Politics and Readjüsting the GPS with Jürgen Klinsmann
Stuck in a rut.
That is where the United States Men’s National Team seems to be right now. Since 1990, when the USA first started regularly qualifying for World Cups, there has not been too much of a worry about qualification. Every USMNT head coach has been able to do it. Several of them have done it more than once. Yet here we sit, just prior to the Antigua & Barbuda match in qualifying, and supporters are concerned not about qualifying for the World Cup but about qualifying for the Hexagonal in order to qualify for the World Cup.
Similarly, the political process of electing a President of the United States is also unfolding. It is being argued that it is a cultural war. It is an end all be all and the United States could collapse into another Civil War depending on whom wins the election!
Both of these could very well be an overreaction. After all, US supporters like American political prognosticators are some of the most contradictory, jealous, over-reactionary people in the world – and I mean that in the best way possible. Looking solely at the soccer-angle, as I oft do on this site, US supporters have turned our eye towards our head coach with questions about his tactical acumen. And we find ourselves face-to-face with the would be hero who was going to revolutionize soccer in the United States: Jurgen Klinsmann.
Yes, that Jurgen Klinsmann. He knew the system. He knew the player pool. He knew our domestic league. He knew what it was going to take to raise the USA to the level of a top 10 team in the world. Meanwhile, under his watch, many are now worried that we are not even a top three team in CONCACAF.
Change is never easy, especially with a ravenous, self-conscious fan base who expect nothing but Spain-style greatness from a national team that just does not have the players to master it. Even if we could master the death-by-passing style of Spain, would it really work in CONCACAF? Sure, we have beaten Mexico and Italy under Klinsmann. Yes, we laid a ridiculous smack-down on Scotland. Yet we have also suffered through plenty of loses and ties to, what essentially should have been lesser, CONCACAF opponents.
In the ages of Global Positioning Satellites, we sometimes plug in a location and think the directions are wrong. We have driven to these spots for years, but the GPS tells us to go a different route. But we ignore our instincts and listen to TomTom. It is the same in politics as it is in soccer. Our brains have shown us how the top 20 teams in the world win, so even if we have won in another manner for years, we want to try that other way because it seems right.
But here’s the thing, and I am not the first to make this argument, winning in CONCACAF is tough. Packed middles. Hard elbows. Dirty plays. Flopping galore. Klinsmann may have thought he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but apparently, he did not. We have seen some great passing sequences and possession, but that is not what is causing the US to win the games they have won.
Looking back to Italy and the “historic” win in Azteca, it was the Bob Bradley defend-like-your-life-depended-on-it-and-hope-for-a counter-attack-then-hold-on-by-the-seat-of-your-pants tactics that our minds have told us is wrong which won those games for us. Neither of those victories were possession based, not even close. We ignored the GPS. Klinsmann, like so many politicians, may have realized that sometimes the GPS is wrong.
However, the argument then comes that the reason we did that is because those were superior opponents. That even the best teams in the world, when faced with a greater opponent (i.e. England’s win over Spain a few months back), defend and pray for the best too. Yet, the US should dominate with their new, improved possession-based program when facing minnows.
This has not happened. It is easy to possess the ball when a team is sitting back. It really is. Just look at the first 60 or so minutes of the Jamaica game in Columbus. Our problem is finding that missing final pass. We were supposed to be done with relying on over-the-top passes and set-pieces to score, right? But we are not. Klinsmann’s USMNT squad might be trying to move soccer forward in CONCACAF (except when playing Mexico), but everyone else is just trying to win. So, perhaps, the way that the US is relying on scoring in CONCACAF qualifying may be proof not that Klinsmann is tactically unaware, but that he has “figured it out”. That he has been willing to change, even if the change is not beautiful.
Look at what happened in the first qualifiers against Antigua and Barbuda. The first goal was from Carlos Bocanegra. It was not built by a series of strong passes, but rather by a set-piece. The corner came in, Gomez got a foot to it, Boca put away the rebound. Sounds very Bradley and Arena-esque doesn’t it? The second goal was from a Clint Dempsey penalty kick. The final goal, there was a mess in the box, Herculez Gomez and Michael Bradley almost crashed into each other, Gomez got a foot to it, the ball was deflected off a defender, and then Gomez got another foot to it and there was a goal.
