U.S. wins hint at progress under Jurgen Klinsmann, but clear caveats remain
In assessing Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as the U.S. men's national team manager, the word "progress" is fully loaded. Has any progress been made? If so, how much? And what exactly constitutes progress, anyway? Does it come down to results, style or both?
Certainly, over the past four years or so, one's view of progress has largely been determined by one's perspective on the results vs. style debate. There have been some memorable results, but in terms of breaking from the stylistic blueprint of the past and moving on to something more aesthetically pleasing -- one of the major selling points in hiring someone like Klinsmann in the first place -- there has been little to suggest that much has changed.
In the past week, however, there has been little to no gray area. A 4-3 victory over the Netherlands in Amsterdam -- a match that saw the U.S. rally from two goals down and score twice in the closing minutes -- was followed by Wednesday's astonishing encore, a 2-1 road triumph over reigning World Cup champions Germany.
The much-derided Bobby Wood (who has just returned to 1860 Munich after a loan spell with Erzgebirge Aue, a club that was just relegated to the 3. Bundesliga) engaged in his own week-long version of fantasy football, scoring the game winner in both matches. One can only hope that a few clubs higher up in the German soccer food chain were watching.
The wins added to Klinsmann's growing list of impressive road triumphs. But these two performances seemed different. This wasn't the U.S. hanging on for dear life against Italy in Genoa, or sneaking a late winner versus Mexico at the Azteca after soaking up a supertanker full of pressure. This was the Americans playing tactically smart, looking dangerous when they broke forward, and playing with a fearlessness to grab hold of both games when they were there for the taking. That isn't just progress, but a few giant leaps forward, and an outgrowth of the work Klinsmann has done in identifying talent for this cycle.
The results come with obvious caveats. They always do. Yet the caveat ledger is a little more even in this case. Yes, the Dutch and the Germans had Euro 2016 qualifiers on the horizon, but this was mitigated by the fact that the U.S. was playing with considerably less than its full complement of players as well. And it wasn't as if Germany or the Netherlands fielded a bunch of pub-leaguers, either. There was obvious quality throughout the respective lineups, and Germany's hugely talented Patrick Herrmann, who was making his debut, gave the U.S. all kinds of problems.
But the Americans gave as good as they got. The U.S. managed to score six goals without Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Alejandro Bedoya. Wood, Jordan Morris and DeAndre Yedlin -- who looks far better suited to a wide midfield role, it must be said -- did a lot of the damage. Gyasi Zardes didn't get on the score sheet versus Germany as he did against the Netherlands, but he still proved to be a handful. All of these players have a ways to go but have made big strides. This steady filling-out of Klinsmann's depth chart is an encouraging development.
And then there is Michael Bradley. His current role is often characterized as a No. 10, another one of those loaded terms that doesn't adequately describe what he does for or means to the U.S. side. Bradley does far too much defensive work to fit that label. Maybe call him a "No. 8.5" given the way he tracks back yet still manages to be the prime orchestrator of the U.S. attack.
Regardless of what you call it, he seems to have found the right balance between offensive and defensive duties, especially when he has Kyle Beckerman covering his back. Bradley's decision-making in the final third seems more instinctive and less conflicted. And the best news of all is that he has three more years to fine-tune things as opposed to the two months he was given before last year's World Cup. Credit Klinsmann for sticking with Bradley in the role when the coach could easily have moved him back to a more defensive role.
Inevitably, there will be talk of these results being vindication for Klinsmann. Those sentiments hint at a finality; an end to a chapter that doesn't feel quite right. These were friendlies, after all. If a proverbial corner was turned, it's not the kind where there's suddenly nothing but beautiful, smooth road stretching out to the horizon. Klinsmann is dealing with city traffic here. There are other corners to be turned, like the state of the U.S. defense.
All of that will come under scrutiny during next month's Gold Cup, which is by far the year's most important event. Granted, the U.S. has tended to dominate CONCACAF opposition, but the two games in the past week have showed something more tangible, something to make you sit on the edge of your seat with anticipation about the U.S. attack, rather than anxiety at watching the team continually defend.
So yes, there has been progress, and Klinsmann can feel rightly proud. But the journey goes on.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.