Jurgen Klinsmann trends a tad on the eccentric side. No news bulletin there.
The German soccer legend, after all, is a tinkerer and a trailblazer. There's no one else like him — at times for good reason. But the hazy method to his madness is finally surfacing.
For a man who takes an unorthodox approach to everything from tactics to nutrition, a dose of good, old-fashioned consistency has the U.S. national team reaching its potential.
With victories this month over Jamaica, Panama and Honduras, the Americans are 4-1-1 in the final stage of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. After entering the trio of matches on uncertain ground, the U.S. now sits atop its region.
"The big picture is that we're growing with every game," Klinsmann told reporters Tuesday after the Americans' 1-0 win over Honduras in Sandy, Utah. "I think we see here a group that is really sticking together."
That hasn't always been the case. After taking charge in August 2011, Klinsmann deployed 27 different lineups in 27 games. Concerns about cohesion festered when the lackluster performances in qualifying, including losses to Jamaica and Honduras, began to pile up.
But after beating world power Germany 4-3 on June 2 in a tune-up match at RFK Stadium in Washington, the U.S. went with the same starting 11 for a 2-1 win at Jamaica five days later. While suspensions and an injury forced changes in the subsequent two contests, Klinsmann kept his core group together and found success through three simple staples:
1. The right attacking philosophy. Upon taking over, Klinsmann implemented a theoretically attractive 4-3-3 alignment that was a square peg in a round hole. He then auditioned a more direct 4-4-2 approach to mixed results. And the less said about his formations that crammed three defensive midfielders on the field, the better.
Klinsmann recently has let midfield generals Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones do the dirty work in front of three attackers, with a pair of true wingers flanking playmaker Clint Dempsey. The 4-2-3-1 is the ideal look for the personnel — forward-thinking, yet not overly ambitious.
"The way that this team is playing right now is one of confidence, and of a recognition of what they can do and, more importantly, what they can't do," said ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas, who represented the U.S. at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups. "Maybe it's taken a little time to figure out, but it's translated to a good month."
That's largely thanks to Klinsmann finding …
2. The supporting cast for Jozy Altidore. Coming into this busy stretch, Altidore was an enigma. Although he bagged 31 goals for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar this past season, he hadn't scored for the U.S. since November 2011.
Four goals later, the worries surrounding Altidore are buried. Before, Klinsmann too often left Altidore alone up top without proper service. Now, with the likes of Graham Zusi, Fabian Johnson and Eddie Johnson offering him dangerous crosses from the flanks, the 23-year-old striker has at long last found a rhythm in Klinsmann's system.
"There's a width; that's something that's been missing the last couple years," Lalas said. "Those types of players are providing service to a guy that's on fire."
With the goals pouring in, Klinsmann at the other end can take confidence in …
3. The Omar Gonzalez-Matt Besler pairing. As Klinsmann has phased out an aging corps of center backs, including 34-year-old ex-captain Carlos Bocanegra, he's chosen these MLS standouts in their mid-20s to protect veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Besler offers the anticipation and organization that allows the 6-foot-5 Gonzalez to assert his aerial dominance. While Klinsmann acknowledged the back line "is not perfect," Gonzalez and Besler have allowed just one goal over four consecutive qualifiers together.
"One thing that really helps is consistent pairing and getting the coordination and the understanding and having that communication that comes with time," Lalas said. "The ability to blood them in games that mean something and still not pay the price in results is valuable."
Thanks to those results, one victory in the final four qualifiers — which take place in September and October — likely will book the Americans' tickets to Brazil. As a result, a seventh straight trip to the World Cup seems inevitable.
And Klinsmann has the tempering of his own tampering to thank.
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