- - Thursday, June 26, 2014

ANALYSIS

Jurgen Klinsmann has had plenty of critics. Many of them are fans. Plenty are media. Some have been his own players.

Those second-guessers lost much of their ammunition last year, when the U.S. national team established regional supremacy by breezing through World Cup qualifying and winning the Gold Cup. Klinsmann’s personnel choices and tactics remained polarizing, but those questions became quibbles.

Then the concerns re-emerged last month, when U.S. Soccer released the 23-man World Cup roster. With several veterans cast aside — including all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan — in favor of unproven commodities, it had to be asked: Does Klinsmann really know what he’s doing?

Yes. Yes he does.

That’s not to say every choice is the right one. (Leaving behind Donovan still perplexes.) Yet after the Americans survived the ballyhooed “Group of Death,” one must give credit where it’s due.


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Klinsmann has a vision. He’s committed to it. And it’s working.

Although Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Germany wasn’t pretty, the narrow defeat to the world’s second-ranked team was enough. This U.S. squad, after all, had already done the legwork with a dramatic win over African power Ghana and a back-and-forth draw against No. 4 Portugal.

“All of the teams qualifying for the World Cup are strong,” Klinsmann told reporters Thursday. “But this was the strongest group.”

For all of the attention heaped on that brutally late goal conceded by the U.S. against the Portuguese on Sunday, it ultimately was inconsequential. The Americans made it to the round of 16 all the same.

While many a coach has failed because of misguided loyalty and stale strategy, Klinsmann has banked on an ever-evolving approach since taking over the U.S. in July 2011.

After winning it all four years ago, Spain boss Vicente del Bosque included 16 holdovers on his roster for Brazil. Klinsmann, on the other hand, has just six players from the U.S. team that won its group in South Africa.

The Spaniards flew home earlier this week. The Americans endure.

Two of the most controversial selections by Klinsmann were youthful defenders John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin, who had combined to play in five friendlies and zero competitive matches for the U.S. when named to the final roster.

Brooks, of course, came off the bench to head home the late winner against Ghana. Then Yedlin’s speed created Clint Dempsey’s go-ahead goal versus Portugal. It’s hard to disagree with those decisions now.

At this point, Klinsmann and the U.S. team find themselves with an opportunity to do something special. With the imposing group-stage slate in the past, the Americans have a winnable second-round clash against Belgium on Tuesday.

While the Belgians are loaded with talent, with stars including Manchester City center back Vincent Kompany, Chelsea winger Eden Hazard and Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, it’s an untested team.

Belgium hasn’t even played in a major tournament since 2002, failing to qualify for every World Cup and European Championship since. Given a forgiving group, alongside Algeria, Russia and South Korea, it won all three games but none by multiple goals.

“It’s very different because there’s a very clear picture: You have to win the game, no matter how — extra time, penalties,” Klinsmann said of the knockout round. “In the group stage, everyone does the numbers. But in the knockouts, it’s now or gone, and that’s a good feeling because you can just focus on your current opponent.”

The longer the U.S. survives in this tournament, the more likely it becomes that Jozy Altidore will return from a hamstring strain suffered in the opener. If Klinsmann can steer the Americans through the Group of Death without their best striker, what can he do with a healthy squad?

By securing passage to the next round, Klinsmann also ensured that U.S. Soccer will stay in the American mainstream for another five days. A win over Belgium will buy four more.

With record TV ratings coming in for the U.S. team, such prolonged attention would undoubtedly be valuable to the sport’s steady growth stateside.

That’s music to Klinsmann’s ears. For a coach under contract through the 2018 World Cup, the 49-year-old German is nothing if not committed to the big picture.

And that’s something American fans should be happy to hear.

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