The day before the World Cup began, I was asked a question during a radio interview about U.S. national team manager and technical director Jurgen Klinsmann.
"Is he right man for the job?"
I found the question peculiar at the time, given that we were one day from kicking off a tournament that, for Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer, has been three years in the making. Hired in August, 2011, Klinsmann has rebuilt the U.S. men's national team effectively in his image—strong, fit, technically adept…and decidedly German.
The thing is, a lot of American soccer pundits and fans have questioned Klinsmann's methods since he took the job. Did he focus too much on fitness and not enough on tactics? Did he overwork his players in training, leaving them too tired for matches? What in the hell was he thinking keeping Landon Donovan off the World Cup roster?
Any manager in any country is going to be questioned, and while I vociferously disagreed with Klinsmann's decision to leave Donovan back home in favor of less skilled and/or seasoned role players—I did write the day before the announcement that if Landon wasn't going to Brazil, neither should Jurgen—the question about him being right for the job seemed like a difficult one to answer at the start of an event this big.
"He is the man with the job," I replied, "so it doesn't really matter at this point if he's the right man or not. Over the next two weeks, we're going to find out."
It hasn't even taken that long. After a victory over Ghana and a heartbreaking draw with Portugal, there should be very little doubt that Klinsmann is the right man to lead U.S. Soccer now and in the future. It's amazing what four points in two matches in the World Cup's Group of Death can do for a guy's job security.
Well, maybe that's actually the wrong term. Even before the World Cup began, Klinsmann had the most secure managing job in the world, perhaps in any sport. This year, he was promoted to the role of technical director in addition to serving as head coach of the USMNT, putting him in charge of not just the top men's soccer team in the United States, but the entire American soccer system.
Klinsmann was also given an extension through the 2018 World Cup, making some of us (and, yes, I was in this category, too) wonder if the 2014 tournament was nothing more than a test run for some of the next generation of players, rather than an honest-to-goodness, whole-hearted attempt to compete in Brazil.
His now infamous "we cannot win this World Cup" comment exacerbated the belief that Klinsmann may be too secure in his role with U.S. Soccer for the team's own good, and that a coach heading into a World Cup should never be looking that far into the future, as it seemed Klinsmann was with some of his roster decisions.
And then something wonderful happened. The United States won its first game in Brazil against Ghana, and John Anthony Brooks—the German-American center back with very little experience that Klinsmann selected for the team over more seasoned veterans—scored the historic game-winning goal.
In the match against Portugal, the United States tallied its first goal off a strike from Jermaine Jones, the longest-tenured and perhaps most polarizing German-American Klinsmann recruit to date. At times during World Cup qualifying and international friendlies, Jones' rough style and lack of discipline has turned off American fans. In Brazil, Jones has been vital to U.S. success, playing well against Ghana and not only helping to keep Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese attack in check, but also scoring the absolute laser beam that swung the entire match in the Americans' favor.
But this isn't about Jones. Or Brooks. It's about Klinsmann.
Along with finding those players and convincing them to play for the United States, he deserves the credit for putting them in position to succeed at a very high level despite track records offering little indication that they would be able to do it. They aren't the only players Klinsmann has plucked from Germany or Iceland or, heck, even MLS that nobody would have expected to make this year's World Cup team.
Fabian Johnson is relatively well regarded in Europe, but his inclusion on the squad was in doubt for much of 2013 and into 2014 following injury. In a five-match span after coming back into the USMNT fold, however, Johnson has looked like one of the most dynamic wing players in the world.
Talent acquisition has proven to be a strong suit for Klinsmann. Tactics have always been the concern, even back when he led Germany in the World Cup, and yet in Brazil, he has done a pretty good job of pre-match and in-match managing. At least, given the circumstances.
Everyone struggled against Ghana, in part because of the need to defend after the early goal and in part because injuries to key U.S. players threw the pre-match tactics out the window. Whether it was luck, fortune or genius, Klinsmann's moves during the match directly resulted in victory, with Brooks—a halftime substitution for the injured Matt Besler—netting the eventual game-winner after playing extremely well on the defensive end in the second half.
