By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (June 13, 2012) US Soccer Players — Tuesday night’s 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw in Guatemala prompted an interesting range of reactions from fans, pundits and other observers of the US National Team. For some, Marco Pappa’s 83rd minute free kick equalizer meant that Jurgen Klinsmann’s team had fumbled away a victory, plain and simple. Others more or less shrugged and accepted a road point, mindful of Los Chapines’ missed chances and the substantial challenges inherent to any qualifying visit to Central America.
Given that the trip to Guatemala City stands out as their toughest match of this round, the Yanks didn’t need to win last night. Taking four points from the first two games of CONCACAF Group A suggests that safe passage to the final, hexagonal round is assured, just as it has been for more than a decade. While this particular USA squad’s performances have shown it to be as unpredictable as any in recent memory, it will take a collapse of monumental proportions to end up outside the group’s top two places.
That would also imply that ten months into Klinsmann’s tenure, the concept of “business as usual” hasn’t changed much, if at all. That begs a few questions about the whereabouts of the transformative effect Klinsmann was supposed to have on this team, not to mention the entire national team system.
After a long-running, on-again-off-again courtship by US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, Klinsmann was brought on last summer with a twofold brief: elevate the program to the proverbial “next level” by prompting growth and dynamism at all age levels, while maintaining a steady course towards a berth in the 2014 World Cup.
“Jurgen can take that (existing) group or find additional players and additional talent that he sees or views differently or develops, whether that’s younger players or some players that are maybe outside the group,” said Gulati at the time. “Long-term player development is an important part of this project. The short-term is to qualify for Brazil and do as well as we can there. That’s the three-year project, but we think a big part of this program and this project and the excitement is how Jurgen can help us and influence a lot of what’s going on.”
Gulati also pointedly noted that his new hire was on a three-year contract, not a seven-year one, indicating that the hard reality of wins and losses would counterbalance wonkier, less measurable themes like style of play, improvement in mentality and broadened ambitions. Yet Klinsmann’s sweeping mission – and Gulati’s de facto role as sole arbiter – makes his work frustratingly difficult to grade.
Previous US National Team coach Bob Bradley also had to lead his troops to Guatemala at this point in the last World Cup cycle, earning a 1-0 win in August 2008, the Yanks’ first-ever qualifying victory in that country. Bradley racked up a 12-5-1 record in his first year in charge. Klinsmann’s mark now stands at 7-5-3.
The USA has claimed some noteworthy scalps over the past year: outpacing Slovenia on the road, defeating Italy on their own soil, routing Scotland last month. The manner of their play and their tactics has grown more proactive. Klinsmann’s bright, forward-leaning tone provides encouragement for those who see the US as chronic underachievers. Conversely, there have been uninspiring displays, baffling lineup selections and quiet murmurs of player discontent with his training methods.
The coach’s own evenhanded reaction to last night’s draw, and his team's late-game fade within it, implies that not all that much has changed. The Yanks still brace themselves for long, complicated trips to regional backwaters, and seemingly moderate their expectations upon arrival. The absence or limitation of a few key performers sends ripples of fear through supporters. The mere act of watching important matches like Tuesday’s clash at Estadio Mateo Flores can still be a test of devotion, thanks to murky broadcasting rights situations like the one that pushed this game onto pay-per-view TV.
It's far removed from the bright lights of the World Cup, but these nonetheless may turn out to be the steps that get the USA closer to the dream of world-class status. We've seen glimpses, and the Klinsmann era is supposed to turn that into extended displays of quality.
Brazil 2014 beckons, thanks as much to the United States’ place in CONCACAF’s institutionalized aristocracy as anything Klinsmann has done. Optimists can point to an increasingly ambitious mentality, and ample signs of growth in the depth and diversity of the nation’s player pool, including a savvy mining of European talent like German-American 24-year-old Fabian Johnson, surely the brightest star of the year so far.
There are indications that this team is taking that next step, but after a tough night in Guatemala City, Klinsmann’s great leap forward remains a long way off.