Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
Fans of the U.S. Men’s National Team saw the squad complete their best ever calendar year in 2013, leaving folks with high hopes towards next summer’s World Cup.
The USA won 16 games out of 23 and finished with a .761 winning percentage. During World Cup qualifying matches, the USMNT went undefeated at home as well as going undefeated in the CONCACAF Gold Cup on their way to the title. What changed from 12 months ago when the team seemed in disarray?
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann believes that a culture of accountability has made the difference.
“I think in the stretch of the last two and a half years you can see they are more accountable for what they are doing, they are more responsible about what they are doing,” Klinsmann told U.S. Soccer at the World Cup draw location in Bahia, Brazil. “Obviously they have the big dream of going to Brazil and that helps eventually, but I think they understand that being a professional soccer player is far more than just playing games.
“Therefore we created a performance based culture, an accountability based culture, and not only with the players but also with the staff. The coaches, the physios … whoever is involved, whoever is close to the players. It’s the same philosophy. If they have an issue and don’t perform or take it sloppy, there are thousands people who want to be part of the program. I think we stepped it up in terms of accountability.”
The new philosophy has indeed changed the culture within the team. Players who once had guaranteed starting places in the squad are now looking over their shoulder as players such as Alejandro Bedoya, John Brooks, and Aron Johannsson are all gunning for a place in the World Cup squad. Everyone has had to raise their game to keep their place in the side, and it’s shown on the field.
Klinsmann’s plan so far has created consistency in a constantly changing side, with plenty of players playing in new positions, and different starting lineups used thanks to injuries or poor club form.
“I think throughout the year in 2013, it was great to see players improve on a more consistent basis,” Klinsmann said. You know players understand now that in order to get to their highest level they need to put in more work. Consistency is a key word, and I think we were far more consistent. The players also understand that they have to perform when they come into camp. They have to perform every time they step on the field. They have to perform in a sense of what they are doing for the team.
“It was great to see in a stretch of 23 games throughout 2013, we had many different formations and many different players. The Gold Cup had different characteristics than the World Cup Qualifying games or friendly games, but whoever got on the field understood more and more his role, understood the urgency that we preach and they understood that is more than just playing on the field. It requires a 24/7 mindset to be a National Team player. I think overall the program is on another level now. “
While every USMNT fan was glad to see the squad finish in first place in the Hexagonal round, plenty are worried about the USA’s prospects at the World Cup. With the draw rules confirmed, the USMNT is placed in the same pot with the AFC qualifiers, meaning that the chances that the U.S. ends up in a group with two European powers and/or an African or South American giant is very likely.
The U.S. head coach isn’t worrying about the possibilities though, and he’s just excited to get to work preparing for what could be the toughest World Cup in the tournament’s history.
“It’s really exciting because you can feel it, you know what to expect, and you have those three opponents for the group stage,” Klinsmann said You can start making plans; you can start analyzing the teams and get familiar with the locations where you play them. You get to work. That’s what you love to do, and we want to do everything possible and be perfectly prepared for those three opponents and also already look ahead to what we can expect in the Round of 16 if we pass the group stage. This real thing – this is what you work for two and a half years. The process starts now.
“You need to lead them six months in advance in terms of what they’re going to expect and to make sure that they are ready because once you kick off the first game they’re going be emotionally going 200 miles per hour.”
With the MLS Cup final on Saturday, Klinsmann has discussed his thoughts of the biggest game of the year. Four players in the match – Matt Besler and Graham Zusi from Sporting Kansas City and Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman from Real Salt Lake – have spent plenty of time with the USMNT this year and Klinsmann has praised both of the team’s playing styles as well as these four players.
“I think we all can expect an exciting game. Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake both had tremendous years,” Klinsmann said. “They played very consistent, very tremendous football. It’s fun to watch them, and they have a philosophy that is in sync with the way we look at the game. They want to have possession, they want to dictate the game, they want to play high tempo and they want to play high pressure. Both teams are really creative to watch and to see them come through going to the final is deserved. For us, it’s exciting because we have four national team players, two on each side, that are constantly with us and in a certain way role models.
“You take Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, two players that came through the January camp, and with Kyle Beckerman you have someone with a lot of experience and who is what I like to say a giver to the game. Nick Rimando is also such a positive character, and it’s great to see those four compete in that final and great to see two teams that really deserve to be in there. Hopefully it’s not going to be too cold in Kansas that day and they can play a good game.”