US Men's National Soccer: 10 Reasons for Optimism Leading Up to World Cup 2014
Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore.
These are just some of the reasons for optimism as the United States goes into qualifying for and making some noise at World Cup 2014.
A cursory look at the roster for the United States men's national team reveals that the core of the squad has not only played together for a long time, but that it is consistently performing at a high level in its domestic leagues.
But what about Timothy Chandler, Fabian Johnson and the batch of young players that new manager Jurgen Klinsmann has brought to the squad?
Instead of growing out of the MLS and jumping across the pond, they're starting their journeys in leagues like Germany's Bundesliga and England's Premier League. They had the bucket of cold water thrown on them as teenagers, and now they're accustomed to going up against some of the best players in Europe.
And although players are the most important part of a squad's chances going forward, the increasing importance of managers on the national level cannot be overlooked. Klinsmann—moreso than his predecessor—has installed new, more attack-minded tactics that take better advantage of the team's strengths.
But what are some of the specific reasons you, me and every Yankee should be absolutely pumped for World Cup 2014 to come around, and why should we have every reason to believe we won't lose to Ghana for the third-straight time?
Join me as I give you the 10 biggest reasons for optimism as the US men's national team ramps up their efforts towards World Cup 2014.
Jurgen Klinsmann Has Improved...Everything!
The former manager of the German national team has been more than a breath of fresh air to Americans—he's been like a frickin' hurricane.
Klinsmann has started to install "attack-first, attack-often" tactics, and he's shuffled the formation so that players are playing where they're best suited and not the other way around.
It seems that Bob Bradley was putting square pegs in round holes for much of his tenure—not Klinsmann. His rearranging has caused some players to do well and others to absolutely shine, including...
Michael Bradley and His Improvement at Centre-Midfield
There's not one player who has improved more since Jurgen Klinsmann came to town than the former manager's own son, Michael Bradley.
Klinsmann not only helped Bradley find his right place on the pitch, but he helped him get back on the pitch period.
Former manager Bob Bradley had the silliest of rules: You had to be playing for your club to be considered for regular playing time with the national team. Bradley, a reserve for Aston Villa, wasn't finding time in matches and subsequently lost time in friendlies.
Then Bradley moved to Chievo, and what a move it was. He's one of the up-and-coming midfielders in Serie A and has shown the right position for him all along was captaining the midfield.
Check out Bradley's highlight reel against Italy in Italy and let me know if you agree.
Timothy Chandler's Success in Bundesliga
The versatile Timothy Chandler has impressed his Bundesliga side FC Nuremberg so much that, according to SportsIllustrated.com, he was offered a contract extension to stay on until 2015.
Nuremberg's not great (they currently sit at 11th in the league table), but the Bundesliga is the Bundesliga, and Chandler has been given ample opportunities to hone his skills. Having just turned 22 years old, the youngster has appeared in 29 of the club's 32 matches.
...and Fabian Johnson's, Too!
Much like Timothy Chandler, Fabian Johnson is enjoying a very successful spell for the Bundesliga side Hoffenheim.
And also like Chandler, Johnson's club isn't very good—sitting at ninth in the league table.
All that aside, Johnson has started 26 of the club's 32 matches and Bundesliga opportunities make you better.
(Unless it's Kaiserslautern, of course.)
Youth System Finally Has Some Backing
From Day 1, Klinsmann has put an emphasis on growing our youth system, something most other powerhouse programs do in the world and something the US has not.
Just look at the comments Klinsmann made during the press conference in the summer of 2011 naming him as Bob Bradley replacement:
“I think there are a lot of different challenges ahead of us, especially on the foundation level and the foundation is youth; how they should be trained, how often they should train, how much time they should spend with the ball, how they should develop their talent, and it all feeds into (Claudio Reyna's) new role here (as youth technical director). This is really important to be addressed from the beginning because I think this is what is really missing compared to the leading soccer nations around the world, the first 10-12 nations around the world, is the amount of time kids play the game.”
The United States has been terrible in youth play for the last 12 years, winning just one match during the OIympics in that time. The U-17 squad has been good recently, but after that there's very little to speak of.
Dual-Citizens Choosing United States
The United States is a patchwork of countless nationalities and cultures, and that can either be a blessing or a curse when trying to build a national squad.
When given the choice between their parents' homeland (which often has a better soccer program) and the United States, players with dual-citizenship were likely to choose the former.
However, Klinsmann has done an excellent job in his first nine months as manager, convincing the likes of Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams and Timothy Chandler to stay in stars and stripes.
Tim Howard Still One of the World's Best Keepers
Oh, don't believe me?
I'm just going to let you watch this clip of him throwing the ball 40 yards to Landon Donovan to advance to past Algeria in the 2010 World Cup.
I know, I know...the guy's arm strength has little to do with his goalkeeping ability. I just love that clip.
In all seriousness, Howard has only gotten better this season, averaging an impressive 1.12 goals against average through the first 35 matches of the season—that's against Premier League competition. He's right up there with the likes of David De Gea, Joe Hart and Pepe Reina.
He's 32 years old, but that's like a teenager in goalkeeping years. Add that to the fact that he's still on top of his game, and we've all got reason to believe in 2014.
Landon Donovan's Improvement at Everton
In only a handful of matches, Landon Donovan showed he has what it takes to succeed in the Premier League.
This spell at Everton, however, was characterized by assisting on goals rather than scoring them himself. That's great because Donovan needs to be counted on for possession and assists on the national level, with Dempsey, Altidore and others rising in their prominence as attackers.
With six assists in nine appearances, Donovan left Everton to come back to the LA Galaxy.
Clint Dempsey's Meteoric Rise
Did you really think we'd forget America's best player?
(Yes, I remember that Landon Donovan is on the team.)
Clint Dempsey has been so good at Fulham this season (with a not-so-good supporting cast) that he's been linked with moves to nearly every big club in the world. His 16 goals is tied for fourth in the Premier League. His technical skills are unmatched, and he showed how he can make his presence known in the penalty area in a friendly against Italy.
If the 29-year-old midfielder can continue his meteoric rise through the ranks of European football, we Americans have much to look forward to in 2014.
Klinsmann Knows What It Takes to Win the World Cup
Lest we forget the greatest benefit of Jurgen Klinsmann and the most hopeful thing we have to hold on to: we finally have a manager who has won a World Cup as a player.
Not one of the 35 former managers for the US men's national team can say that, and there's a certain amount of respect and trust that comes from players when they're being instructed by someone who went all the way with his country.
Klinsmann can (and will) make small adjustments along the path to the World Cup in 2014, some conscious and some not. He'll change slightly the way he talks to players depending on the time of day or part of the year. He may even replace a guy in the lineup simply on gut instinct.
Where Bob Bradley couldn't go, Klinsmann's already been, and that's a big reason for hope.