Postgame yesterday, Alexi Lalas said this about the recently eliminated US National Team: “They are a better version of ourselves”. He’s absolutely right, whatever that means. What does that mean, and what does that mean for U.S. Soccer going forward?
The US has never been able to compete with the big boys of world soccer in terms of the technically gifted players, or even difference makers on a lower yet similar level. This is news to no one who has followed U.S. soccer for an extended period of time but Jurgen Klinsmann’s goal has been to change that. He promised more proactive, attacking soccer from the outset, which is a lofty goal but has he brought that now that his first World Cup for the team is done?
Well, in spurts. While the US scored 5 goals at this World Cup, the same number they scored in 2010, but they did so with a different flourish. Some of the goals were of true quality, like Jermaine Jones’ against Portugal, and Julian Green’s against Belgium. Others were typically American, like John Brooks’ against Ghana. Is that a problem? No, because scoring goals no matter how it’s done is never a problem because it furthers the point that this US team was a better version of itself. That’s not quite what Jurgen Klinsmann promised.
More evidence for that lies in the fact that the U.S. spent most of this World Cup defending for their lives. They spent 81 minutes doing that against Ghana when leading, the entire game against Germany, and about 92 minutes against Belgium. That’s typically American, and the ability to defend consistently and break quickly is very American too. But it’s not what Jurgen Klinsmann promised. What ended up defining this US team were the same traits that defined Bruce Arena’s quarterfinalists, or Bob Bradley’s runners-up in the Confederations Cup: We are not more technically gifted than you, but we are more athletic than you, and when you tire, we’ll beat you because we will outlast you. That is distinctively American. Jurgen Klinsmann’s team had a little more to it than that with some of the intricate combo plays, possession football in spurts, and beautifully crafted goals at points.
The moments that will define this team will be heroic defending, blinding speed from the fullbacks, getting up after breaking your nose, and Tim Howard doing what he always has done. So in other words, nothing really has changed. The mixture may have changed, but the end product hasn’t really changed.
And that’s not a bad thing.
Jurgen Klinsmann wasn’t going to make this team Germany in less than 3 years, and especially with what he’s had to do in transitioning the team from the old guard to the new guard. The Germany team that is currently having so much success has very German aspects of the team that have lived from the Gerd Muller days on, but has new aspects too as the team has evolved. This U.S. team is on the way to that, and it might not be Klinsmann that reaps the rewards as Jogi Low is, but maybe Caleb Porter or Peter Vermes does in 2020. US Soccer is a unique animal by nature of the make-up of the country, making a distinct national soccer identity hard to come by. Klinsi is trying to create one, and it just takes time.
A good first step is making the team better at what it is already good at, and Klinsmann has done that. The next step is the true step, but he has 4 years to bring the US there. The leg-work has really just begun, and you can’t begrudge Klinsmann for making this US team a better version of itself.
After all, who would have tried that crazy set piece in the second half of stoppage time anyway?