Let’s get the platitudes out-of-the-way first. The U.S. showed lots of heart and guts and determination. All true.
Tim Howard played like a world-class keeper we all know he is even if Alex Ferguson did not.
There. That’s done.
Let’s get to the important issue and that is how Juergen Klinsmann’s lineup and substitutions (and to a lesser extent the roster he selected) cost the US a chance to truly compete tonight with Belgium. He sent a team out there tonight to play like possums, scared just of the Belgians but also, it seemed, of their own shadows. For all that insipid talk of how the US needs to build a playing style befitting its national character, tonight’s performance was exactly the opposite. It wasn’t a rising power on the world stage stretching its legs amongst the traditional powers of the sport, instead his team played like minnows desperate to maintain a “respectable result” amongst an opponent “miles and miles” better than the US. Well, that’s just nonsense. The US isn’t that bad and Belgium isn’t that good. The decision to not start Beckerman made it immediately clear that the US wasn’t going to try to possess the ball or try to take the game in any way to Belgium. Instead, Klinsmann took the time-honored path since the 90s of allowing the opponent to lay siege to the American net and pray that Friedel, Keller, Howard, etc. bails out the rest of the team.
That no longer is good enough – not with the kind of talent that this team has.
Moving on though, the single worst thing was seeing Klinsmann utterly freeze up late in normal time as he waited and waited to put on some kind of attacking spark. Sitting on that sideline, surrounded by yes-men and has-beens (this means you, Berti Fogts), looking utterly perplexed, probably scared (because now his reputation is really on the line) and simply frozen to his bench while creative options like Julian Green and Mix Diskerud waited for Klinsmann act. When, finally, Klinsmann did act, it paid off because Julian Green is a really promising player and one that no defender “has a book” on. But by then it really was too late to ask for the US to suddenly attack like crazy after spending well over 100 minutes exhausting themselves by surrendering all initiative to the Belgians. A truly talented, confident coach would’ve acted sooner instead of sitting there, probably worrying about how this substitute could affect the next over-the-top fawning profile of him in the media.
Klinsmann’s scaredy-cat tactics may have made Tim Howard a hero tonight but it also made him a victim. No one, not Yashin, Zoff, Buffon, Kahn or whoever is going to save 27 on-target shots. That’s insanity and that’s as a result of Klinsmann terrible tactical setup going into the game. Simply put, Klinsmann failed Howard tonight.
In truth, Klinsmann failed an entire roster full of eager and talented players by his sending them out to play something that only faintly resembled soccer for 90 minutes. It wasn’t even “proper” anti-soccer. If he sent them out to hack and foul and dive like the Mourinho Chelsea teams of yore, I’d be fine that with that. That would have been more proactive than the absolute nonsense tactics he used during most of tonight’s match. Instead, he sent the US team out to try to hide for 90 minutes. That’s not smart. That’s not even American. That’s just a narcissist getting nervous about his own reputation and choosing to victimize 23 players and disappoint millions of fans in order to maintain his own alleged credibility. Somehow, US Soccer paid this guy millions to, when it mattered most, out-Sampson Steve Sampson in terms of tactical cowardice.
And what’s worse, he did all that despite saying he was going to do exactly the opposite. Where was that proactive play? Really, where was it? It was there for a few minutes against Portugal. It was there ever so briefly late against Germany. But, when it really counted against a Belgian team that you could see wilting before your eyes, Klinsmann started scared and ended frozen to his bench. That’s not good enough.
Additionally, I’m sick of being told that trying hard is enough and that “guts and resilience” are the only things that US teams can do at a high level. When this team doesn’t play like a team scared of its opponents, it can actually put together a few passes. We saw that against Portugal and we saw that in the last few minutes against Belgium. Klinsmann, for all his talk of allowing attacking play to flourish, may have instead impeded it for much of this tournament.
When you think about it, this team succeeded, if you are prepared to call this World Cup a success, in spite of Klinsmann’s actions.
It won in spite Klinsmann leaving America’s best attacking player at home. Yes, Donovan would’ve been very helpful off the bench at times during this tournament.
It won in spite of Klinsmann butchering his forward selections by not taking anyone who could replicate Altidore’s athleticism if Jozy got hurt or suspended.
It won in spite of Klinsmann never building anything resembling a tactical “plan B” if Altidore couldn’t perform his role.
It won in spite of Klinsmann playing the Michael Bradley, still the team’s best overall field player, out of position for the entire tournament even as his play declined.
It won in spite of a coach who had so little confidence in his players that he told them through his tactics and his actions that they stood little chance of beating Belgium even when this tournament’s unpredictability and Belgium’s prior matches told us exactly the opposite.
It won in spite of Klinsmann almost certainly overtraining them in preparation for the tournament, possibly leading to Altidore’s injury and almost certainly leading to the preponderance of muscle strains this team suffered throughout.
All that being said, Klinsmann has done one thing well. Looking beyond the disaster he made of the forward position, Klinsmann’s decision to rely on younger players on this roster paid off. Players like Brooks, Yedlin, Green, and Johnson paid off for this team and those are players I’m not sure previous regimes would’ve put on the big stage as Klinsmann did. Other than at forward, I think his roster made sense and worked out. In the end, I’m not sure Goodson or Parkhurst would’ve really been better than any of the other younger defenders. At that position, I think Klinsmann probably made the right calls.
But, Klinsmann undid a lot of that good work with his utterly terrible tactical choices before and during the Belgium match. I will remember these players fondly but not this team and that’s because of Klinsmann. This group of players deserved better than this narcissist, hypocrite, and tactical dunce. We all did.