For Guatemala the sole goal (if you ignore the one that was scored by Jozy Altidore bullying his way through the defense that was called back) came from an awkward Clint Dempsey shot that was about 16 yards out. Again, no build up. Jamaica in Jamaica there was another Dempsey shot from distance, set up by a Gomez shot on goal that also was scrapped out instead of gorgeously created. The next game against Jamaica the US actually did control possession and had several series of beautiful passes, yet the goal came from a free kick. A free kick? A FREE KICK! Sure, a goal is a goal, but aren’t we supposed to be playing like Spain, or at least Germany, by now? Hell, most of us would even take playing like England at this point.
Where are our passes from the wings? Where is the build up that was promised? WHERE IS OUR BEAUTIFUL GAME? YOU SWORE, JURGEN! YOU PROMISED!
Still, the US is not completely out. To most other teams in the world, the response should be excitement. But we are not looking to just qualify. We are not happy that Klinsmann has, sort of, figured it out. After all, he promised change. He promised hope. But now he is the soccer-equivalent of Barack Obama, but with better results (more on that later).
We all thought, nay prayed, that Klinsmann would put it together. Meanwhile, the newest roster – even before all the injuries – basically told us that we would continue to play without wingers. It basically screamed, “Width? We don’t need no stinkin’ width!” And honestly, as unfortunate as that sounds, it might be the correct answer. In UEFA or CONMEBOL or really even the AFC, the game is usually different. Unless it’s not. But this isn’t there. THIS IS CONCACAF!
This is part of the reason Jozy Altidore has not been called in. He has been thriving at AZ Alkmaar with service from the wings. Klinsmann needs a target man, which Jozy technically is, but he is not an English-style bang the ball up to his chest and let him hold it target man. He now seems to prefer the ball played to his feet. Who in the US pool could play him the ball to his feet from the wings? Brek Shea? Maybe. Chris Pontius? Could be. Fabian Johnson? Probably. Josh Gatt? I honestly do not know. Jozy would probably thrive in the system that Klinsmann promised when he was hired, but that style has only been seen in small doses, not for entire games.
Jonathan Sykes brought it to my attention the other day via Twitter that Klinsmann may just be Barack Obama: a great idea man, who could theorize in with the best of them. An idea man. Someone who was a great thinker. However, when these theories are put into practice, he has realized that everything is not as easy in real life. When Barack Obama was elected he promised hope and change. He saw the way that American politics worked, he thought he could change our way of thinking, he was going to make us more respectable in the eyes of Europe. Then he actually realized what the job was. He became downtrodden. It now appears that everything is pretty much the same. Right down to the whiny constituency. Like Obama, Klinsmann has needed to adapt, and now those adaptations are making those who were never on board say, “See, I told you so,” and it is also helping him to lose the base who are starting to say, “Hey, this is not what you promised!” Sound familiar?
But here’s the thing, Obama might lose his job, but the country will still exist. If Klinsmann, who has arguably adapted better than Obama to his team’s struggles – which are partially due to his own making –cannot make the Hex, let alone the World Cup, heads will not roll. Sure, Klinsmann might be fired, but the rest will be fine. We will get a new coach. Perhaps a Jason Kreis or a Martin Vazquez or a Sigi Schmid, who are all supposedly insider, but just like Klinsmann they will probably not lead us to winning the World Cup. Just making it, which should still be the goal.
I’m not ready to concede that Klinsmann will lose us the Hex, or even a World Cup bid for that matter – though check with me again Saturday morning to see if that is still the case. Even with the injuries and the odd inclusion of Alan Gordon (who oddly enough may be a better fit for the style Klinsmann is playing as compared to Jozy who would have been a better fit for the style Klinsmann promised), I believe the USMNT should still qualify. I’m also not ready to give up on Klinsmann’s plan…yet. I just realize that the plan, which ironically I was never on board with to start with, has been changed.
Jurgen Klinsmann is not who we thought he was, but this team and player pool is exactly who we thought they were. Perhaps this is why certain players have not been integrated into the squad. Klinsmann is still our driver, and he has not lost the direction. He’s just had to readjust the GPS.