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USA 2737 43 Five things learned from USA's World Cup qualifiers 31823358 Time to reflect Time+to+reflect USA

Over the span of 23 days, the United States men’s national team winded their way from Cleveland to Salt Lake City by way of Washington, DC; Kingston, Jamaica; and Seattle, playing five games and winning four. An ignominious 4-2 friendly loss to Belgium in the opener of this tightly-packed set was followed by a surprisingly one-sided 4-3 win over Germany, which would have ended 4-1 had it not been for a late fall-off in focus. Next, the Americans won all three of their World Cup qualifiers, beating Jamaica 2-1, Panama 2-0 and, lastly, Honduras 1-0.

 

By virtue of the results and the markedly improved soccer on display, the Yanks are a virtual lock to qualify for the big dance in Brazil next year, in spite of having four of 10 games left to play – mainly because there were many positives to be observed in the American game of late. Here, then, are the five biggest things we learned over those five games, stemming from the dozens of conversations FOX Soccer had with players, staff and opponents:

 

--Leander Schaerlaeckens

George Frey - Getty Images http://static.foxsports.com/content/fsc/img/2013/06/19/061913-Soccer-USA-World-Cup-Qualifying-G1-AA_20130619172349560_600_400.JPG http://static.foxsports.com/content/fsc/img/2013/06/19/061913-Soccer-USA-World-Cup-Qualifying-G1-AA_20130619172349560_107_80.JPG
USA 2737 43 Five things learned from USA's World Cup qualifiers 31824265 Klinsmann’s tactics bearing fruit Klinsmann%26rsquo%3Bs+tactics+bearing+fruit USA

When he was installed as the new manager almost two years ago – at a salary believed to be $2.5 million, more than three times that of his very serviceable predecessor Bob Bradley – Jurgen Klinsmann spoke loudly and often about the need to be “proactive.” High pressure, distribution out of the back, quick transitions – this was the way forward. The American team had long thrived on the counter attack. Klinsmann wanted it to take hold of games.

 

For the longest time, few of those attributes could be recognized in the USA’s play, and never all at once. This stylistic revolution was a long time in coming. But from the Germany game onwards, the USA seized control, even when opponents worked hard at unsettling this game plan by bunkering in and playing physically.

 

At length, the United States acquired a new facility with breaking down opponents tightly packed together in their own half. And this is to be attributed in large part to Klinsmann’s stubbornness – or staunch belief in his system, if you will.

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USA 2737 43 Five things learned from USA's World Cup qualifiers 31825287 Spine calibration Spine+calibration USA

Michael Bradley has known quite a few partners in central midfield. So too has Jermaine Jones. But once the two were finally deployed side by side for a prolonged period – without being impeded by a third central midfielder to shield the defense – their partnership began to sing. Given license to shuttle from box to box, actively partaking in both defense and offense, their natural ability and mobility shone through. In the 4-4-2 system now typically employed – or call it a 4-4-1-1; or a 4-2-3-1; – they serve their team best. The only drawback is that when an opponent clogs the center of the park, the way Honduras did, they can struggle to be sufficiently involved in the attack.

 

Behind them, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler have fast forged a block in central defense. While both are young and fairly inexperienced at the international level, they have helped keep the number of goals conceded over the last five qualifiers to one – a stellar accomplishment by a brand new back line. They complement each other well. Gonzalez is imperious in the air; Besler a pure defender who is hard to beat one-on-one. They are prone to the odd mental lapse, but the sheer number of minutes they are racking up should eventually iron that deficiency out of their games.

Joe Nicholson and David Richard - USA TODAY Sports http://static.foxsports.com/content/fsc/img/2013/06/19/061913-Soccer-USA-World-Cup-Qualifying-G3-AA_20130619172348556_600_400.JPG http://static.foxsports.com/content/fsc/img/2013/06/19/061913-Soccer-USA-World-Cup-Qualifying-G3-AA_20130619172348556_107_80.JPG
USA 2737 43 Five things learned from USA's World Cup qualifiers 31826273 Much improved squad depth Much+improved+squad+depth USA

One of the biggest issues that hampered the American campaign at the 2010 World Cup was the rather shallow talent pool at several positions. The likes of Ricardo Clark, Robbie Findley and Jonathan Bornstein probably had no business starting games at such a tournament, but then there were few challenges to their jobs. In spite of having to make do without Landon Donovan, Danny Williams, Timmy Chandler and Steve Cherundolo – who Klinsmann deemed not sufficiently fit yet – and Herculez Gomez – whose knee contusion kept him out all month – the Americans had no issues at all finding personnel to appropriate fill in those roles.

 

Brad Evans capably stepped in at right back. Geoff Cameron slotted in for Jones when he was concussed. DaMarcus Beasley reinvented himself as a left back. Eddie Johnson was effective when Graham Zusi, and the Beasley, was suspended. The drop-off was hardly noticeable
 

Otto Greule Jr - Getty Images http://static.foxsports.com/content/fsc/img/2013/06/19/061913-Soccer-USA-World-Cup-Qualifying-G4-AA_20130619172348555_600_400.JPG http://static.foxsports.com/content/fsc/img/2013/06/19/061913-Soccer-USA-World-Cup-Qualifying-G4-AA_20130619172348555_107_80.JPG
USA 2737 43 Five things learned from USA's World Cup qualifiers 31824263 Jozy Altidore's maturation Jozy+Altidore%27s+maturation USA

Much was made of Altidore’s scoring drought, which was approaching two years. But with a goal each in the last four games, the 23-year-old striker is suddenly said to be red hot. There is some truth to this. But Altidore was never as poor as the criticism suggested, nor is he so transcendent as is implied by all the adulation he now enjoys. The only difference between then and now is the goals.

 

Because for much of the last two years, Altidore has been very effective for the USA. His hold-up play is far better for having joined Dutch Eredivisie outfit AZ Alkmaar, where he was schooled in the finer points of the position. That came to bear for his national team, of which Altidore has been a productive member for far longer than these four games.
 

Russ Isabella - USA TODAY Sports http://static.foxsports.com/content/fsc/img/2013/06/19/061913-Soccer-USA-World-Cup-Qualifying-G5-AA_20130619172348559_600_400.JPG http://static.foxsports.com/content/fsc/img/2013/06/19/061913-Soccer-USA-World-Cup-Qualifying-G5-AA_20130619172348559_107_80.JPG
USA 2737 43 Five things learned from USA's World Cup qualifiers 31824264 Return to basics Return+to+basics USA

The most disconcerting shortcoming during Klinsmann’s more difficult days in charge of the team was the lack of grit. This staple of the American game went missing for a time, something even the players will admit to.

 

Sometime during the March camp, however, wherein the Yanks toughed out a win over Costa Rica and a rare draw in Mexico, it was rediscovered. That notion was cemented in the May-June camp. Throughout the series, the Americans deployed their superior athleticism to maximum effect and battled for all 90 minutes. Well-conditioned and sure of purpose, they once again overcame trying circumstances and opponents on will-power.
 

George Frey - Getty Images http://static.foxsports.com/content/fsc/img/2013/06/19/061913-Soccer-USA-World-Cup-Qualifying-G6-AA_20130619172348558_600_400.JPG http://static.foxsports.com/content/fsc/img/2013/06/19/061913-Soccer-USA-World-Cup-Qualifying-G6-AA_20130619172348558_107_80.JPG
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