When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the United States men's national team in the summer of 2011, United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati tasked the former German star with two objectives: (1) qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and (2) remake the American program in an effort to turn a middling soccer nation into something resembling a world power.
Twenty months into the experiment, Klinsmann has succeeded in some areas and failed in others. It's been a battle, partly because those two goals come into conflict with each other. The need to win now butts against the development of players for the future. The head coach talks about imposing a system of high-pressure soccer, complete with skillful, one-touch passing. But changing a style and a culture while raising the overall level of talent takes time. And time is a luxury the squad doesn't have if it plans to reach Brazil '14.
With Michael Davies away, Rog goes solo, welcoming USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann to the pod. Fresh from the March of the Penguins win against Costa Rica, and a gutsy draw in the Azteca thunderdome, Klinsmann candidly discusses his own identity, management style, change strategy, and vision for American soccer's future. He is also willing to broach the big topics, including the heroic role Kyle Beckerman could play for the U.S. team at World Cup 2014 in Rio.
Normal suboptimal Men in Blazers service will be resumed next week.
The fly-in, fly-out nature of international soccer creates a scenario in which an entire season's worth of emotional highs and lows can take place within the span of a week. (In that regard, the whiplash emotional condition of the collective American fan base doesn't help matters.) Eight days ago, the United States national team found itself desperately in need of a victory, down a no. 1 goalkeeper (Tim Howard) and its top four fullbacks, and reeling from revelations of possible dissension in the ranks. Fast-forward to Wednesday morning, and the Americans sit in fine form, perhaps the highest they've been since last August.
Panic is mostly a matter of perception. The situation before the United States men's national team took the field at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Friday night was this: With eight matches remaining in a 10-game tournament, the Americans — who hadn't lost a home World Cup qualifier since 2001 — were a single point out of second place in the six-team Hexagonal. They were playing at home in front of nearly 20,000 pro–Stars and Stripes supporters including 2,000 American Outlaws, the largest contingent ever. Jurgen Klinsmann's team was favored. Hardly a dire predicament.
And yet, the general mood in the reactionary, overblown world of U.S. soccer was that it was time to freak out. The sky was falling, ever faster after a midweek article in the Sporting News cited 22 anonymous sources who spoke about the coach's lack of, well, coaching, and factions within the squad. The mood was tense. The red, white, and blue — down four fullbacks and their no. 1 goalkeeper, no less — were in trouble.
In case you were busy getting your NIT bracket in before tipoff, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
The Miami Heat secured their 23rd consecutive victory, overcoming Jeff Green's 43 points to grab sole possession of the second longest winning streak in NBA history, as they edged the Boston Celtics, 105-103. "That has a nice, non-confrontational ring to it," said Heat forward LeBron James after the game. "'Second best of all time.' Maybe people can just say that about me. And just leave it at that. Really. I don't care at this point."
Not to be outdone, the Denver Nuggets won their 12th consecutive game, overcoming 34 points from Nate Robinson to beat the Chicago Bulls, 119-118, in overtime at the United Center. "That has a nice non-confrontational ring to it," said Nuggets head coach George Karl. "Second best team in the NBA hold on, I seem to be getting a call." Karl then looked at his phone before sheepishly muting the ringer. "It was Coach Pop. I'll call him back How about third best team in the NBA?"
Before the United States men's national team starts each formal practice, the players warm up in little groups. They juggle, getting touches, and chatting with each other. On one portion of the green pitch, you might see youngsters Juan Agudelo, Josh Gatt, Terrence Boyd, and Joe Gyau sharing a multicolored Nike ball. Fifteen yards away, German Americans Timothy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, and Danny Williams pass and speak in their native tongue, while the Mexican American contingent — Herculez Gomez, Jose Torres, and Edgar Castillo — one-touch in a triangle. Elsewhere, Mix Diskerud, Jozy Altidore, and Maurice Edu chat about life in Europe. It's a relaxed environment, one you would expect to see on soccer fields across the country and the rest of the world, a place where friends play with friends and young men with similar life experiences gravitate toward each other.
