By Sean Hartnett
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Back in February, furious American soccer fans vented their dissatisfaction at national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann after the United States dropped their opening game of the 2014 World Cup qualifying on enemy soil.
Honduras came from behind to earn a shocking 2-1 victory, and the disharmony wasn’t just confined to the fans of the national team. It had spread to the players who were shocked to see that then-captain Carlos Bocanegra was dropped before the match in favor of starting an all-new central-defense pairing of Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez.
Klinsmann was branded as tactically inept, and a large number of fans, media and unsettled players questioned his “chop-and-change” selections. This kind of criticism wasn’t new to Klinsmann.
After a disastrous spell managing European giants Bayern Munich, captain Philipp Lahm described the end of Klinsmann’s reign as “damage limitation” in his autobiography and revealed that the manager’s approach to training is almost entirely fitness-based and “tactical things were neglected.”
Undeterred, Klinsmann pushed on and continued to do things his own way. He enforced players to meet with nutritionists and take aptitude tests. He added yoga and constant physical screenings to their routines, and it probably felt very foreign at first. However, these are practices that are common among many top European clubs, and they also allowed the meticulous Klinsmann to get a feel for the personalities of his players and get that extra bit of information that he requires to base his decisions.
He will always be a manager who bases his decisions on feeling rather than tactical aptitude. That’s something that has left many USMNT supporters feeling uneasy.
Until Klinsmann and his team delivered a magical run in June, that is.
USA RIDING HIGH IN HEXAGONAL 2014 WORLD CUP QUALIFYING
Despite all of these doubts hanging over Klinsmann, he’s brought the U.S. National Team together by winning three consecutive June qualifying matches over Jamaica, Panama and Honduras. The United States is creating breathing space, as it has taken its first-place points total to 13. The U.S. is remarkably five points ahead of rivals Mexico in the hexagonal 2014 World Cup qualifying.
This has Sam’s Army and the American Outlaws in the supporters sections, loudly singing “We are going to Brazil.” While the job isn’t anywhere near finished, Klinsmann has turned doubts into sheer confidence among fans and, most importantly, his players.
“Every time we get a clean sheet, we feel like the best players in the world,” goalkeeper Tim Howard stated. “We’ve been on a roll. It’s good for the young guys in the back. It gets us feeling good about ourselves. Every time we have a good performance, we put it in our back pocket and save it.”
Against Honduras on Tuesday, the Americans started off slowly as they were locked into battle with their feisty opponents. U.S. captain Clint Dempsey wasted a number of chances, most notably a missed header that was sent into the box by Michael Bradley.
It wasn’t a match that was full of fluid football. Instead, it was a “grind-it-out” kind of affair with the dogged Hondurans. The hard graft shown by the Americans finally paid off when Fabian Johnson broke down the wing in the 73rd minute and delivered a cross that Jozy Altidore neatly finished, which proved to be the match-winner.
“The team now understands that it’s not only a physical grind you put into these games,” Klinsmann explained. “It’s a mental one. Mentally we’re getting stronger. We’re getting tougher. We are now prepared to go through the games.”
ALTIDORE IS A MAN ON FIRE
Key striker Altidore’s performances have been largely inconsistent under previous managers. His two successful seasons at AZ Alkmaar in Holland’s top division — Eredivisie — and the time spent working with Klinsmann has definitely molded him into a more mature and hungry individual. It’s easy to forget that Altidore is still just 23 years old and has a lot of room for improvement.
“We always told him, from a coaching perspective, that it takes a lot of hard work, it takes a lot of adjustment, it takes the right moment to be there — it takes the hunger,” Klinsmann said. “The energy he has put (forth) in the last four or five games has been tremendous. It’s not only that he scored those goals, (but) the work he does for the team is awesome.”
Altidore now has four goals in four consecutive matches, tying a U.S. National Team record held by Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, Brian McBride, Eric Wylanda and William Lubbe.
“Jozy is on fire right now,” Gonzalez stated. “He keeps on scoring. Man, I love Jozy up top. He’s doing great.”
WITH GOLD CUP APPROACHING, DONOVAN LOOKING TO EARN HIS WAY BACK
For now, Altidore and his “A-Team” teammates will be given some time off from national team matches until September. The U.S. “B-Team” will begin CONFACAF Gold Cup tournament matches against Belize on July 9 at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon. This will give Klinsmann more opportunities to tinker and determine which young players are ready to make the breakthrough into the “A-Team” and, most interestingly, get a look at star midfielder Donovan, who is looking to earn his way back after a three-month sabbatical from the national team.
2014 World Cup qualifying will be on hold until September 6 when the Americans travel to Costa Rica, who is currently in second place in the hexagonal group with 10 points.
Klinsmann’s doubters have been silenced, and the unconventional German coach has the Americans one step closer to Brazil and a giant leap toward finally making good on their promise.
You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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