In the Portugal match, Klinsmann had to set a lineup without Jozy Altidore up top, opting for a defensively-oriented 4-5-1 formation with Clint Dempsey serving as the lone striker and a five-man midfield put in place to slow down the counterattacking Portuguese.
The plan worked…almost perfectly. The gaffe on the back line in the first half by Geoff Cameron and a horrible turn of events in the last 30 seconds of stoppage time aside—if it's possible to simply put either of those plays aside—the U.S. played a very solid match against Portugal. Again, Klinsmann deserves the credit.
He managed a nearly perfect game, starting the right lineup and staying patient despite the early mistake that led to an easy goal for Nani. In the second half, with a full complement of tactical substitutions at his disposal for the first time in the World Cup, Klinsmann made inspired moves, most notably installing DeAndre Yedlin as a midfielder ahead of Johnson in the 72nd minute to replace a gassed Alejandro Bedoya.
Not only did Yedlin provide cover for Johnson, but he used his pace and fresh legs to torch the Portugal defense down the right side, making the run that led to Dempsey's go-ahead goal in the 81st minute.
Six minutes later, Klinsmann made his second move, pulling a hobbled Dempsey for Chris Wondolowski, a savvy MLS veteran in his first World Cup. "Wondo" was able to slow the game down and control the ball in the offensive third in his limited time on the field, stealing precious seconds away from Portugal.
You can surely question the installation of Omar Gonzalez in the 90th minute if you'd like, as Gonzalez has been hampered by an injury and, frankly, hasn't shown he's capable of playing at a World Cup level, but really, the substitution was nothing more than a time-waster and a way to insert an extra defender in case of disaster. Besides, Klinsmann did the same thing in the Gold Cup finale and it worked, so the precedent for three center backs on a five-man back line to close out an important match was set.
In retrospect, that sub should have been Brooks, but even then, the game-tying goal was more a result of a mistake by Michael Bradley in the midfield, DaMarcus Beasley's tired legs marking Ronaldo and a miscommunication of sorts between Cameron and Johnson that left Varela unmarked in the box for essentially a free header to tie the match than anything Klinsmann did.
Had it not been for the last play of the game, the United States would have beaten Portugal, and Klinsmann's moves—from formation to lineup to substitutions—would have been the reason for it. Now, his toughest challenge may be to get a team that thought it was out of the group stage to focus against one of the best teams in the entire world. How the United States reacts emotionally against Germany will say even more about Klinsmann as a manager than how the team reacts tactically.
Looking back, it felt a little silly to answer the question of whether Klinsmann was the right man for the job when the World Cup started. Now, after four points in two matches that were 15 seconds away from being the two victories needed to secure a spot in the final 16 of the World Cup—with this team, in that group—the question is patently ridiculous.
Has he done everything perfectly? No, and no manager ever does. Look at Spain, where for the last six years Vicente Del Bosque was a managerial genius. Two years removed from a European title, the defending World Cup champions suddenly were knocked out of the tournament before the third group-stage game, and Del Bosque seemed so lost he couldn't even find the right team bus.
Things change quickly in soccer. Managers can easily go from hero to goat with one poor tactical decision. Having said that, there should be no question if Klinsmann has won American fans over since taking over in 2011. His record of 32-11-9 should attest to that.
The mark of 21-5-5 since the start of 2013, including a Gold Cup title and finishing tops in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, should have quelled people's apprehension as well. Sure, there were a few tough results against European clubs in friendlies last year, but Klinsmann was still finding his team, preparing for Brazil.
Win, lose or draw against Germany, the team looks prepared. It has not been perfect, but it has shown the guile, resilience and determination that all U.S. teams bring to the World Cup. The difference this time is that the players seem more aggressive, more dynamic, more technically adept…and more fun to watch.
This is a fun team to watch, and Klinsmann deserves a lot of the credit for that. Not many people gave the United States much of a chance to get out of the group. Now, given how the Portugal game ended, it would be devastating if it doesn't.
Having said that, no matter what happens against Germany—barring an utter managerial disaster, or getting on the wrong bus, of course—Klinsmann has proven his worth, and deserves the faith of American soccer fans, now and in the future.
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