HE CAME, HE SAW, HE WON:
Jurgen Klinsmann’s European conquest came in the form of two stunning victories for the Americans over the Netherlands and Germany.
After outgunning the Dutch on the way to their first-ever win against die Oranje, the USMNT followed up their performance with a surprisingly composed triumph over die Mannschaft in the land of Jurgen Klinsmann’s birth.
Without the reliability of key cogs in the 2014 World Cup cycle such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Jermaine Jones, immediate questions were raised regarding the Americans’ ability to compete with two world football powers on their respective home turfs.
Everything is Starting to Click between Klinsmann and Michael Bradley
The Americans answered those questions with an admirable level of resilience and some top-drawer performances from the young players whom Jurgen Klinsmann called on to step up and earn their stripes. Gyasi Zardes, Danny Williams, and Bobby Wood all registered their first international goals against the Dutch, while young guns DeAndre Yedlin and Jordan Morris terrorized both sets of defenders with their pace.
Klinsmann deserves a lot of the credit for these victories, which represent two more entries on an impressive slate of wins for the Nats against European powerhouses during his tenure.
In both matches, Klinsmann was able to put his players in positions where they were best able to succeed, which he hasn’t always been able to do in the past. As much as the post-World Cup matches have been learning experiences for many of the players in the U.S. pool, Klinsmann has also had his fair share of struggles in his quest to experiment his way towards fielding the strongest possible version of the U.S. Men’s National Team.
The past week is evidence that the mad scientist may just finally have had a “Eureka!” moment. Regardless of the fact that both matches were friendlies, two wins in five days over the sixth-ranked team in the world and the reigning World Cup champions is a huge accomplishment for the U.S., especially considering the style in which the matches were won.
Against the Netherlands, the United States defense was exposed by the likes of Memphis Depay and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, resulting in three goals being conceded. The center back pairing of John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado looked shaky at best and had trouble competing in the air, while Timmy Chandler was caught out of position and beaten time and again on the right side.
As bad as the defending was last Friday, the Americans’ firepower was on full display. Three unanswered second-half goals led the Nats out of a 3-1 hole and proved that they could create and finish chances against top opponents.
The frenetic and largely disorganized nature of the Netherlands match was replaced on Wednesday by an almost-polar opposite feel in terms of the performance of the U.S. back line. During the opening half hour in Cologne, the Nats withstood attack after attack from Germany, with a shocking positional error from Timmy Chandler (surprise) resulting in the lone goal for the home side. John Brooks looked completely different, turning in a solid, poised performance.
The Germans created a couple more big chances on the day, but nothing like the way that the Netherlands were able to blast in a barrage of crosses in a match that could have ended with a 6-5 scoreline.
After weathering the storm for most of the first half, Michael Bradley found Mix Diskerud on an inch perfect cross that resulted in a ninja-kick finish, giving the U.S. momentum that they would ride into the second half. The next forty-five minutes saw them largely dominate the game and eventually find a winner off the foot of the now-electric Bobby Wood in the 87th minute following a deceptive dummy run by Stanford University’s Jordan Morris.
WHY IT HAPPENED:
As I wrote earlier on, these two results are largely due to the work of Jurgen Klinsmann, who made it possible for his players to maximize their impact on the game by putting them in spots where they could be at their best.
After almost a year of largely fruitless experimentation, everything is starting to click with Klinsmann.
The most glaringly positive example of this can be found in the play of Michael Bradley. Over the last year, Bradley’s best position has been something of a controversial topic in American soccer circles. Klinsmann made no secret of his desire to see Bradley play as a No. 10, in an advanced position as a play-maker, and making the killer pass in and around the 18-yard box. To the disappointment of many U.S. fans, Bradley delivered lackluster performances in this role, while he continued to make brilliant plays from a deeper position.
Fast forward to last Friday against the Dutch: Bradley took his place at the top of a triangular midfield and proceeded to dominate the match from start to finish. His best play was a nearly full-field run in possession during second half stoppage time before slotting a beautiful through ball to Jordan Morris, whose cross found the feet of Bobby Wood for the game winner.
