SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Jurgen Klinsmann is always smiling like a guy who just bought his first new car. Happiness, optimism and good humor are his default positions. And while players may grumble over his demanding fitness formulas or his methods of communication, they generally appreciate the coach’s sunny disposition and encouraging ways.
So we can glean a lot when his team and his camps start feeling stiff or tense. The latest gathering in San Antonio certainly seemed so – which is why the 2-0 result over Mexico was important, perhaps even leaning toward “critical.” With a cloud seemingly lurking over everyone’s heads, the United States needed a snazzy result to ward off a developing layer of turbulence.
The “obvious” here is that Klinsmann and Co. wanted badly to keep the “Dos a Cero” party going. Sure, that field sucked, stripping some quality and making things harder on the eyes. But the spirit of the night was festive; U.S. players said they enjoyed the peppy pulse of the Texas night, which made the victory over Miguel Herrera’s men that much sweeter.
These things are difficult to judge from a distance – even a relatively close distance. See, access is fairly controlled and limited around the United States national team, even for journalists on the scene. (Pro tip: if you want real access in today’s pro sports, much better to be what’s known in the biz as a “rights holder.” That means Fox in this case. They get inside the velvet ropes; the rest of us stick our inquisitive noses in as best possible.)
So while this cannot be said with 100 percent certainty, sufficient years of intuition seemed to reveal more of an edge about the contingent in San Antonio. This was not a team in crisis – we certainly weren’t there yet. But there was more seriousness about it all, minor signs of agitation afoot. There were even some tells that the preternaturally positive Klinsmann was wound up a little tighter over this one.
The Mexican complaints about the field may have been more public, for instance, but Klinsmann wasn’t pleased about state of that beleaguered turf, either. Meanwhile, there were little signs that player dissatisfaction may have been seeping beneath the door cracks, too.
The coaches and players aren’t dummies; they know the results haven’t been there. They understand that friendlies are just friendlies and that one stinker won’t foul the air. But they also know this: line a few of them side-by-side and the offensive stench will start to rile the masses.
It quite conceivable that Klinsmann himself was starting to feel some pressure, even if he’s adept at the art of deflection, savvy and skillful at not showing so. None of us are 100 percent beyond self-doubt, after all.
Perhaps it’s possible that Klinsmann, like some of us, began to wonder if he’s the right man sitting the wrong job. Is it possible that Klinsmann is suited nicely for the role of technical director – but as the day-to-day manager, not so much? His strength, after all, seems to lie in guiding the bigger picture. The larger U.S. program probably needed the goosing that his doctrine of comprehensive improvement provided, but the final product on the field remained stubbornly stagnant. Plus, Klinsmann never seemed to find the sweet spot in daily man-management, which is most managers’ bread and butter.
Or perhaps self-doubt wasn’t the issue with Klinsmann. Maybe the guy began to wonder if anyone could pick off the targets he had confidently arranged? Could anyone move the needle enough in terms of improving stylistic approach? There seems to be a larger, growing concession that the hard-wired U.S. way doesn’t need changing, that leaning more on blunt force and determination, less on tika-taka and tactical acumen, is A-OK after all.
So Wednesday’s result was one the United States needed, just to turn the temperature down for a while. The scary-version alternative looked like this: They would sit on six-week break, staring back at a litany of unflattering results while yelling “Iceberg, dead ahead!”
Two tough European nights will soon unfold; all glitches and issues seem ripe for exposure in June contests at the Netherlands (World Cup semifinalist) and at Germany (Weltmeister!). At that point, without that win over Mexico, things could seriously have begun to unravel.
But the pressure valve flew open. Jordan Morris enjoyed a storybook night, Juan Agudelo’s national team return was a dandy, the back line was mostly tight, the overall night was alive with Yankee delight and the federation reaped buckets full of cash.
Further, Klinsmann made progress on solving bigger picture concerns, too. He wants badly for Michael Bradley to be a playmaker, only it mostly hasn’t worked. Well, Wednesday we saw what happens when Bradley mans that position and isn’t always bumping into Clint Dempsey, who likes to drop deep and work the same playmaking lanes. You know what, it works pretty well!
Yes, that leaves Klinsmann with another problem, which is what to do when Dempsey is healthy. Still, it’s progress toward determining best use of his best player, Bradley.
(I asked Bradley about this late Wednesday and, as usual, his response was quite thoughtful. Essentially he said the team is definitely better with Dempsey, and he’s fine adapting his game to the needs of the game and the group that he’s in.)
Friendlies are friendlies, and we almost always err when making too much of them. On the other hand, selective results do carry more weight.
Put it another way: most of the time a sandwich is just a sandwich. But for the times when you’re seriously hungry, blood sugar dropping and irritation on the rise, sometimes you really need that doggone sandwich.