It must seem odd to say that a record of one win, one draw, and three losses is a promising start. That's the record the United States' men's national soccer team has amassed since the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach a couple of months ago.
His start, certainly, has not been as auspicious as we all dreamt it would. Judging from much of the team's press coverage since his arrival, he was expected to be a sort of coaching Jedi master, instantly turning a moderately good team into a world-dominating powerhouse in the space of ninety minutes. No surprise, really, that hasn't happen; and many people seem perplexed and confused by the team's poor showing in the win-loss table of late.
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Like all the team's fans, I'd love to see goals being pumped into opponents' nets with regularity, but I'm not really concerned about that yet. Because what I see are two developments that, to me, promise great things in the future, and address what I've thought for years was the US team's greatest weakness.
First is the new resolve shown by the US defensive backs. It helps that Oguchi Onyewu has returned to the field and is very close to being in his former outstanding form, but even without that, I have noticed that since Klinsmann's advent, the American defense no longer panics when facing sustained pressure.
How many times, when the US was on the verge of joining the elite of the international-football ranks, were goals conceded because our defenders thrashed wildly at the ball, or lost their marks, running around in front of goal like a toddler lost in a dark theater? I can't bear to count.
But no more, or at least not yet in the "Klinsmann Era." Carlos Bocanegra, whom I've always thought was not that good, merely the best available in central defense, seems to have had a light bulb go off somewhere in his head. He has become solid: truly, reliably solid, instead of being, as before, just generally solid, a sort of American Titus Bramble. It's a shame he left it so late; it's unlikely he'll be up to the required level of play by the time the 2014 World Cup comes around. (He'll be 35 then; it's not impossible, but unlikely.)
Steve Cherundolo, the right back, has long been, with Onyewu, our best defender, but he, too, is getting up in years. Finding a successor for him, as for Bocanegra, will have to be one of Klinsmann's priorities over the next couple of years, but in the meantime, his experience and level-headedness are beginning (at last) to be seen in others of the back line.
Tim Chandler, who plays his club football in Nuremburg, is a newcomer to the US defense, and a positive asset. Playing left back, he has shown solidity in defense and an aggressive attacking sense to match Cherundelo's on the other side.
It's also good to see DaMarcus Beasley being used effectively again. He made a few appearances under former coach Bob Bradley, who inaugurated his move from midfield and forward positions to left-back; but in Bradley's time, Beasley never really seemed comfortable or useful in that role. Under Klinsmann, in the last two matches at least, he appears to be re-born as an outside back. He still has most of the speed that made him such a threat a decade ago, and seems to have matured as a player, outside the glare of the national-team lights. (It helps that he, too, is enjoying a stretch of good health.)
Even though the US defense has given up four goals in five games, while only scoring two, they have remained cohesive throughout opponents' attacks. That is a massive, massive improvement over what we often saw before. Glory is won in attack; games are won at the back. And Klinsmann's focus on developing, and quickly, that defensive composure is, to my way of thinking, the most positive development we've seen from the US national team since the 2002 World Cup.
Second is the increase in the sharp one-touch style of play that marks all of the world's best teams. The US can't yet sustain that style of play through long stretches, but, especially against Honduras and Ecuador, it's starting to show up. Some of the new players coming in, most notably Brek Shea, seem well suited to the style.
I don't doubt that, as the team develops, we'll see continued stiffness in defense, improved possession skills in the midfield, and more successful finishing in the front. And then we'll all again believe that Klinsmann is a Jedi master.