Jurgen Klinsmann took over the United States Men’s National Team in late July of 2011 with much fanfare. Some questioned the hire, but there was no doubt that the former German international and coach brought a pedigree and validity that was unseen in his predecessors, Bob Bradley and Bruce Arenas. The Klinsmann era began with a 1-1 draw against bitter rivals Mexico thanks to a Brek Shea goal.
From there started a stretch of almost two years that saw Klinsmann’s lead questioned. Fans and media alike were perplexed as to why the changes by Klinsmann weren’t bearing any positive fruit. The team was not getting results against opponents big or small. By the early part of this year there were some already calling for a change in direction. A slow start to World Cup Qualifying added further fuel to the fire of the rumor mill.
To his credit, Klinsmann never wavered. He stayed the course and believed in his system and players. That faith, to the relief of many fans, was finally rewarded this summer.
Heading into a two month stretch that lined up three World Cup qualifiers, the Gold Cup, and a handful of friendlies against staunch European opponents, the outlook was not overly positive given the team’s lackluster form. The first game, May 29th against Belgium did little to ease the minds of the U.S. faithful. The Americans were thoroughly outclassed, 4-2, by a young and upcoming Belgian squad led by Aston Villa frontman Christian Benteke who netted a brace.
Just four days later, the U.S. hosted the Germans in DC. Admittedly the Germans didn’t bring their full arsenal of players, many of whom were resting after the Champions League final that involved domestic clubs Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. That, however, did little to reassure that the U.S. wouldn’t get thrashed again. To the surprise of many, and aided by some poor German goal keeping, the Americans were able to hold off a late flurry for a 4-3 win. Even more importantly were the contributions from regulars Clint Dempsey who chipped in with a brace and Jozy Altidore who added another goal.
There was still skepticism around the team going forward, but at least they weren’t heading into the all important qualifying matches on the heals of a loss.
On June 7th the U.S. packed their bags and headed down to Kingston to face the Jamaicans. Despite the setting, this trip was not about reggae and beach bumming. Klinsmann made it clear that the team was all business.
The game was not a signature performance by any stretch. The Americans took the lead thanks to a Altidore strike in the 30th minute. That looked to be enough until a Jermaine Beckford strike tied it up for the home team in the 89th minute. Fortunately, some stoppage time dramatics from the unlikely source of defender Brad Evans salvaged a full three points for the U.S.
The trip to Kingston was a success on paper, but the performance left a lot of room for chatter, with many claiming good fortune as a main component of the result. However, the trip to the Caribbean island did seem to wake up a player that American fans seemed to have given up on just a year ago.
Altidore was supposed to be the goal scoring savior of American soccer. He made his senior team debut in 2007 against South Africa just days after turning 18. Jozy, though, never quite lived up to the hype. He bounced around various club teams, and he always seemed a bit lost for the national side, too often letting the play come to him instead of vice-versa. He scored some goals, but fans often didn’t like the inconsistency of his play. The summer of 2011 saw Altidore sign with Dutch squad AZ Alkmaar of the Eredivisie. His first season with the team was a solid one that finished with him as the seventh leading goal scorer in the league. Nonetheless, his performance with the national team still wasn’t up to snuff. But his second season with AZ saw the New Jersey born striker really come alive. Altidore shredded the Dutch League on his way to 23 goals, most ever by an American player in a European league.
With the national team seemingly stuck in a rut, it was imperative that Altidore translate his club success into national contribution if the Americans were going to have a successful summer. Boy did he ever. After Jamaica, Altidore scored the winning goal in the next two Word Cup qualifiers, victories over Panama (2-0) and Honduras (1-0) respectively. The U.S. team found themselves suddenly in prime position in the hexagonal and well on track to qualifying for Brazil 2014.
After the Honduras fixture, the Americans turned their sights on a different test: the Gold Cup. The North American tournament, run by CONCACAF, is a bi-annual affair that affords the winner a chance to compete at the Confederations Cup. The Gold Cup, often a tournament that sees national teams testing out young players, is not held in as high regard as other competitions. For Jurgen Klinsmann, though, it was the perfect place to get some new young blood into the team, as well as welcome back an old familiar face, one Landon Donovan.
Donovan returned to the national team after a long hiatus, and though he is perhaps the most recognizable American soccer player of the last decade, he found himself having to prove he belonged if he wanted any shot of making the squad for Brazil.
Well the tournament was a rousing success, both for the team and Donovan. The Americans smashed their way through to a Gold Cup crown on the heals of Donovan’s dominant play. His effort was rewarded with the Golden Ball (given to the tournament’s most valuable player). Donovan during the tournament also became the first international player to record 50 assists and 50 goals for his national team, a pretty remarkable achievement given the current talent in world football.
The victory in the Gold Cup left the Americans with a national record eleven straight wins, and a friendly date with Bosnia and Herzegovina before resuming qualifying for the Word Cup in September.
Like Belgium, the Bosnians are an up and coming young team. On top of their own group for Word Cup qualifying, they came into the match with a country best FIFA ranking of thirteen.
The first half saw the Americans fall behind quickly 1-0 thanks to some poor defending and a good second effort from Man City striker Edin Dzeko. By halftime the deficit had been doubled, and already the grumblings were starting again: the U.S. can only beat lesser opponents, they always struggle against the big boys. it was only a matter of time before they started playing poorly again.
Enter Mr. Altidore. The Americans came roaring out of the second half gate with Altidore supplying an assist to Seattle Sounders man Eddie Johnson, who himself had a great Gold Cup. After that Altidore was done sharing, netting a sublime second half hat-trick highlighted by a stunning 25 yard freekick into the upper left corner. A late goal by Dzeko made it 4-3, but the Americans escaped with perhaps their most impressive, and first come-from behind-victory, of Klinsmann’s tenure. Though only a friendly, the performance was an absolute treat, not only for fans of the American team, but also for fans of soccer in general.
Perhaps the only down moment of the summer was yet another devastating injury to midfielder Stuart Holden, who had just worked his way back into the national fold. Holden tore his ACL in the final of the Gold Cup against Panama.
Next up for the Americans is a trip to Costa Rica on September 6th when they resume qualifying. They have four qualifiers left, and it all wraps up on October 15th with another journey to Central America to face Panama.
The U.S. haven’t cemented their place on the world stage just yet, but just six months removed from calls for Klinsmann’s job, the country finds itself in the midst of the most successful spell in National Team history. I say enjoy the ride, because it has been a blast so far.
The current twelve game win streak is the longest in the world, and seventh longest all time. Spain holds the all time record with fifteen straight victories.
Altidore’s streak of a goal in five straight matches is the longest in U.S. National history.
Donovan is the all time leader in both assists and goals for the National Team.