No matter what the Russian royal family tried to do to kill Rasputin, they failed almost every time. In many ways, Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as US National Team manager is similar: when he’s closest to being fired, his teams turn in their best performances. Under as much pressure as he’s ever faced as US Head Coach, from supporters and now Sunil Gulati, his team responded with one of its most resounding wins in a tournament setting.
While this Costa Rica team will not be mistaken for the team that made the quarterfinals of the World Cup two years ago, they came in with plenty of pedigree and potential firepower, though none of that showed in Chicago. Oscar Ramirez set up his team to attack and they did, giving the US fits at times, but their indiscipline defensively, mainly on the counter, allowed the US to punish mistakes and take advantages of openings even though their play was fairly choppy. The ease with which the US went through midfield on the counter harkens back to the days of Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley when the US was a feared counter-attacking side that was lethal in the right circumstances.
Klinsmann, under pressure and under scrutiny, brought out the same XI that looked rather toothless against Colombia on Friday, but against a far worse defensive team and with a subtle but effective mid-match tactical switch, the US looked quite a bit like how Alexi Lalas described the 2014 team at the World Cup, “a better version of ourselves”. Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin brought about the necessary width, Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey worked off of each other well, and Jermaine Jones had one of his best games in a US shirt since the World Cup at both ends of the pitch. There have not been many games in recent US history when Michael Bradley had a relatively quiet game as he did while his team looked as good as they did.
After two wildly different performances and results to open this tournament, what is the reality of this current iteration of the US National Team? The answer, as always, can be found somewhere in the middle of the extremes. They looked lost against a tactically and technically superior Colombia team on Friday, yet tore apart a tactically inferior team with the same lineup, though deployed slightly differently, three days later. Chemistry along the back four and midfield continues to develop, and Klinsmann seems to be righting of one of the major wrongs of his tenure, at least in the short term: continuity. While that’s likely impossible to continue against Paraguay because of the schedule and travel demands, should the US get the result they need in Philadelphia, there is no reason to believe they won’t play this lineup again in the quarterfinals. This 4-3-3 cum 4-4-2 certainly has faults, but seems to be one of the stronger and consistent groups the US has had in recent memory.
Klinsmann’s reality as US manager also lies somewhere in the margins of the extreme as well. While he has shown to be tactically inferior in certain matches, and his responsibilities as technical director do run up against his managerial duties in many instances, his ability to spot talent and recruit them has become important. Bobby Wood’s first half tonight is the embodiment of Klinsmann’s tenure: frustrating when played out of position, but the skill and technical ability are there if deployed right. He may not see the fruits of his work as manager, but he’s attempting to lay down a foundation now, even if his methods are quirky and the results haven’t matched the legwork in many instances.
Certainly, the US won’t be winning 4-0 that often, let alone the rest of the tournament. But, the patience of the manager, a few brilliant individual performances and a change of scenery allowed a team of the precipice of disaster to back away and assuage fears, even if many of the underlying issues for this team are still ever-present.
No matter how many ways the Tsar’s inner circle tried to kill Rasputin, they couldn’t do it. Jurgen Klinsmann is becoming a soccer version of Rasputin. And for the time being, that quality takes the US from utter despair to relief and reflection in a matter of a brilliant 90 minutes in Chicago.
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