Jurgen Klinsmann follows familiar format to U.S. national team success
The last time the U.S. men's national team came to play Germany in a friendly, Jurgen Klinsmann's job was at stake. In March 2006, three months before the World Cup on his team's home soil, the German national manager's approval ratings were at an all-time low.
Die Nationalmannschaft, as the side was then still officially known, had been destroyed 4-1 by Italy two weeks earlier, and the nation had since been gripped by a sense of panic. The California-based Swabian and his newfangled fitness regime from the States, many feared, was driving Germany over the cliff and all the way down into the abyss of a group stage exit in front of their own fans, the mother of all nadirs.
While elements of the media criticism were clearly personal -- tabloid Bild, Klinsmann's archnemesis, attacked him for smiling after the Italy defeat and heading back to Los Angeles on a plane soon after -- there was deeply felt unease about his ability to put a competitive team on the pitch come the opening game against Costa Rica.
Wolfgang Niersbach, the head of the German FA and vice president then, recently admitted that Klinsmann probably wouldn't have survived defeat against Bruce Arena's team. Luckily for Klinsmann, the visitors were not at full strength, as some clubs refused to release their U.S. players on a date not recognised by the official FIFA calendar for internationals. The home team won 4-1 in Dortmund, Klinsmann won an important reprieve ahead of the tournament and the rest eventually became known as Germany's summer fairy tale.
There wasn't nearly as much riding on the game in Cologne as the U.S. beat Germany 2-1 on Wednesday night, of course. One year after current manager Joachim Low met his predecessor and former boss in the last World Cup group game in Recife, Brazil, the respect and gratitude awarded to Klinsmann by Low and the German media ("The German FA should thank Klinsmann," wrote Frankfurter Rundschau) was even more heartfelt than the first time around, because of the subsequent World Cup triumph.
But this was inevitably a much more low-key (second) reunion; a match in fact less relevant to Die Mannschaft than Saturday's trip to Faro, Portugal, where the mighty Gibraltar await in a qualifier for Euro 2016 that Germany have to win.
"This was an important game to get back into the swing of things," said captain Bastian Schweinsteiger, who had spent a significant chunk of the past two weeks cheering on Ana Ivanovic at the French Open in Paris. Germany could furthermore console themselves that they could have killed the game after Mario Götze's early opener, that Sami Khedira hit the woodwork in the final minutes, and that they had visibly run out of steam in the second half.
"You could see where the Americans were coming from, in terms of fitness, and where we were coming from," said Schweinsteiger. The Bayern Munich midfielder must be happy that it's only Gibraltar they are facing at the weekend, not one of the rival contenders in Group D, where Germany are only in third spot at the moment. While Low and his men immediately shrugged off the defeat as one of those things -- "the first half was very good but then we ran low on energy, the U.S. had more bite and were more aggressive" said Low, in a pretty relaxed mood -- Klinsmann won big; bigger than the mere score line suggested.
Beating the reigning world champions away is the kind of result that gives you plenty of confidence going forward, he explained, citing a jubilant dressing room. He had underlined the importance of self-belief ahead of the game, recalling that the U.S. had shown Germany and Belgium too much respect in Brazil; that they had, on a subconscious level at least, felt inferior to these more established footballing nations and adopted a defensive, passive stance as a consequence.
On Wednesday, by contrast, they were willing to attack throughout and Götze's opener did not affect them unduly on a psychological level. Klinsmann will undoubtedly reference the Cologne win in future team talks, telling his players that they don't have to bow to anyone. Mentally, having that positive experience to draw upon will prove beneficial.
It's not just about the mind though. The legs are just as important. When I met Klinsmann in August in California for a book I'm writing on Germany's footballing reforms and their World Cup win, he cast his mind back to his team's first few games when he managed Germany. The pattern was often the same against better sides, he said. Germany would compete well for 45 or 60 minutes, then fall away in the final third of the game as far as energy levels were concerned. He said the same publicly at the time, to drive home the message that the players needed to do more in their clubs, much to the annoyance of the Bundesliga.
There were obvious parallels with his current job, he felt. U.S.-based players had a reputation for being very fit that wasn't always entirely justified, at least not in comparison with the world's elite. Beating Germany on that front -- irrespective of their competitive disadvantage more than two weeks after the end of their regular season -- in Cologne will make it easier to convince everyone about the importance of being ultrafit and also shows that some progress has already been made. In that sense, Wednesday night was perhaps not too dissimilar from March 2006 after all. It showed that Klinsmann is on the right path as a manager, once more.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein