Ever since the sun set on the spectacle of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, every soccer playing nation turned their attention toward Brazil and the monumental task of building a team capable of qualifying and competing in the world’s greatest sporting event. With more than 200 countries throwing their hat in the ring, the process continues in earnest in 2012. More importantly, the attempt to reach its seventh-consecutive World Cup kicks off for the United States.
The USA’s efforts will be commanded by Jurgen Klinsmann, the former World Cup champion who brings a unique philosophy to the role of National Team coach, steeped in the deep rooted belief that helping a player challenge himself in all aspects of his life will ultimately bring about success on the field. This year offers the U.S. boss the first full opportunity to implement those ideas, and to put them to the ultimate test when qualifying ramps up in June.
FROM REACTIVE TO PROACTIVE
Much like his character as a player that made him dangerous as a striker, one of Klinsmann’s main tenets is the need for a team to go on the attack. “We need to transition from a reactive style of soccer to a proactive style in order to play with the big nations,” Klinsmann reasons. “Our goal moving forward is to develop the ability to keep pace with them, which means gaining confidence in our ability to keep the ball, improvement on the fitness end, and having the capability to recover fast after games. We can’t be too defensive if we want to beat the best. It’s going to require hunger and determination from the players.”
CHALLENGE TO CHANGE
The coaching staff plans to provide a holistic approach to improving the team’s performance, and not just focusing on the x’s and o’s. Delving into areas like nutrition, personal education, and psychological and mental training, Klinsmann knows that a big part of the success will come down to the willingness of the players to embrace change. “This is a year where players will get challenged with a lot of ideas on what is required on the highest international level. We will introduce different methods and tools that they can use in their personal game to improve in every manner. We are going to ask them to be open-minded. We can offer all these opportunities, but in the end it will be up to the players to determine how far they are willing to go.”
'THERE’S ALWAYS ANOTHER LEVEL'
A big part of Klinsmann’s efforts will be focused on challenging players to achieve the highest level possible in their professional careers. There have already been incredible success stories, which the coach believes is only the tip of the iceberg.
“We want to continue our work on how individual players can reach another level,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where he plays, what club he plays for, or what league he plays in. We want to help them take the next step in their career and not be content. There’s already been huge progress in the past. Ten years ago, we had some players at European clubs. Now we have many players that are starters at their clubs. Can they become starters at bigger clubs? Can they play in bigger competitions? That’s the challenge, and as coaches we want to help push them. We plan on having tight communication lines with the players and their clubs, even when they are not with the National Team.”
To support the efforts, U.S. assistant coach Andreas Herzog will be based in Austria and run the USA’s “European” operation. By consistently visiting and communicating with players, coaches and directors, he will be able to monitor progress and provide constant feedback on the fitness and form of the National Team pool.
THE FIXTURE LIST
The U.S. starts playing for keeps beginning June 8 when the team opens the semifinal round of qualifying with a home tilt against Antigua & Barbuda. In the meantime, there are precious few remaining opportunities for the full team to get prep work on the field. The annual January camp sees MLS-based players get a chance to impress with a pair of matches, including the first ever friendly against Panama. That match, a rare venture into Central America outside of official competition, also gives the aspiring internationals a taste of an away game in the region.
Adding to the list of top-class opponents the U.S. has faced in recent years, the team faces four-time World Cup champion Italy in February. From there the international calendar goes on hiatus around the world, leading into an action-packed summer. The USA will gather in the second half of May and line up preparation matches before kicking off qualifying.
After opening against Antigua & Barbuda, the U.S. plays in Guatemala four days later. The U.S. defeated Guatemala in both matches during the Semifinal Round of the 2010 World Cup qualifying cycle. Carlos Bocanegra provided the first-ever away qualifying victory for the U.S. in Guatemala with a game-winning header in the 1-0 win in Guatemala City.
On the third and fourth match days, the U.S. will play a home-and-home series against Jamaica. The U.S. will be away to Jamaica on Sept. 7, and then host the Reggae Boyz on Sept. 11 four days later. While the U.S. holds an unbeaten 10-0-8 record against Jamaica, the U.S. has never defeated the Reggae Boyz in Jamaica during World Cup qualifying in four attempts, drawing each time. The final two-game fixture date will take the U.S. to Antigua & Barbuda on Oct. 12 for the first time. Four days later, the U.S. will finish the Semifinal Round with a home match on Oct. 16 against Guatemala.
Each of the Semifinal Round group winners and runners-up make up the well-known Hexagonal that determines which CONCACAF nations qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The top three teams from round robin play will book their place in Brazil, with the fourth-place team playing a home-and-away intercontinental playoff against a team from Oceania. The USA has finished first in the Hexagonal during the past two FIFA World Cup cycles.
SHORT TERM AND LONG TERM
Balancing long-term development with the immediate need of getting results is the tightrope that any national team coach must walk, and Klinsmann not only accepts the challenge, he embraces it. “This is going to be an interesting year, and an exciting year. We want to qualify with good results. We also want to play big countries to challenge ourselves and get closer to really competing in the thinner air of the best teams in the world. We are going to get the job done.”