Klinsmann’s Gamble

What makes a man become a manager? We all aspire to play the game, but who dreams of becoming a manager? When you play, you have teammates and friends; when you are manager, you have nothing but enemies. The fans are demanding, the media hounds your every decision, and patient owners are a thing of the past. The failures of others will land on your neck. Why would you seek out the profession of manager?

Jurgen Klinsmann is perhaps the least likely manager of them all. Think of the great managers out there; how many were famous players? How many captained their country to World Cup glory? Largely, these are people who seek fame out because they could never quite achieve it as a player. Klinsmann had seemingly nothing to gain when he went down the managerial path; his golden reputation could only be sullied. But he has shown that he doesn’t really care what people think. He is in this for reasons only he knows.

This was supposed to be a low-pressure World Cup for Klinsmann. The challenges of being drawn into the group of death were oddly freeing. Little was to be expected of the USMNT, so Klinsmann had little to lose. US Soccer, noting that results against Ghana, Portugal, and Germany could be misleading, went ahead and extended his contract through 2018. This would be a World Cup of growth, not one of results.

Most coaches would embrace this sort of freedom, but Klinsmann felt an urge to raise the stakes. He left Landon Donovan off of the 23-man roster. Suddenly, the pressure normally reserved for other countries was placed on Klinsmann’s shoulders. Media outlets that normally wouldn’t discuss a World Cup squad stopped just short of calling for his head. Who is this interloper, and what right does he have to leave off the most famous player in U.S. history? Klinsmann did himself no favors with comments about the USMNT’s chances of winning the World Cup. His methods and attitudes were unconventional in Germany, and they were proving to be equally unconventional in the U.S.

The interloper has shown himself in the past couple weeks to be an excellent manager. He would deserve some credit for the feat of escaping the group of death on its own. The fact that he has done so in spite of significant injury problems is another point in his favor. But more importantly, Klinsmann’s decision-making has been nigh flawless in Brazil.

It started within U.S. borders. Having shown a predilection for a diamond midfield, the USMNT seemed to face a question as to who would be behind Michael Bradley: Kyle Beckerman or Jermaine Jones. Klinsmann went with an unconventional answer for the final tune-up friendly against Nigeria, and started both. Beckerman and Jones have been among the USMNT’s best players this World Cup.

When Jozy Altidore’s hamstring went out against Ghana, Klinsmann  was forced to bring on Aron Johannsson. Matt Besler’s hamstring forced him into another substitution at half-time. He was essentially limited to one tactical substitution. He brought on Graham Zusi, and in the 86th minute, Zusi’s corner was headed in by another substitute, John Brooks.

Against Portugal, and in Altidore’s absence, Klinsmann moved Dempsey up to the lone striker role, and brought on Zusi as another midfielder. The U.S. had struggled to maintain possession against Ghana, but Dempsey proved surprisingly adequate at holding the ball up. With the extra midfielder, the U.S. kept possession stats about level. Zusi assisted to Dempsey for their second goal, after a run down the right wing by substitute DeAndre Yedlin.

The game against Germany proved to be less of a success for the U.S., but Klinsmann made another smart move in replacing Geoff Cameron with Omar Gonzalez. The LA Galaxy defender was shaky in the build-up to the World Cup, recovering from a knee injury. But Cameron was responsible for one, if not both of Portugal’s goals. The additional pace provided by Gonzalez proved useful against  in shutting down multiple German opportunities, and he had a very solid game.

Klinsmann’s bet on himself has paid off. He has rewarded US Soccer’s faith, and proven critics of his own creation wrong. Wherever this runs ends up for the USMNT, the storyline will largely be about Klinsmann leading them in the right direction. No one is talking about Landon Donovan now.

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