Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Klinsmann Era Begins

So, rather than jumping to conclusions based on the U.S. men's national team's first match in the Klinsmann Era (which, after all, came only 10 day after Jurgen Klinsmann's appointment as manager and was against our biggest rival, Mexico), I thought I'd wait a while to see how the dust settles.

After all, Klinsmann himself insists that that this is all part of a "process" that goes far beyond a win or a loss in a friendly.

Good thing.

The team looked close to abysmal in the first half of the match against Mexico, with a line-up and a level of play that was, frankly, reminiscent of its effort against Tres Colores in the Gold Cup Final. Second best at best, the Yanks chased the ball and, on those rare occasions when they actually won it, looked largely inept with it at their feet.

After the half, though, the Americans played inspired soccer, at least in part because Mexico substituted some of its best players, most notably Rafael Marquez. Klinsmann moved players around and freed up Landon Donovan to play a more pivotal role in the offense. The change was so dramatic, in fact, that I wondered if Klinsmann wasn't tweaking U.S. Soccer and his predecessor, Bob Bradley, by showing the contrast of the way things were under Bradley in the first half, and the way they will be under Klinsmann in the second.

Juan Agudelo, Brek Shea, and Jose Torres celebrate Robbie Rogers'
equalizer against Mexico, while Rogers runs to join in.

Unfortunately, things didn't improve, and in fact regressed, in the squad's next two matches. Using a variety of U.S.-based and European based players, the Americans lost 1-0 to Costa Rica in California and to Belgium by the same score in Brussels.

The U.S. dominated the Costa Rica match, wasting several opportunities to score in the first half while dominating possession. The second half was more even, although Los Ticos scored on their only really quality chance of the entire match. The Americans looked less threatening against the Belgians, although Clint Dempsey (absent from both the Mexico and Costa Rica matches due to club obligations) had several good chances.

Should we hit the panic button after a less-than-impressive start under Klinsmann? Should we pine for the good old days of Bradley or Arena? I don't think so.

While a skeptic may ascribe Klinsmann's talk of patience and process as excuses, I think he truly believes them. His plan for his job goes far beyond the performance of the U.S. Men's National Team and extends to the youth program as well. A measure of his approach is apparent as well in his unorthodox decision to employ a number of temporary assistant coaches in the early stages of his reign to garner input from a variety of sources, both close to the national team program and to MLS.

He has also already given opportunities to a number of young players who were only on the fringes of the full national team prior to his arrival. Brek Shea, Robbie Rogers, and Jose Torres have all figured prominently in the offense since Klinsmann's arrival. Torres' consistent inclusion in the center of midfield is particularly noteworthy as he was rarely called upon by Bob Bradley who preferred two defensive midfielders in his formation and his playmaking and imagination give the team something that it sorely lacked under Bradley. Klinsmann has tested out a number of defenders as well -- Timmy Chandler has looked particularly impressive while Michael Oroczo Fiscal and Edgar Castillo have had inconsistent efforts.

Jose Torres on the ball.

The biggest problem, and the one that Klinsmann may be unable to solve, is up front. The U.S. lacks a true target man at forward. Jozy Altidore and Juan Agudelo have had the lion's share of opportunities so far, but have failed to score.

Altidore works hard, but hasn't seemed particularly threatening in the opponent's defensive third. Fortunately, Altidore is for the first time in several years getting regular playing opportunities with his club team (Dutch side AZ Alkmaar) and it's easy to forget that despite his 40 caps for the Men's squad, Altidore is only 22. Agudelo has come on mostly as a substitute and, like Altidore, at the tender age of 18 still has plenty of time to grow as a player. He's great on the ball, but seems to lack the poacher's instinct required of a striker, particularly when playing alone up top as seems to be Klinsmann's preference when it comes to formations.

Still, while there are uncertainties, Klinsmann's willingness to look at young new players adds an air of excitement and anticipation to the team, much as his ascension to the job did. While we wait to see how the process works in the end, it will at least be an interesting ride getting there.