German coach also kept the faith in Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman through inconsistent performances, only to see them repay his confidence through their excellent efforts against Ghana. Klinsmann, somehow, even found a way to get Michael Bradley, Jones and Beckerman into a scheme where they all could start and be used in their most effective roles.
Klinsmann inspired Altidore to work harder by not calling him up for the U.S.'s World Cup qualifiers in October 2012 and then helped him regain confidence by sticking with him through goal-scoring slumps in 2013 and 2014.
He resurrected the seemingly long-dead "DaMarcus Beasley as a left-back" experiment (with varying results), moved Geoff Cameron back to center-back after he spent two seasons at Stoke City on the right and worked Alejandro Bedoya back into the U.S. side during the Gold Cup.
And although they are not with the team in Brazil, he confounded the experts by first calling in and then getting the most out of players like Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson and Eddie Johnson during qualifying. Then, he confounded the experts again, by not bringing any of them to Brazil.
However, the win against Ghana did raise some serious questions. First and foremost, were the U.S.’s injury struggles on Monday evening related to Klinsmann’s obsession with the team’s fitness? In many U.S. camps, including the World Cup training camp, Klinsmann has held two-a-day sessions—three if you include his regular morning “empty-stomach” runs.
Against Ghana, both Altidore and Matt Besler were forced to withdraw from the match due to hamstring pulls, and Bedoya appeared to injure his hip. Perhaps that was just bad luck for the U.S., but putting seasoned professionals through such a grueling training camp certainly must remain a suspected cause.
The Altidore injury also re-raises the question as to why there is not a “like-for-like” replacement on the U.S. roster at forward. Eddie Johnson was a major contributor during qualifying and excels at stretching a back line with his pace and ability in the air—much like Altidore. Terrence Boyd, who had a very productive season this year in Europe, could have also been a straightforward replacement. Alas, neither are in Brazil.
Finally, was the U.S.’s win over Ghana really that different from U.S. wins of the past? For long stretches against Ghana the U.S. was utterly dominated in possession and only won the game through sheer force of will—an American specialty long before Klinsmann took over. The game was also won on a set piece—another American specialty for decades.
When Klinsmann took over, he promised to bring about a new style and spoke on numerous occasions of finding an “American style”. But last night’s victory resembled an old-fashioned Bob Bradley-esque bunker-and-counter win more than anything else.
How much credit Klinsmann can be given for a win based on the USMNT’s old mantra “try hard, run fast” is debatable.
Still, at a minimum, Klinsmann must be given credit for recruiting and harnessing the abilities of the players the win was dependent on, namely Beckerman, Brooks, Jones, Dempsey, Cameron, Bedoya and Fabian Johnson—not to mention the cadre of youngsters he’s recruited who should form the backbone of the team for years to come.
Klinsmann has the U.S. team brimming with confidence after three send-off wins and last night’s historic win over Ghana. Heading into the U.S.’s next matchup against Portugal, the coach will no doubt have a few more surprises up his sleeve for U.S. fans.
Throughout his tenure, he’s had the magic touch—the “experts” be damned.
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