The United States are playing Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier tonight, and it's a big deal. The USMNT is first in their group, and a win would all but guarantee their place in Brazil next year. If some other results go the the right way, they could even clinch this evening. They've never won a qualifier in Costa Rica, but U.S. Soccer is also riding a program-best and current world-best 12-game winning streak. They're on a high. Their players are not only in form, but are playing with a confidence that we've never really seen before. You could argue that the future's never looked this bright for the squad.
The main attraction of the match may be that the team will finally be stitched together again as the USMNT makes its slow, inevitable journey to the 2014 World Cup. Earlier this year, the squad was essentially split in two: the starting squad, who competed in early World Cup qualifiers, and the B-team, who ran roughshod through the Gold Cup. Some players who participated in the Gold Cup squad, like Eddie Johnson, Demarcus Beasley, and Kyle Beckerman, showed well enough to make this new, more final squad. Landon Donovan's back from exile to again link up with Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore (if fit), and he's still the best American to ever kick a ball. Technical forward Aron Johannsson snubbed Iceland for the United States. Promising German center back John Brooks is on the bench, and he'll officially be a USMNT player for life if (read: when) he gets subbed on. The boys look deep right now. They look capable. They look nothing like the team from earlier this year, or from years past.
This is one of the best American teams ever, playing the most attractive and successful brand of soccer we've ever seen. But when you look at the pool, you'll see that a lot of the players have been around for years. Some have been a part of the team for over a decade. So what exactly happened?
The improvement in how the Americans perform, and ultimately how they're perceived by their fans and by other nations, largely comes down to one man: manager Jürgen Klinsmann. When he was hired to lead the team two summers ago, he ripped the program apart. He started over. He employed different starting lineups each game, seemingly at random. He changed training schedules. A German himself, he relied more on the German contingent of players. He instituted a new style of play.
Everyone bitched. Eleven players, in particular, bitched anonymously, to the press. And then... it changed. It clicked. The United States beat Germany's B-team—still a coup—and rattled off 11 more wins. In their most recent victory against Bosnia, the United States were 2-0 down at half, but Altidore put the team on his back with a second-half hat trick, and the Americans came all the way back to win 4-3. And this is important for reasons that go past this next game, or even this World Cup run.
There's a silly myth that know-nothings like to tell themselves and anyone else who will listen about soccer in America: That if only we had a way to attract behemoth freaks of nature like LeBron James or Calvin Johnson or whoever from real 'Merican sports to soccer, we'd absolutely own. But that's stupid. First, the best player in the world, maybe ever, is 5'7". To really get at the problem with this argument, though, think about this: While they've been playing serious basketball in places like Argentina and Germany for a long time, it's only been recently that the NBA has become something of an international league, and that's certainly not because, say, Italy hasn't had NBA-level athletes, or even because all of them played soccer.
The problem is that you don't have concentrations of talent in Italy like you do in Philly or Chicago, and you don't have a nationwide system of schools where the top players get professional level training. In order to be anything close to the best in any sport you need to play the best competition, and you need not just great coaching but cultured coaching, enlightened coaching. And that's where Klinsmann comes in.
For as long as there's been international soccer, the United States' problem has been that it's so isolated from South America and Europe, the world's two great cultural soccer centers. They're bazaars, where ideas and and manpower are bought, sold, and traded, where the best play against and are coached by the best, and get better. Just look at Belgium, the last team to beat the United States. It's a tiny country with a population smaller than that of metropolitan Los Angeles, but it's nestled in between France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, just across the channel from England. Philosophies of how to play the game literally have a shorter physical distance to travel between those nations, and so do the coaches who peddle them, and proximity gives their players experience at the highest level of international competition. Consequently, little Belgium is a dark horse to win the 2014 World Cup.
The U.S. just isn't connected to the major soccer powers that way, and being managed by a long line of the finest coaches this country has to offer hasn't helped. To improve, you need fresh perspectives and new ideas. The lack of them, even more than Chris Paul and Mike Trout types not being soccer players, is why Americans have never truly threatened to win a World Cup, and why many fans can rattle off every major fluke upset the USMNT has ever managed to pull off. Klinsmann, though, represents a moment when the U.S. has started to exchange with the great powers. The top players have been spending time in Europe for a while now, bringing back new techniques and ideas and passing them on to the kids coming up. Now they're working with a coach who's operated at the highest levels of the game. It's starting to pay off.
You can see it in the style of play. As American soccer has evolved, so have the complaints. First, forever, we lamented about how American soccer didn't have a true identity, a style of play. And so we got mollywhopped, all the time. Throughout this generation of players, though, led by Donovan, Dempsey, Beasley, Bocanegra, and a few others, the soccer team developed its own style: the counter. And the counter can be great, and the counter can be devastating, because it relies on the opponents' own attacking and exuberance to work. It's a surprise.
But the counter invites pressure. The counter requires teams to defend for long periods without the ball, which is counterproductive because unlike most sports, there is literally no time in a soccer match when it would be advantageous not to have the ball. Countering against better teams is a good tactic that gives a side a puncher's chance. But the best teams, the ones that aren't wasteful, that don't get too extended while attacking, that are surgical in front of goal, will destroy you if you don't have a Plan B.
Now, thanks largely to Klinsmann, the United States do. Not only can they counter, as they did to knock Costa Rica out of the Gold Cup this summer, but they can keep the ball. They can possess. You can see shades of Germany in how the USMNT now often elects to buck the counter in favor of pressing high on opposing backs and making it difficult for teams to play out of trouble. The Dutch do it, too. And remember how thoroughly the United States have recently dominated possession against lesser opponents, building up slowly, almost aimlessly at times, only to score a goal late when the opposing defense tires of chasing. Doesn't that feel... dare we say, kind of Spanish? When's the last time you've been as excited to see any American players link up as you are to see Altidore combine with Donovan, Dempsey, Fabian Johnson, and Graham Zusi, as well as Bradley pulling the strings from deep? We'd watched Altidore, Donovan, Dempsey, and Bradley for years before Klinsmann came along. But when's the last time we thought of them as a unit who can score on anybody?
For years, decades, the USMNT has been playing catchup with the rest of the world superpowers. Jürgen Klinsmann, though, is from the future. For the first time ever, the United States are playing like they finally belong in the world's game. And now that they're here, they can't go back.