FOX Soccer Exclusive
Rollercoaster ride for USMNT
A mere three months ago, Jurgen Klinsmann was a man who reportedly had lost control of the U.S. national soccer team, leading many to call for his head.
An ugly come-from-ahead away loss to Honduras in the Americans’ opener in the fourth and final round of World Cup qualifying followed a long string of lackluster performances. If Klinsmann’s predecessor, Bob Bradley, had been fired for letting the team go stale, it only seemed to be regressing further under Klinsmann. The promised attacking pizzazz wasn’t materializing, and the old staples of sound defense and a deep-seated desire to win had atrophied.
But after a 4-3 friendly victory against Germany on June 2 and a gritty last-minute 2-1 triumph at Jamaica last week in World Cup qualifying, Klinsmann is a hero and a genius – the man leading our men to a shimmering destiny in Brazil.
Confused? Yes. We all are. But such is the life of a national team manager.
Truth be told, however, this team is as much a work in progress as it ever was. It is now, and it was three months ago.
“Nothing’s changed,” Klinsmann insisted ahead of Tuesday’s qualifying matchup against Panama here.
“Maybe [the media's] articles changed a little bit. But there’s a group that has an exact idea of where they want to get to – they want to get to the World Cup. This road to the World Cup is a bumpy one, that’s just normal. There will be up and downs, there will be some defeats, there will be good moments and bad moments. At the end of the day, it’s the entire group, it’s the chemistry of that group and the chemistry of that organization that will be strong enough to qualify and then hopefully have a great showing in Brazil next summer.
“There will always be moments where [the press] discusses differently than maybe I see it or the coaching staff or maybe the players – you just need to go through that. But overall the work we are doing, that we’ve been doing (for) two years, is very consistent.”
Perhaps the work is, but performance hasn’t been. Following said rough start to this hexagonal round — where the top three of six earn a spot for Brazil and the fourth-placed team faces New Zealand in a home-and-away playoff — the U.S. team has been on a roll of late. Before the Jamaica win, there was the gritty 1-0 win in blizzard conditions over Costa Rica in March, just after rumors of unrest among the team came to a boil. A few days later, the Americans also pulled a much-needed 0-0 draw in Mexico City from the fire — leading to a boost in spirits for the fans and the players.
“We are starting to see the team take more shape, have more chemistry and get more comfortable,” team captain Clint Dempsey said Monday. “The vibe is good – any time you are getting good results, people are going to be happy, especially dealing with the situations that we had from when we came in to the two World Cup qualifiers starting in March. But I think we are closer as a team. We are trying to keep building towards the World Cup and make sure we qualify and we get the job done.”
And that’s the point entering Tuesday night’s game. Although things appear to be much better than they were a few months ago, the U.S. knows it is still on very shaky footing on the tough World Cup qualifying road. A slip up against Panama -- historically unlikely (the U.S. is 8-1-2 all-time against Panama and undefeated in qualifying), but eminently possible, especially given injuries, a suspension and a dodgy field -- would erase the current margin of error they enjoy as joint leaders of the six-team group.
But it’s about more than just qualification. As Klinsmann, a World Cup-winning player in 1990 who also coached Germany to a third-place showing in 2006, knows first-hand, to be considered among the elite, as all of US Soccer wants to be, they need to be able to rely on getting the requisite results.
“What we are trying to build is consistency,” said Klinsmann. “The big picture is becoming consistent as a team and the results being consistent. I think that process is going well.
“Everybody is aware that these games right now are so crucial that we need to give everything we have in order to get those three points in every one of those games.
“To get to where we want to be one day, in the top 10, top 15 in the world, it’s a question of consistency. I think the team already has shown in the past that on our given day they can beat Spain like they did in the Confederations Cup [in 2009], or they can make some surprises there. But if you really want to be in the top 10 one day, you need to be consistent with everything you do.”
The Americans often talk about World Cup qualifying as a “roller coaster.” They could be pushing up to a peak, or already hurtling headlong into a trough. It’s hard to tell in the helter-skelter hexagonal.
Wherever the team is, the results aren’t necessarily a reflection of progress or reality. Those things can only be measured in Brazil, a year from now.