The question is how, if at all, the varied backgrounds, languages, and experiences affect the American team. Is there a danger that the cliques will present problems on the field? I asked Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi, who parlayed a breakout performance during the 2012 January camp into a few World Cup qualifier starts and a leadership role during the '13 traditional session. "In my experience, it's been alright," he says. "All the guys are from all different areas, but we are a group that gets together pretty well. I think it's a very good thing to have a mix of youth and veteran leadership."
For the past three days, we've been told repeatedly that San Pedro Sula, a city of almost 900,000, is the most dangerous place in the world. The United States Soccer Federation informed journalists who were covering the Americans' first game of the final round of World Cup qualifying of this fact before we arrived. A Monday-night briefing by the State Department reiterated the point, citing a 2011 murder rate that was the highest in the world.
But it was hard to agree with that thesis Wednesday afternoon at Estadio Olimpico. An hour before the home side opened its quest for the 2014 World Cup, the stands were two-thirds full and bouncing with the reverberations of blasting Latin music. The audience consisted of many men, but also plenty of wives and girlfriends (but not WAGs), families, hand-holding, and smiles. Eventually, a reported attendance of 37,000 would fill the venue for the 3 p.m. game. It likely wasn't quite that many — there were more than 3,000 empty spots among the 40,000 seats — but still, more than .004 percent of the country's population turned out to cheer on their Catrachos. It felt like a party, not at all like a war zone.
In truth, the cracks in the SPS-as-Beirut-circa–Spy Game narrative started to show earlier in the week. The city is dangerous, especially at night, but there's a good will here toward visiting tourists. Half a dozen fans from the States offered tales of walking down the streets and getting assaulted by nothing more than good-natured jeers at their red, white, and blue jerseys. They found an excellent local restaurant the previous night. They took cabs, but they were fine. That is admittedly a small sample size, but it's nothing like the horror stories we were told, or the ones that pop up in the papers.
The first United States men's national team friendly of every new year is a predictably strange affair. It comes at the end of a long training camp and features roughly two dozen tired guys, the vast majority of whom are not first-choice players for the USMNT. Many of them are not even second or third on the positional depth charts. The group traditionally consists mostly of players in between Major League Soccer seasons, as well as a few assorted refugees from teams in one of the Scandinavian leagues that take a long winter break so their fans don't freeze while watching a mid-January match. It’s a moment to make impressions — sometimes first, sometimes final.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann called the typical gathering of players this year but attempted to add some gravitas to the month-long affair that culminated with Tuesday night's abysmal 0-0 draw against Canada. His reasons for doing so were both practical and ideological. For one, the Americans are in a slow transition at a few key positions, as both the in-flux center back situation and the uncertain status of Landon Donovan are creating a number of problems.
The United States national team finished 2012 with a record of 9-2-3, tying the best calendar year showing in the modern era. They qualified for the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification. They beat Italy and Mexico on the road, and tied Russia in Russia. They found some talent — Graham Zusi, Geoff Cameron, and Danny Williams, especially — and brought back some more (hey, Eddie Johnson). Jurgen Klinsmann's troops suffered setbacks, as well, notably a loss in Jamaica and an inability to "play pretty" consistently, but it was a successful 12-month period. On to 2013, one more year until the World Cup in Brazil. Here are 20 things the team needs to accomplish in its centennial season.
Krasnodar, Russia, is a gray city. It was founded as a Cossack fortress and now boasts roughly 700,000 citizens, lying about 830 miles due south of Moscow down Highway M4, which skirts the Eastern border of Ukraine. It is 90 miles from the Black Sea port city of Novorossiysk, five hours by dirty Mercedes from Sochi, and 10 from Georgia. Yalta is about 240 miles as the crow flies, but, in classic "ya can't get there from here" fashion, a 600-mile drive around the Sea of Azov. Which is to say, Krasnodar is very much a place you only end up if you go intentionally.
On Wednesday evening, the United States national team plays the Russians in the city's Kuban Stadium, normally home to FC Kuban Krasnodar and FC Krasnodar, as a peace offering. Russia will host the 2018 World Cup (thanks, petrodollars!), but the southern city will not hold any of the matches, a decision that caused 500 protesters to claim FIFA and the Russian Federation were "spitting on the souls of fans."
