PHILADELPHIA – Opening night of the Jurgen Klinsmann show saw the United States’ new head coach dodge a bullet but Wednesday’s 1-1 draw against Mexico left him in no doubt of the size of the task ahead.
A spirited second-half effort enabled the side to ensure honors ended even at Lincoln Financial Field, yet there is still a mountain to climb if Klinsmann is to live up to the lofty expectations foisted upon him by the American soccer public.
A potential savior he may or may not be, but either way an international coach has to work within the limitations of the players at his disposal. On this evidence he could have already eliminated several from serious long-term contention, while possibly unearthing a couple of hidden gems.
What is clear already is that Klinsmann is looking to build a camp that promotes an open and positive style, albeit one which confers no favor to established favorites of the previous Bob Bradley regime.
“We wanted them to express themselves and have fun,” Klinsmann said. “We definitely need to work on a lot of things. We need to be more comfortable.”
Klinsmann, due to his being the man American soccer fans wanted more than any other, may get a longer honeymoon period than any other recent USA coach. Even so, avoiding defeat in his first game was very welcome and somewhat unexpected after a patchy start.
For the first 45 minutes there seemed to be little verve and energy as Mexico cruised into a 1-0 lead through Oribe Peralta and thoroughly dominated proceedings. The first exchanges of Klinsmann’s reign could not have started much worse, with the U.S. team not recording a single shot on goal in the opening 45 minutes.
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Somewhere over the last couple of years the USA gradually saw its fire and spirit slip away. Toward the end of the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup final the side looked empty of inspiration and that seemed to continue early on against Mexico.
However, the second half was a significant improvement and one sparked by youth, which could and should influence Klinsmann’s future thinking. Juan Agudelo and Robbie Rogers impressed, but it was Brek Shea who provided the real injection of life that shifted the tempo of the game.
Shea, a 21-year-old who plays with FC Dallas of the MLS, set up a goal when it looked like none was coming, and has a chance of making the left-wing slot his own by the start of the 2014 World Cup. After 73 minutes he cut to the touchline, held off three defenders and squared the ball for Rogers to perform the simplest of tap-ins to the unguarded net.
The effort shown by his substitutes will have gladdened the heart of Klinsmann, who more than anything wants to promote competition for places. The German has even abolished permanent squad numbers, with his starting lineup for each game suiting up from 1 to 11. This change in policy even caught the team’s equipment manager unawares, and as such there were numbers only and no names on the back of the players’ shirts.
Some of Wednesday’s participants may not be seen much again. Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco were ordinary at best but the dearth of defensive depth may not rule them out of future action altogether. Klinsmann seemed surprisingly impressed with Jose Torres, even though the Mexico-based midfielder continues to look disjointed whenever he dons a USA uniform.
Edson Buddle started but his hopes of a regular slot surely depend on some problem arising with either Agudelo or the absent Jozy Altidore. And if a permanent eye is to be trained on 2014, then the days of Jermaine Jones and Carlos Bocanegra could be numbered – Bocanegra’s chief value nowadays is as a senior and respected figure in the locker room.
Positives other than Shea included Kyle Beckerman, who played as a holding midfielder just in front of the back four, which seems to be the preferred system under Klinsmann. Beckerman was so far removed from the national team picture under Bradley that he had not played a game with Landon Donovan since the under-17 level but showed more than enough to warrant further inclusion.
Naturally, different faces will come in as Klinsmann tries out different formulas, and when players such as Clint Dempsey and Stuart Holden are once again available. But as opening acts go, Klinsmann and his troops earned a passing grade.
If anything, this may have been the perfect result, enough to avoid a disenchanting fourth straight defeat to Mexico without sending the pro-Klinsmann hype machine into premature overdrive.
“This is a new beginning,” Klinsmann said. “We will see where it takes us.”
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