The final whistle came after 90 minutes that felt like an eternity. The United States with two goals to Ecuador’s one. Victory, after one of the most hard fought and crazy soccer games in recent memory. An own goal scare in the dying breaths of the game and a relentless onslaught that saw Ecuador throwing everything (including a water bottle) they had at US’s goal. This game had everything from great passing to hard tackles. From great goals to exceptional defending. And, of course, it had cards of every color, it seemed. 7 to be exact: 5 yellow and 2 red. But, most importantly, it had the USA reaching the semi-finals of the Copa America. The goal from Jurgen Klinsmann and US Soccer was to reach the final four of this tournament, despite the group they found themselves in. This is the first time Jurgen’s USMNT has set and achieved an ambitious goal for a major tournament.
It’s been quite the couple of years for the USA and their fans. The relationship between the fans and the team has never been so tense, in large part due to Jurgen Klinsmann and his tiresome and condescending comments about this, that, and the other. To add to that, the team has been abysmal. The team went from almost knocking out Belgium in the World Cup to finishing fourth in the Gold Cup within a year. Nearly a year after that, they got played off the pitch by Guatemala in World Cup Qualifying. All the while, Klinsmann kept pushing his agenda of belief and growth. Instead of taking responsibility for the numerous mistakes he had made, he would blame the fans for not understanding the game. Now, many fans have the ability to put up with a coach who says irritating things from time to time -- looking at you, fans of teams coached by Jose Mourinho -- but, if the results aren’t there, then it’s hard for fans to have anything to hang their hats on. There’s a fine line between a successful motivational speaker and a charlatan who is just trying to make a quick buck. In recent times, Klinsmann had been far too much the latter, and then Thursday night happened.
Possibly, for the first time in his stint as the national team manager, Klinsmann nailed it. He nailed the lineup by replacing suspended DeAndre Yedlin with Matt Besler, and moving Fabian Johnson to a more comfortable RB position. This provided an overload on Ecuador’s left side that caused them fits for a majority of the first half and the opening goal came from that side of the pitch. The German set up his team in a 4-4-1-1 instead of the favored 4-3-3 that’s been used recently. This allowed Bobby Wood to create space for Clint Dempsey to in which to operate, and operate he certainly did. Klinsmann nailed it when he continued to put his trust in John Brooks after a disastrous Gold Cup last year, leading to what might of been the best Centerback performance for the US in nearly a decade. He nailed the game management (for the most part), by subbing on Beckerman to calm down the game after Jermaine Jones decided to punch someone in the face. And, I even think Klinsmann finally embraced the crowd. Coming out for the second half, he walked across the middle of the field beckoning the 47,000 to cheer, and cheer they did. There was a moment in the second half, where I thought that this Jurgen was morphing into something different. Something more like Jurgen Klopp than the Jurgen Klinsmann we’re used to. Something like an actual leader.
There was a rather peculiar theme throughout Klinsmann’s press conference. He kept calling back to the progress that had been made between the World Cup in 2014 up until Thursday night’s game. He would mention the growth of young players coming through the ranks, as well as pointing out the veterans who had stepped up and led the team. Whether you believe that those things are true or not, you must concede that he believes it. He believes that something is being built, and Thursday night’s game showed that. Up until one comment. A reporter asked Klinsmann about the crowd, the fans, and what can happen when a nation gets behind their team. In one sentence, Jurgen went from saying that the crowd was behind the team to saying that Americans don’t understand what Copa America is. It was as if he was a kid at the beach who spent countless hours constructing a sand castle, only to stomp on it upon completion. Instead of basking in the (deserved, for once) glory and take credit for the one time everything went right, Klinsmann decided to harp on the “fans don’t understand the game yet.” That’s not what I saw last night. I saw 47 thousand fans clad in the national colors who understood exactly what was at stake. Given a perfect opportunity to acknowledge the growth of the fans alongside the national program, Jurgen regressed, and instead managed to punch a hole through his masterpiece and alienate the fans he’s going to want on his side as expectations for the team continue to grow.
Entering into this tournament, it seemed as if Klinsmann was coaching for his job. I think the results have all but ended that discussion. The US has completed its main objective in reaching the penultimate round of the tournament, but I think it was more important how the results were achieved, than the results themselves. If these successes and failures are to be met with condescension and elitism, then I think you’ll continue to see a nation who doesn’t quite “get” their national team. Not because of a lack of understanding of the nuances of the game or naivety when it comes to the obvious significance of international tournaments, but because they will be a nation who is tired of being talked down to. Is it that the fans that have followed Klinsmann and his team all around the world for the handful of years don’t get soccer? Or is it that Klinsmann doesn’t understand them? In either case, Jurgen would do well to remember that while he might have been around for five years, we’ve been here for far longer than that. We know what’s at stake. Hopefully Jurgen Klinsmann does too.