Good-bye, World Cup; hello, Stars and Stripes. (The cynic in me wonders which is the lesser of two evils.)
Eddie Johnson's first goal for the United States Men's National Team came in the forward's first start on October 10, 2004. Johnson, then 20 years old, netted three more three days later against Panama and finished 2006 World Cup qualifying with seven goals in six games. The Florida-born Johnson was strong, fast, and talented, exactly what the future of U.S. soccer was supposed to look like.
Then, perhaps inevitably, he began to struggle. A combination of injuries, believing the hype, and bad luck plagued Johnson, who played for five clubs between 2006 and 2011. There were occasional highs — a goal for the U.S. against Barbados in 2008, a strong if brief run with Cardiff City in 2009 — but mostly lows. He continued to make money to play soccer, which is not a bad life, but that incredible promise was slipping away. When a deal to play for Puebla in the Mexican League fell apart last winter because Johnson was out of shape, the subsequent conversation didn't revolve around when we would see the forward in the Stars and Stripes again, it focused on whether he would continue to play professionally at all.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Wei-Yin Chen pitched 6⅓ strong innings and Chris Davis hit a crucial two-RBI single as the Orioles evened up the ALDS at one game apiece with a 3-2 win over the Yankees. "Was this my favorite game? No," said home plate umpire Angel Hernandez, who was repeatedly forced to clean vomit off home plate after at-bats by "nervous pukers" Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher. "Swisher even tried to apologize, but guess what happened? If you guessed that he puked on me, f---ing bingo."
In a virtual must-win match for the United States Men's National Team, Jurgen Klinsmann's side did exactly what they needed to do, and nothing else. Herculez Gomez's 55th-minute free kick provided the only score on a beautiful night in Columbus, Ohio, propelling the Americans over a Jamaican squad that defeated them just four days prior in Kingston and to the top of their World Cup qualifying group.
The Stars and Stripes, featuring five new starters after the surprise 2-1 loss, was a different team in front of the 23,881 red-white-and-blue-clad supporters. Specifically, the insertion of Danny Williams as a defensive midfielder and Sporting Kansas City's Graham Zusi — who looks like early-career Roger Federer — helped the U.S. to dominate the ball in the opening 45 minutes. The Americans won the possession battle (80 percent to 20 percent), the distribution war (338 passes to 52), and the shot fight (eight to zero). But they had precisely nothing to show for the effort, other than forcing a few highlight-reel saves from Reggae Boyz netminder Dwayne Miller and three strikes that hit various parts of the goal frame and bounced harmlessly away. (Williams's blast from 25 yards was especially awesome. It nearly exploded the metal pole to Miller's right before shooting back in the direction from whence it came.)
For 36 seconds, things unfolded perfectly. The final strains of Jamaica’s amazing national anthem were still echoing around Kingston's Independence Park when Clint Dempsey slotted home a rebound of Herculez Gomez's shot, giving the United States men's national team a 1-0 lead over Jamaica in an important World Cup qualifying match. The winner of the game would take sole possession of first place in four-team Group A, halfway through the third round. The top two teams advance to the final "Hexagonal" stage of qualifying.
After Dempsey's goal — the quickest U.S. WCQ tally ever — the USMNT looked set to run their undefeated streak against Jamaica up to 19 matches. But it wasn't to be. The Stars and Stripes, missing Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley, failed to connect passes, failed to create chances, and failed to deal with Jamaica’s team speed. They conceded few opportunities in the run of play but allowed free kick goals by Rodolph Austin in the 23rd minute and Luton Shelton in the 62nd minute and left "The Office" with a 2-1 defeat.
Well, this looks pretty fantastic. We the Pharaohs chronicles former USMNT manager Bob Bradley's time in Egypt as he attempts to lead its national side to its first World Cup in more than 20 years. Bradley's tenure as Pharaohs manager has happened to coincide with with one of the most tumultuous times in modern Egyptian history.