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Tick, tick – what’s that? The sound of the U.S. attack clicking

Oct 17, 2012, 11:04 AM EDT

Jurgen Klinsmann, Eddie Johnson Getty Images

For a few minutes on Tuesday, it finally came together. And by a few minutes, I mean almost a full half. Fourteen months of promises that we’d see a different kind of soccer started to manifest into real, tangible results. The emphasis on sharper attacking that had come to the forefront after mixed performances in qualifying finally took hold. From the first movement, when Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson hinted they might be anticipating instead of reacting to each others’ movements, the U.S. Men’s National Team started to transcend the rhetoric.

Given what happened five minutes later (Carlos Ruiz putting Guatemala in front), you can understand why the attack didn’t steal headlines. After coming face-to-face with the reality of elimination, advancing was the big story, not the improvement. In the big picture, however, a huge step forward for Jurgen Klinsmann’s rebuild is a bigger than the qualification of a team that’s habitually in The Hex.

Perhaps it was the frustrations of St. John’s. Maybe three days of hearing their coach’s admonitions sank in. Maybe the team just got tired of know-it-all bloggers chirping. Whatever happened between Friday and Tuesday, it led to a U.S. attack that finally showed what the future might hold.

That future is effort, the type that Herculez Gomez used to win the corner kick ahead of the States’ opening goal. That future is decisiveness, as we saw from Eddie Johnson in creating the second goal. It’s the ability to get people forward, like Michael Bradley did on the third goal. It’s executing the little things in those final, most important moments at the end of attacks, as we saw from Clint Dempsey all night. And perhaps most crucially (as it concerns Klinsmann’s desire to change the foundations), it’s quick, progressive, decisive play throughout the team. Let the actions match the words.

It’s not as if we’ve never seen those qualifies before. But we haven’t seen them used as the team’s foundation. We haven’t seen them leveraged so effectively, so exclusively. Last night U.S. soccer fans were given reason to think a new, more proactive era is close. At least, it’s closer than it looked on Friday.

There are a couple of caveats, though. Since Eddie Johnson was put in the starting lineup, the U.S. has been playing more long balls forward. That first movement I alluded to above? It started with a long ball targeting Dempsey, not that playing a occasional long ball an anathema to what Klinsmass is trying to do. Part of the reason the new coach has been so discouraging of such tactics is the team’s previous dependence on them. It’s hard to claim your being a revolutionary if you turn your head to the ills of the old regime. In this transition phase (perhaps before the U.S.’s backs were against the wall), Klinsmann couldn’t walk that middle ground. In his ideal world, though, he’ll want all weapons at his disposal.

The other caveat that’s already being leaned on, one I completely discard, is the opposition. It’s only Guatemala, you’ll read. It’s not Mexico, as if we need to be reminded that competition in third round qualifying is not the same as The Hex’s.

The reminders need to go the other way. Everybody is aware Guatemala is not an elite soccer nation, but we’re also aware that the U.S.’s changes are a process, something we’ve been reminded of by the series of mixed performances throughout the round. Nobody’s expecting the States to become Germany in 14 months, which is why Tuesday shouldn’t be discounted. If, at next summer’s Gold Cup, the U.S. is still having problems with the Antiguas and Guatemalas in the world, break out the told you sos.

For now, look at that first half and see the future. At least consider it a proof of concept. That performance needs to become the rule rather than the exception, but for one night, the team showed it’s possible. That’s progress.

  1. Steve Davis - Oct 17, 2012 at 11:38 AM

    This is a super piece, Richard. I will double down on the emphasis of your second caveat. The Guatemalan defenders simply are not very good. Even with the benefit of additional cover most of the night, they just are not great at tracking, anticipating and positioning. At home, they can be quite physical and get away with more of it. On the road they were painfully exposed in some moments.
    That said, I agree with everything you wrote. The difference is that in future matches, all of those little things you talked about will serve to create three, maybe four, strong chances a match (rather than six, seven or eight). And they’ll need to be ruthless in finishing them.

  2. whordy - Oct 17, 2012 at 11:58 AM

    For one, I too loved what I saw, mostly in the second half. We had a lead, and we actually saw the game out. Crisp passing, constant movement, switching fields. Players playing one touch when they needed to, taking space when they could. It was wonderful to see us play like that with a lead – visions of a Bradley-esque bunkering to see out the game still haunt my dreams. But really, that is what good teams do. They see out the game, WITH the ball by making it do all the work.
    And on that second caveat. Yeah, it was “only” Guatamala. But isn’t that how it works? In anything? At first, it’s “only” 5 reps, then a few days later it’s “only” 10 reps, and before long you pumping out 20 and showing off those guns to everyone.

  3. wfjackson3 - Oct 17, 2012 at 2:47 PM

    My first thought upon reading this was: “How could Landon Donovan possibly consider retiring now?” Whether those rumors are true or not, stick with me for a minute.

    Let’s assume for a moment that the Klinsmann era is a success, which I think we could all agree means a new level of competitiveness and dominance being exerted in World Cup competition. Not dominance over teams like Spain per se, but no more last minute goals to beat Algeria. Better efforts and results against the top tier. Can you imagine how the players that participate in this revolution would be remembered? Donovan’s legacy is already strong, but he could become legendary if he performs to his standards in this scenario.

    Until now, we have seen a steady evolution of US Soccer and results dating to the last real revolution, which I would say was 1994 and the work leading up to it. If this revolution is successful, it could define a new standard of performance for the US for decades to come. How could any US player not want to live in that moment?

    PS – Nice article Richard. If you want a nice parallel for the “only Guatemala” caveat, look no further than Bill Snyder and K-State football. When he arrived in the 80’s, K-State hadn’t won in something like 2 years+. His first and only win of his first season was against North Texas State (who? yeah). But he focused relentlessly on getting better each day. Before long, they were in a Bowl game. Then they won a bowl game. After 10 years, they were an overtime stop in the conference championship game away from playing in the first BCS title game. Surprisingly, he had his vocal detractors in that first season that said the win was “only North Texas State.” How will Klinsmann’s tenure go from here on out? Is there substance to the improvement, or was it a fluke? Only time will tell.

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