It took Jurgen Klinsmann’s Americans just eight of ten Hexagonal games to reach their seventh straight FIFA World Cup™ finals. An early loss threatened to submarine the campaign, but the Stars and Stripes pressed on, finding their finest form for years. FIFA.com takes a closer look at five crucial factors in the Americans’ successful CONCACAF qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014.
Hard day in Honduras sparks media circus
Klinsmann’s first taste of the qualifying hexagonal was sour. Temperatures soared in San Pedro Sula, Honduras in early February. The Americans looked tired, their shirts soaked with sweat after 20 minutes. The motivated hosts roared to a 2-1 win and the Americans sat, for a short time, at the foot of the table. A media backlash followed, with a major sports newspaper claiming members of the US team were unhappy with new coach Klinsmann, his new ideas and new methods. If there was indeed a locker-room mutiny, it was quickly put to rest as the States didn’t lose in their next five games. “A lot of times the media doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” defender Clarence Goodson clarified, candidly, to FIFA.com about the so-called problems in the camp. “The only problem I remember is that it was hot, and we didn’t play well,” added Michael Bradley. The loss proved to be just what the States needed to dig deep and find their true rhythm.
Defence rules in the snow
The loss in Honduras was down in no small measure to a lack of experience in the American backline. Klinsmann had used a young back four, all under the age of 30, and left long-time captain and stalwart Carlos Bocanegra on the bench. Omar Gonazalez, Geoff Cameron, Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson struggled, conceding twice to the obvious dismay of veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard. Fans called for Gonzalez to be replaced, but Klinsmann held firm. He backed his man. Changes were, however, made, with DaMarcus Beasley returning to international football as a full-back in a move no one saw coming. The American defence held tight in the next game, four days later, keeping a clean sheet in a win over Costa Rica in a bizarre snowstorm in Colorado. Since the Honduras loss, in fact, the American defence has allowed only four goals and Gonzalez and Johnson have become stars.
The Klinsmann effect
The German boss’ impact on the US team since taking the reins two years ago can hardly be overestimated. He has injected a new optimism, made strides toward what he calls a “more proactive and less reactive” football and his enthusiasm is contagious. Bringing in overseas options like Fabian Johnson and Mix Diskerud, the entire complexion of the US team has changed. In demanding his players play week in and week out for their clubs, he has created an atmosphere with no one guaranteed a spot.
“You are only as good as your last game,” he told FIFA.com. Winning the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup at a canter with a virtual B-squad means that the German now has even more options and potential heading to Brazil next summer. Chief among them is Landon Donovan, who had been frozen out of the national team since returning from a self-imposed soccer sabbatical. “I’m enjoying my soccer again,” said the US top-scorer and creator-in-chief, a warning to all opponents.
One of the big challenges for Klinsmann was to find a way to get goals from mercurial striker Jozy Altidore. The coach went so far as to leave him out of the team for a pair of semi-final round qualifiers citing lack of form and motivation. The physically robust and powerful Altidore hadn’t scored for the Stars and Stripes in nearly two years when he slammed home a volley in a friendly against Germany in June. From there on out it was sumptuous form for the man who was top-scorer for Dutch club AZ, setting up a move to English Premier League side Sunderland. He scored in all three of the Americans’ June qualifiers (all wins) and had the game of his life in July when he hit the net three times in Sarajevo in a come-from-behind 4-3 win over Bosnia. “This is a good moment for me,” he said in a total understatement. “I just want to keep moving forward.” With Altidore alongside strike-partner and qualifying top-scorer Clint Dempsey, the US can keep moving forward too. The pair is responsible for six of ten goals scored so far in the Hexagonal.
Mexico woes help the cause
One external factor that certainly helped the Stars and Stripes to secure early passage to their seventh straight World Cup is the startlingly poor form of arch-rivals Mexico. Their neighbours to the south, who have reached the world finals from CONCACAF a record 13 times, were unable to stand up and challenge the Americans for supremacy this time around. They surrendered points at home in uncharacteristic fashion, and also had trouble scoring. A point picked up in March in a goalless draw at the Estadio Azteca, where the US have never won a qualifier, sparked a hot run of form for the North Americans. They beat Jamaica in Kingston for the first time in their history in their next game and only lost once before qualification was assured. The champagne corks were popped on 10 September in Ohio after a 2-0 win over, you guessed it, Mexico.