Though he began both matches in the No. 10 spot, Bradley’s job was essentially to roam the whole field, becoming a box to box threat capable of being the axis of a counterattack or hitting a killer ball from anywhere in the attacking third. Against the Netherlands, Bradley registered secondary assists on both John Brooks’ and Bobby Wood’s goals, both of which came on nearly identical plays: Bradley slots a perfect ball for the crosser to run onto, a low cross finds the finisher on the back post, finisher buries it with a first-time strike.
During the Germany match, Bradley’s performance was largely the same. He found the ball deep, willed himself up the field, and then became a No. 10 in the final third. Once again, he showed off his ability to play clever through balls to split open the opposing defense, but it was his surgical, inch-perfect long switch that hit a streaking Mix Diskerud right between the numbers that led to an American goal.
THE POINT IS:
Before we go any farther, let’s talk about why Michael Bradley has been playing absolutely out of his skin recently after struggling at the World Cup and into early 2015.
Essentially, Bradley’s recent performances are a reflection of both his evolution as a creative attacking midfielder AND Jurgen Klinsmann’s understanding of how to get the most out of him in that role.
Bradley’s current role as a box-to-box distributive outlet and creative force maximizes the use of his entire skill set. Deceptive speed, seemingly boundless endurance, and a desire to find the ball at all times, coupled with both the vision and technical ability to log spectacular assist upon spectacular assist (and secondary assist) make il Generale the prototypical player for his current role.
But, if you’ve watched the USMNT over the last year, you’ll notice that it hasn’t always looked that way. At the World Cup, Bradley was at the center of a midfield that looked completely disjointed and was unable to hold possession for any meaningful stretch of time throughout most of their time in the tournament. Bradley took a lot of stick for his performance at the World Cup, but he wasn’t really to blame.
Fast forward (again) to June 2015, when Michael Bradley is the best player on the field for either team in two straight games against the Dutch and the Germans. The difference is night and day.
Bradley’s absurdly good form is a result of Klinsmann recognizing Bradley’s skill set AND those that best compliment it.
That’s right: Michael Bradley’s success is a result of Jurgen Klinsmann’s ability to put him in the right spot with the right players around him.
WHICH MEANS THAT…
Klinsmann has finally come to terms with the all-importance of Kyle Beckerman. As dynamic of a player as Bradley is, he can’t be everywhere at once, and the Nats are going to get caught out on the break if they throw everyone forward whenever Bradley charges up the field at the helm of a counterattack.
If Michael Bradley is the Terminator, then Kyle Beckerman is Smoky the Bear for the USMNT. His defensive instincts in the midfield are second to none in the U.S. player pool and he is by far the most reliable option for putting out fires in the defensive third whenever the U.S. is scrambling or stretched out of shape. In terms of keeping the ball, Beckerman’s ability to receive a pass under pressure is invaluable when it comes to holding possession and engineering cohesion in a midfield where there is often a need for a release valve.
Beckerman’s ability to man the fort, so to speak, is what allows Bradley to be at his best and what separates him from a player like Jermaine Jones, who partnered with Bradley for most of the World Cup. Jones’ frenetic style of play and ball-hunting instincts are what make him a dangerous midfielder, but they’re also what makes him a liability when partnered with a guy who has similar instincts but is a better player. Jones, throughout a large portion of his time with the U.S. National Team, handcuffed Bradley while also making life extremely difficult for the defenders behind him.
Beckerman does exactly the opposite of this. He understands his role as a No. 6 and is also very, very good at playing it. He acts as a buffer for both a Bradley-run midfield and the defenders he’s playing in front of. His positioning in transition, as well as his ability to put out fires with last-second tackles and crucial interceptions (of which he’s made many) makes it so that the back four aren’t forced to stretch out of position and open up holes through which the opposition can attack.
Against the Germans, Bradley was dangerous from the first minute to the last, but it wasn’t until Beckerman came on at halftime that the U.S. took control of the game.
With Beckerman in place, the U.S. has a platform from which to maximize the damage they are capable of inflicting in the attacking half.
AND THEN WHAT?
Beckerman completes the first half of the puzzle, but it only matters if the U.S. can capitalize on his reliability and score goals consistently. That hasn’t always been the case. In the past, especially at the World Cup, the USMNT attack lived and died on the backs of Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. Both of those players have continued to be important since then, but they aren’t the only options anymore and that is an extremely good thing.
