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Klinsmann’s USA progressing, but more work needs to be done

While all the eyes of the football world will be on Euro 2012 for the rest of the month, the U.S men’s national team is preparing for its World Cup qualifying campaign, which starts on Friday at home against...Antigua & Barbuda.

Okay, CONCACAF doesn’t have the most talented of squads in it, so it’s hard to see the top CONCACAF teams - USA, Mexico, and Honduras - failing to get to the next round of qualifying.

But what the qualification round really represents is a performance review for the new USA manager, Juergen Klinsmann.

Team USA has taken a significant stride in each of the past three decades. In the 80s, it was qualification for the World Cup finals, a feat achieved for the first time in several generations at Italia ’90.

In the 90s, the goal was getting out of the group round. The 2002 event in Korea and Japan provided a high-water mark of reaching the quarter-finals, where the USA nearly pulled off an upset against Germany; ironically, setting the stage for Klinsmann to take over the German side two years later.

In this century, it is about challenging for the title. US Soccer sees Brazil 2014 as a major milestone.

A developing football nation

Prior to Klinsmann, the USA had been known for having great athletes who lacked two critical attributes: offensive creativity and international poise.

What separates native footballing countries from nascent ones is that the natives’ skills are honed in unstructured settings, such as school playgrounds or vacant lots, where kids can fool around with the ball without a coach or referee admonishing them.

They bring these ball skills to the national youth teams, then learn systems and specialise into roles. Brazil has been doing this for generations, bringing creative street footballers from the favellas into the national youth system.

Native footballing countries are also more familiar with their international foes, both as teams and as individual players, and are wise to spurious tactics from their peers. This dichotomy was most apparent when Team USA played Italy in the 2006 World Cup group stage.

In the second half, when Italy resorted to their customary play-acting, America’s Premier League-trained talent implored their MLS-trained teammates not to be overly sympathetic in kicking the ball out of play to aid an ‘injured’ Italian.

Thus, since he first arrived at Team USA’s training ground in Los Angeles, Klinsmann’s biggest focus has been to impart his knowledge and experience of what it takes to win major international trophies.

Positive signs

This week’s contests, with Scotland and Brazil on home soil and Canada away, were essentially a midterm on Klinsmann’s progress. As the self-appointed professor, I’ll give him a B+.

There is no shame in the results per se; a 5-1 blowout win over Scotland, a 4-1 loss to Brazil in which USA were the better team in the second half, and a 0-0 draw to Canada - who might be the one CONCACAF side capable of stealing a World Cup berth from the favourites.

When in control of the match, USA were fluid in running the Klinsmann offense; creating turnovers, moving the ball around the pitch with pace, and finding open attackers with space. The second half against Brazil would have showcased this best, if not for several timely saves and daft finishing.

Unlike previous incarnations of Team USA, attackers also weren’t shy about calling their own numbers or testing opposing keepers from a variety of angles, as proved against Scotland, especially by Michael Bradley.

USA also have learned another of Klinsmann’s trademarks; adaptability - adjusting formations both in and between matches. Fans saw a reassuring cohesiveness in the squad in both attacking and defending versions of the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2.

Predictable pattern

But under pressure, the USA too often fell into a predictable pattern of attacking the flank, then crossing into the air hoping for a deflection. Witness the middle of the first half against Brazil, after a poor handball decision gave the visitors an early penalty; or the second half against Canada, in which USA struggled to generate offense.

While generally solid, the defence did commit several untimely errors, most notably surrendering too many quality chances to Canada in the second half, especially given the score line.

Oddly, Klinsmann’s midfielders looked far more comfortable when the opposing team chose to attack from the outset, as Scotland and Brazil did, rather than defend from the outset, as Canada did.

Also requiring massive changes are the shirts, which looked like shoddy prison uniforms. Though at least they were in the right colours…Canada decided to wear blue.

As this week was really our first chance to see Klinsmann’s work with the squad, it’s too early to make a full assessment.

However, American football fans can be pleased with the results thus far - but with the caveat that there remains a lot more work to be done.

By Sreesha Vaman - Follow me on Twitter @SreeshaVaman

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