Only a matter of weeks ago, U.S. soccer coach Jürgen Klinsmann was heading toward becoming the least popular man in America.
His decision to leave Landon Donovan out of the squad drew howls from some corners of the press and social media. One ESPN journalist called for his firing, warning that the German’s decision was so disastrous the U.S. looked set to for a “debacle” akin to the team’s disastrous 1998 campaign.
Klinsmann’s honest assertion that the team “won’t win” the World Cup, as well as his attempts to defend Donovan’s omission, then led to Michael Wilbon — another ESPN pundit — calling for him “to get out of America.” How things have changed.
In years to come, people will be talking about America’s accomplishment of qualifying from the so-called “Group of Death” rather than how it was achieved. To say that the United States thrilled all spectators with beautiful soccer would be a little bit generous, even though they did provide generous doses of drama.
The opening game against Ghana was a struggle against a team that failed to break down a stubborn defense, while the game against Portugal was scrappy and heart-breaking almost in equal measure. Thursday’s 1-0 defeat against Germany was probably the least impressive out of all three, with the U.S. seeking to frustrate their world-class opponents, only to struggle at times to break out of their own half.
But none of this really matters. Job done. For all the white boards and analysis, soccer is a game of outcomes and results over process. Few expected the U.S. to break out of a group that included two of Europe’s (actually, the world’s) strongest soccer forces and Ghana, a side that has sent the Americans packing from the World Cup on their last two campaigns.
For all the criticism he received prior to the tournament, Klinsmann’s tenure as coach has been marked by improvements on the field and growing respect for the U.S. on the international scene. Reaching the knockout stages has only solidified that. If the purpose of hiring Klinsmann was to take U.S. soccer forward only a handful of deranged individuals would fail to acknowledge his success.
Few will be praising yesterday’s performance, however. The Germans dominated possession and overwhelmed the American midfield, leaving very few opportunities for their opponents. German-born Jermaine Jones found himself in the thick of the action, but often for all the wrong reasons — being barged over by the referee as he ran into the box and then breaking his nose in a “friendly fire” collision with Alejandro Bedoya.
Half-chances fell to Graham Zusi, who curled a shot over the bar, and Clint Dempsey, whose header from close range flew over as well. After what was probably America’s nicest build-up play in the game, Bedoya had an opportunity blocked that deserved something better.
Michael Bradley, who performed better against Portugal than he did against Ghana, was again caught ball-watching on several occasions and struggled to get into the game. Despite some nice play and aggressive tackling, Bradley’s touch often let him down as he struggle to stamp his imprint on the game. His inconsistency should trouble Klinsmann.
Thomas Müller’s second-half strike was the only goal of the game. But with Ghana failing to win and Portugal struggling to improve on their goal difference, a defeat was enough for the United States to seal their first ever back-to-back appearances in the World Cup knockout round. Given their opposition, it’s hard to overstate the magnitude of Klinsmann’s (and his team’s) accomplishment.
Ewan Watt writes extensively on state and national issues in the US, covering the 2012 presidential election for both print and online publications. He is providing commentary for the Daily Caller on a regular basis throughout the World Cup. He writes strictly in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter at @ewancwatt