Over the last two games, U.S. goals have been scored by Bobby Wood (two game winners!!!), Danny Williams, Mix Diskerud, Gyasi Zardes, and John Brooks.
It’s important to note how bizarre that is.
Gyasi, Danny, and Bobby (!!!) each scored their first goals ever for the Nats, and John Brooks scored with his feet on a counter attack. In fact, only one of those goals came as a result of a set piece, and it was Williams’ deflected equalizer on a failed Dutch clearance off a corner kick.
So, not only is the love being spread, it’s being spread during the run of play… and it’s largely being spread by Michael Bradley.
But still, he alone is not responsible for this recent run of goal scoring.
Michael Bradley’s play over the last two matches has been largely based around his ability to collect the ball, break pressure with one or two touches (check out what he does to Bastian Schweinsteiger in the 23rd minute), and zoom off into space before hitting a forward pass.
His explosiveness on the ball forces defenders to make decisions in space, which is just about the most dangerous thing a midfielder can do.
But it only works if you can take advantage of it.
What we’ve seen out of Jurgen Klinsmann this month is that he values speed… a lot. He always has, and his preference for players who can stretch a field is what continues to prompt his selection of players like Miguel Ibarra, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood, and Timmy Chandler. Many fans have gone ballistic over these selections, and in the past that anger has been justifiable because those players haven’t been able to make an impact.
Weirdly, though, now they are. Even Chandler, who keeps making ridiculously boneheaded defensive errors and inexcusable mental lapses in defensive transition, is lethal on the overlap and in his ability to get forward and swing in crosses.
Ibarra didn’t feature in these two friendlies, and that’s probably due to the emergence of Morris as a legitimate attacking option. Morris looks to be a more complete forward than Ibarra, and his instincts are incredibly well-developed for an NCAA player.
The reason we’re seeing these players suddenly have an impact on games, against big opponents no less, is a further reflection of Klinsmann’s emerging mastery of how to use Bradley.
As Bradley draws defenders and forces them to commit to stopping him as he throttles his way toward the 18, he’s opening up space both on the wings and in the gaps between defenders where forwards like Wood and Morris have been able to be so dangerous. Pair that with DeAndre Yedlin’s ability to come off the bench and eat fullbacks for dinner and suddenly you have an incredibly dynamic formula for the U.S. National Team’s attack.
It’s a formula that worked against the Netherlands to a tune of four goals, and it’s a formula that’s helped Bobby Wood go from zero to hero in five days.
This has been one of the most exciting weeks in American soccer for a long, long time. The USWNT opened the World Cup with a win over Australia, the U-20s are headed to the quarterfinals of their world cup, and the USMNT just took a B team across the Atlantic Ocean and dropped the hammer on two world powers.
The Gold Cup starts in a month and it’s absolutely a must-win tournament for Klinsmann and his men. First of all, there’s never any excuse for not rolling over Caribbean CONCACAF opponents by a three or four goal margin. Secondly, there’s a 2017 Confederations Cup spot on the line. That tournament is both an important competition in and of itself, but also represents a clear competitive benchmark for a team to give themselves a benchmark a year before the 2018 World Cup.
The fact that Jurgen Klinsmann appears to have cracked the code for several different areas in this U.S. squad is incredibly important not only for individual players, but for getting consistent results against top opposition and building lasting chemistry throughout this group of players.
Don’t underestimate the importance of these two friendly matches against the Netherlands and Germany. The results don’t matter, but they do. They do matter so, so much. They’re a reflection the state of a team and they shed light on what works and what doesn’t. There’s a reason Michael Bradley was the best player on the field for either team in those matches, and it wasn’t because Germany and the Netherlands weren’t trying.
For now, it looks as if Klinsmann is finally starting to figure out what works in a profound, game changing kind of way. Jurgen has talked a lot about changing the face of this program and developing the USMNT into a force that can impose its style on any team in the world.
We aren’t there yet, but it looks like Klinsmann has finally found the path.
ONE LAST METAPHORICAL ANECDOTE:
When every piece of the puzzle is in its right place and contributing to the larger whole, beautiful, 30-pass masterpieces can be constructed against any team in the world: