Before this Copa America, Jurgen Klinsmann said that his goal was to make the semifinals of the tournament. Some scoffed and some wondered whether that goal was attainable. Now, as the US prepares to head to Houston for the semifinal on Tuesday against Argentina or Venezuela, Klinsmann and his team deserve the credit for not only getting there, but getting there as only a US National Team can.
Keeping together the same lineup for three straight games was unique and in some ways shocking for this Klinsmann-led team. His talk, and his walk, have been to tinker and constantly experiment with new XI’s, new formations and players in un-natural positions. After DeAndre Yedlin’s maddening minute, his hand was forced into making changes. Playing Matt Besler on the left, where he had only played 45 minutes previously in his career, and sliding Fabian Johnson to the right, was certainly a risk on paper. But in practice, Klinsmann’s tactics made sure that there were no worries about a center back playing out of position.
The US’ defensive shape operated more like a back five tracking back with Besler pinching close to Brooks and Cameron with Bedoya and Johnson acting as wingbacks. Ecuador’s speed on the flanks with Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero was almost entirely neutralized, and when they did find glimpses, Enner Valencia was especially wasteful. The counter was effective if wasteful, and on both goals, much maligned forwards showed how their chemistry has grown and combined for two well worked goals that US teams of old, especially under Klinsmann, would never have scored. As soon as Ecuador crossed the halfway line, the US pressed as a team and with composure, and unlike any US team has pressed in recent years. The first 52 minutes were a tactical masterclass that should have been rewarded with a bigger lead than just 1-0.
Even when each team went down to ten men, and the US could have lost their composure, they held together as they did Saturday night against Paraguay. While the game opened up, and they had to ride out a stretch where they were being tested consistently and probably should have been scored upon multiple times, they found a way to gut out a result. With glimpses of the quality going forward that Jurgen Klinsmann has promised, but not forgetting what made the US so difficult to beat in years past, this US team has become not what was foretold and foreshadowed, but an evolution of the best qualities from the past mixed in with a sprinkling of the modern football needed to bring US soccer forward.
Alexi Lalas said after the loss against Belgium in Brazil that Jurgen Klinsmann’s team was a “better version of ourselves”. It is a quote I have often favored because it encompasses Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure more than any other phrase, or thinkpiece can. Playing the style of possession soccer that had become a German trademark is impossible without the quality of players now produced in Germany every day. What the US was, and is, still so good at is being fit, strong on set pieces, and clinical on the counter. Klinsmann has added a little bit of speed to the counter, a little bit of polish to the finishing, and a little bit of technical prowess in playing out from the back, and there we find “a better version of ourselves”. Klinsmann may have waited too long to use his subs, but even that will be forgotten soon since the team has made the semifinals in spite of that.
Their next test, likely against Argentina, is probably the hardest any US team has faced since the 2009 Confederations Cup, oddly enough the last time the US lost the opening game of a group stage and advanced out. Going against a team of that quality without three key members of what has become a stable and consistent team will be the most difficult task of Klinsmann’s tenure, but with the five day layoff, that discussion is for another time.
Klinsmann may not have met all of his ascribed goals since he took over the US job in 2011. He certainly has made comments that have rubbed people the wrong way. He has made head-scratching tactical decisions that have spectacularly backfired. But in this Copa America, with his team playing a turbocharged version of the style that made US Soccer successful in the first place, he has met one of his ascribed goals, won admirers with some of his tactical acumen, and even with some silly comments, he has taken this team to a place few thought they’d reach.
In Houston, he has a chance to take them even farther.
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