The U.S. men's soccer team has, finally, recorded its first win under new coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Clint Dempsey (who plays with Fulham Football Club in England's Premier League) scored on 36 minutes, in an exhibition match against the Honduras on Saturday, to hand Klinsmann his first win in his fourth game in charge of the U.S. national team.
Klinsmann, who was arguably one of the finest forwards in the game during the 90s, has made a rather subdued and underwhelming start to his time at the helm of the U.S.'s dreams of making it big at the 2014 FIFA World Cup to be hosted in Brazil. His first game in charge was on August 10 (barely a fortnight after taking over from former coach Bob Bradley) against neighbors Mexico. The match ended, perhaps predictably, in a draw, with both sides managing a goal a-piece. That was followed by defeats, by a single goal each time, to Costa Rica and Belgium.
This team is hungry for success, said Klinsmann, following the 1-0 win over the Honduras, in a report by USA Today, They want to do well and get the results right.
It's huge for all of us. You don't ever want to go a long period of time without winning, said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who plays for Everton Football Club in England's Premier League and pulled off several key saves during the match, We performed well, I think, and we're trying to set a foundation, but ultimately you have to win. That was the focus coming in.
It should have been no surprise then that going into Saturday's game, Klinsmann was under some pressure to deliver positive results.
The former World Cup and European Championship-winning player (who played for Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Tottenham, amongst other clubs, during his playing career) made a fantastically successful start to his managerial career back in 2006, when he inspired Germany to a third-placed finish at the 2006 FIFA World Cup; a tournament in which Germany, the host nations, were not expected to achieve anything significant. Such was the impact of his coaching structure and philosophy that 5 years later, Germany have evolved into one of the most powerful national teams around.
This is important because, despite the early jitters at the helm of the U.S., there are several parallels between the way Klinsmann handled Germany back in 2006 and the way he's going about his business with the U.S. now.
To begin with, when Klinsmann took over at Germany, the once-proud European powerhouse was in disarray. First round exits at the European Championships of 2000 and 2004 were only made bearable by a hugely fortunate but stunning run of form at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, where the team relied on the heroics of Michael Ballack in midfield and Oliver Kahn in goal, only to lose to Brazil in the finals.
One of Klinsmann's more difficult jobs at the start of his tenure with Germany was to ignite a sense of pride in playing for the country; something that he probably doesn't need to do with the U.S. However, what he must do is to create a viable pool of talent that both he and future generations of coaches can call upon. For example, it was during Klinsmann's time with the German national team that players like Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski, and Bastian Schweinsteiger were groomed. Today, all of the above players are integral players in their national team and Germany is widely regarded as one of the leading favorites for the forthcoming 2012 European Championships. The youth structure set up by Klinsmann has continued to generate outstanding talent, with the likes of Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller and Holger Badstuber now regarded as absolutely key players for club and country.
It must then be good news for U.S. fans that Klinsmann is already scouting for and blooding in the younger generation. One of the signs is that the average age of the squad called up for the match against the Honduras was 25, with Juan Agudelo, a Colombian-born forward, the youngest, at 18. It is also worth noting that Klinsmann is not willing to sacrifice experience for youth, at least not just yet. The squad that faced Honduras and that will face Ecuador on Oct. 11 included only two debutants and only eight players in total, who have played less than ten games for their country.
The inclusion of Agudelo is another sign that Klinsmann is trying to work the same magic with the U.S., as he did with Germany.
Germany's recent 3-1 away win over neighbors Turkey, in the penultimate round of qualifiers for the 2012 European Championships, highlighted a growing controversy between the two countries - that of Turkish-born footballers choosing to play for Germany.
Mesut Ozil, a hugely creative and often inspirational figure, for both his country and club (he plays for Real Madrid in Spain's La Liga) is of Turkish descent; so too is defender Serdar Tasci. Holding midfielder Sami Khedira is part-Tunisian, while forwards Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski are both part-Polish. According to a report on germanfootball.com, of the 23 players who represented Germany at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa (Germany finished third), as many as 11 were from ethnically diverse backgrounds. The important point is that all of these 11 were recognized and groomed by Klinsmann back in 2006 or were introduced to German football as a result of the youth policies that Klinsmann and Joachim Low (Klinsmann's then second-in-command and the current head coach) instituted for Germany.
In the same vein and in addition to Agudelo, Klinsmann also called up youngsters Timothy Chandler and Daniel Williams, both of whom are German-born professionals currently playing for Nurnberg and Hoffenheim (in Germany's Bundesliga), respectively. Klinsmann has also noted Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson, both of whom are also German-born and play their club football in Europe.
Players aside, another aspect of Klinsmann's time with the German national team was the creation of a strong work-ethic and, importantly, a fluid and counter-attacking philosophy that stands them in good stead, even today. Germany, under Klinsmann, employed a 4-4-2 system that, although looks archaic, was used very effectively.
We eventually decided to go down an attack-minded route, passing the ball on the ground from the back to the front line as quickly as possible using dynamic football, said Klinsmann in a BBC interview in 2010. Essentially, Klinsmann's game-plan called for was not so much an attacking formation but a highly-organized and disciplined team that passed the ball along the ground and quickly. It worked (and works) just fine, with the pace of Thomas Mueller, the creativity of Mesut Ozil, the industry of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the clinical finishing of Miroslav Klose causing all kinds of headaches for the opposition.
There are signs, in Klinsmann's four games with the U.S. that he is trying to do something similar. However, the problem (and one that Klinsmann will have to be wary about) is that the U.S. doesn't have quite the same kind of players that Germany can (or could) boast of.
One similarity between the two countries that could be exploited is a fast-paced style of football, with an emphasis on physicality. The presence of holding midfielders like Sami Khedira, for Germany, allows the more creative players an extra license to move forward and into space. However, for that to work, a team needs someone like Schweinsteiger, who can link the midfield to the attack. The U.S. doesn't have that luxury.
Nevertheless, the presence of battle-hardened veterans like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley (who have 138 caps between them), could be an indication of an all-action U.S. midfield, looking to harry the opposition off the ball before sending it through to fast wingers, like DaMarcus Beasley, much like the Germans.
At the end of the day, Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to bring success to the U.S. men's soccer team and given his pedigree, both as a player and a coach, it would take a brave man to bet against the man who stands third in his country's all-time top goal scorers list. While he may not be able to match the heroics of Germany at the 2006 World Cup, the chances are that by the time teams line up in Brazil, the U.S. will be a very effective football unit that could surprise the unwary. Apart from that, well, anything, really, can happen in the 90 minutes of a football match and no one knows that better than Klinsmann.