By Kevin Baxter, Los Angeles Times –
So this is what Juergen Klinsmann meant when he talked about developing a U.S. style of soccer.
“Maybe we don’t want to hurt people but that’s what you’ve got to do,” Klinsmann, coach of the U.S. national team, said last week after his team was routed, 4-1, by Brazil in an international friendly. “We’ve got to step on their toes more and get them more frustrated.”
Why should the country that brought the world the Ultimate Fighting Championships, tackle football and talk radio be satisfied with gentlemanly soccer? Why settle for the beautiful game when you can have the brutal game instead?
Klinsmann also challenged his players to be “nastier,” then backed off those comments a few days later, saying he wasn’t looking to hurt anyone on purpose — even though that’s what he initially said he was looking for.
But there’s no doubt the U.S. will be playing an aggressive, physical game when it resumes World Cup qualifying Friday against Antigua in Tampa, Fla.
Klinsmann tipped his hand he was moving in that direction in January when midfielder Jermaine Jones, serving an eight-game suspension from his Bundesliga club for stomping on the broken toe of an opponent, was called up to the U.S. national team and handed the captain’s armband for friendlies against Venezuela and Panama. Jones has played more games and more minutes than any U.S. player this year.
He’s also earned more misconducts, with four in five games, including one for a two-footed flying tackle on Brazilian star Neymar. But for Klinsmann that anger is a skill to be nurtured — and occasionally made light of — rather than a trait from which Jones should be weaned.
“His temper is always something to discuss. And we even make jokes about that in the locker room,” said Klinsmann, an aggressive, high-scoring striker during his 17-year playing career that included a World Cup title and two UEFA Cups. “But if he gets that under control then we have a very, very good player there. He has high energy and the opponents have a lot of respect for that guy.”
Friday’s game is the first meaningful match of the Klinsmann era, which began 10 months ago when Bob Bradley was sacked after losing to Mexico in the Gold Cup final. Klinsmann, the former coach of the German national team, installed an intensive, European-style training philosophy and a relentless offensive playing style while going 6-5-2 in a series of friendlies that included the U.S.’s first-ever win over Italy in February.
The last of those exhibitions was a polite 0-0 tie with Canada on Sunday. Now, however, the games count with the U.S. playing six matches against Antigua, Guatemala and Jamaica in the third round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying over the next five months. The top two teams in that group will advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying, which begins in February.
Antigua, ranked 100th in the latest FIFA world rankings — the U.S. is 29th — figures to offer little serious resistance Friday. But the U.S. follows that up by traveling to Guatemala City, where it will encounter a hostile crowd and a Guatemala team that has been rocked by a FIFA investigation into match fixing.
“They’re two different teams,” veteran U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “Going away for qualifying is always difficult, so that will be a big challenge for us against Guatemala. For Antigua, we’re at home so we need to win that game. We need to really put a lot of pressure on them and make them feel like they’re going to be in a really difficult game.”
The U.S., though, is still searching for some chemistry playing in Klinsmann’s high-tempo offense.
The Canada match, for example, marked the first time Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey were in Klinsmann’s starting lineup at the same time. Dempsey has been slowed by a groin injury after a record-setting season for Fulham of the English Premier League, where he scored 23 times in all competition. Donovan, the Galaxy captain, is the U.S.’s leading scorer with 49 goals in 141 games after picking up a hat trick two weeks ago against Scotland.
But together Donovan and Dempsey produced little offense against Canada.
The U.S. team’s play in World Cup qualifying will not be a referendum on Donovan and Dempsey, but a test of the new system and pace Klinsmann has installed. And that’s something the players are still adjusting to, the coach said.
“They understand now that we would like to adjust ourselves to the best in the world. That means we’re going to be able to play at the same speed. We want to be technically as aware as the big nations are. We want to improve our game in every little detail in order to catch up with the top 10, top 15 in the world,” Klinsmann said.
“It’s a process that won’t happen overnight.”