Jurgen Klinsmann used to smile a lot, remember? Last year, in his first game as U.S. manager the German legend spent the night in Philadelphia grinning and clapping for the television cameras as his team was being outclassed by Mexico.
Klinsmann hadn’t gone mad. He was putting on a happy face for a reason. The clear implication was that the man now in charge was the anti-Bob Bradley, Klinsmann’s predecessor who showed less emotion than a guard standing outside of Buckingham Palace.
Bradley was never the warm and cuddly coach. He’s the last person you find at open mic night at the Improv. But Bradley is a very good coach, one who helped the U.S. twice qualify for the World Cup. In South Africa, the United States won its group. So, no smiles from Bradley - just results.
This brings us back to Klinsmann, who looked like the most relieved man on the planet following Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Jamaica. It was the first must-win of the Klinsmann regime and to his credit he and his team responded. Klinsmann used a more attack-minded lineup and the results, at least in the first half, were impressive.
Both outside backs, Steve Cherundolo and Fabian Johnson, were outstanding. Midfielders Danny Williams and Graham Zusi were denied by the post and the crossbar respectively while Jose Torres, supposedly in a make-or-break start, did well maintaining possession.
Jamaican goalie Dwayne Miller kept his team in the match until the 55th minute when he should have saved Herculez Gomez’ free kick. It was a well-deserved win for a U.S. team which put itself in a precarious position after losing in Kingston five days earlier. Suddenly winning in Italy and in Mexico didn’t mean much. Those results won’t save Klinsmann in the event that the U.S. fails to qualify for their seventh straight World Cup.
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"We know it's not done yet," he said. "We know it's down to the wire. That's what World Cup qualifiers are about."
Klinsmann has faced pressure before. He was Germany’s manager when it lost 2-0 to Italy in the 2006 World Cup semifinal. It was a disappointing finish for a nation that was favored to win the trophy on home soil.
The pressure Klinsmann faces now, however, is greater despite the U.S. not being a serious threat to lift the trophy in Brazil. Just getting there is the key, and failure to qualify would be a disaster. Klinsmann’s knows this as well as anyone. That’s why he was a constantly moving on the sidelines, working the officials and barking out orders. His muted celebration after Gomez scored was telling.
The road to the next round is not very treacherous. The U.S. plays at Antigua and Barbuda on Oct. 12 and then completes the semis four days later against Guatemala at Kansas City. But if the U.S. is having this much trouble now just think of how tricky things will get will Mexico, Costa Rica and emerging Honduras.
Klinsmann’s team should be stronger once Landon Donovan and Michel Bradley return from injury. The U.S. could have used its experience in Kingston and will certainly need it in Mexico City this summer.
Who knows, you might not see Klinsmann smile again until the U.S. qualifies for Brazil. And if he doesn’t make it, then Klinsmann really would be the anti-Bradley.