Klinsmann, USA prove critics wrong

March 27, 2013

Roaming the sideline or leaning against the dugout wall during the United States men's national team's gritty 0-0 tie with Mexico here on Tuesday, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, clad in a simple sweater, slacks and sneakers, looked as stoic as ever.

But while his demeanor was unchanged, the perception of it has altered, courtesy of two hard-fought results that got the USA’s World Cup qualifying campaign back on track after a feeble start. Whereas Klinsmann’s calm during tougher times could be seen as denial or naiveté, the narrative has shifted in his favor, instead painting his style as a learned evenhandedness.

For some time, many had gotten the impression that Klinsmann, while undeniably hard-working, had little idea of what he was doing. His tactics meandered, the team’s playing style was unclear and in no way resembled the “proactive” style he had promised upon his appointment in the summer of 2011. His selection policy appeared haphazard at best.

These impressions were amplified by meager performances in the third phase in World Cup qualifying in 2012. Worse than the labored wins against poor opposition, however, was the team’s loss of the bedrock characteristics that have allowed the US to compete on the world stage with lesser players: strong defense, hard work, toughness and sound organization. Klinsmann’s lone saving grace was the first-ever away victories his team got in Italy and Mexico in friendlies.

At the start of 2013, things only seemed to get worse. The US was badly outplayed by Honduras in its first game of the fourth and final qualifying phase for the World Cup, losing 2-1 in spite of taking a lead. And when, on the eve of Friday’s home game against Costa Rica, a rash of injuries badly depleted their back line and Sporting News anonymously quoted eight players who were highly critical of Klinsmann, his methods, and his assistant Martin Vazquez – not to mention suggested there was friction between the German-American players on the team and the rest – the tailspin seemed nigh on irreversible.

Through it all, Klinsmann kept his cool, delivering trite declarations on process and gradual progress. He came across as a man who was either overly detached from the outcomes of the games he was put in charge to win, or as one who didn’t understand how troubled his program really was.

On Friday, however, the US's makeshift defense held up and they determinedly slogged through the fairly unplayable snow to scratch out a 1-0 win over Costa Rica in Denver. And on Tuesday, Klinsmann’s game plan of cautiously keeping possession and slowing down the game earned them just their second point in World Cup qualifying – and the first since 1997 – on Mexican soil.

Talk of discord in the locker room instantly dissipated while Klinsmann has shed his budding reputation as a dreamer lacking the savvy to execute his lofty goals.

As ever, he was a blank emotional slate during his postgame press conference, quick to respond to hard questions with a smile, just like he did when the going was tough. The German complimented his team on its performance, commitment and grit and deflected suggestions that the last week had been difficult.

“It’s just part of my job,” said Klinsmann. “We have a difficult goal, which is qualifying for the World Cup. We want to improve this program one step at a time, which I think we’re in the middle of and we’re doing a very good job.”

“We’re actually pleased that there’s so much discussion out there, that there’s so much debate out there because it shows you again that you can’t stop soccer in the United States anymore,” he added. “It’s big-time part of the society now – millions of people following it, millions of kids playing and not everybody is on the same page as you, so it’s just normal. We want to do our job as good as possible. The players realize that in order to get to another level you’re only getting there by doing more work and hopefully we lead by example in terms of working hard.”

This even-keeled demeanor from a head coach who has seen and done it all before helped turn the crisis the team found itself in into a seminal moment in the growth, rather than the trigger for the qualifying campaign to unravel.

“As players, he gives us the ability and the confidence to go out and play,” said goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who excelled in the injured Tim Howard’s absence. “I think you saw that, to come to a place like Azteca and pass the ball around and keep the ball, he was important.”

By minimizing and largely disregarding the hubbub surrounding the team, rather than setting off an internal inquisition, Klinsmann dealt with the distraction better than he could have had he confronted it head on.

“I think we did a good job of maintaining a focus, a concentration on these two games,” said midfielder Michael Bradley. “Far from ideal, the week leading into Costa Rica but the mentality of the team to stick together, to fight, to defend well was great. We’re honest with ourselves to know that there are still things that need to be improved, things that can get better, but I think at this point going into the summer we’ve put ourselves in a good position.”

The players were unanimous in their satisfaction with the cohesion they forged over the last week. “We came in and we showed that team unity in spite of everything that’s happened in the last week,” said striker Herculez Gomez. “I think we’re getting better. We have to acknowledge what came out helped make us hold each other accountable.”

Klinsmann’s critics, of which I have often been one, will have to concede that creating an environment that can come out on the other side of such a difficult week in better shape than ever constitutes a job well done.