June 8, 2012; Tampa FL, USA; USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann on the sidelines against Antigua & Barbuda during the first half at Raymond James Stadium. USA defeated Antigua & Barbuda 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Matt Stamey-US PRESSWIRE
When Jurgen Klinsmann took over as United States manager last August, he vowed to change the way the team played. He felt it necessary for the Americans to develop a distinctive style, referencing the different ways that Spain, Brazil, Argentina and Germany play.
The Americans' style was going to be one that emphasized possession, and from the very beginning, Klinsmann committed to it.
Match after match his teams were devoted to keeping the ball, started out of the back and worked their way forward. They protected a weak center of defense, brought their best player-Clint Dempsey-into play as much as possible and made dictating the tempo priority No. 1.
For 13 months now, the U.S. has continued down the path of possession and proactive play that Klinsmann cleared for them. Even when they struggled to hold the ball against teams like Italy, Brazil and Mexico, they remained dedicated to building out of the back, and trying to maintain possession whenever they could get it, no matter how brief.
At times it paid off-like the wins against Italy and Mexico-but it also backfired, most notably in Jamaica on Friday night, but also in May against Brazil as well as in the first few months of Klinsmann's tenure.
If nothing else, Klinsmann deserves credit for his commitment to his belief. He has not wavered once in his determination to build a specific style of play with his U.S. team, despite plenty of situations where he could have.
One such opportunity for change was in Kingston on Friday night against Jamaica, when the U.S. was ambushed by the Reggae Boyz, and it was obvious early on that the Americans could not do anything Klinsmann built his team to do.
The U.S. played exactly as it had for more than a year under Klinsmann. The determination to possess the ball (which they had 53% of the time) playing out of the back and filtering the attack through Dempsey-that was all there, but it just wasn't successful. If they did everything according to Klinsmann's master plan, why didn't it work?
The problem on Friday night was not that the U.S. played three defensive-minded midfielders. They did in Italy and it helped keep the Azzurri scoreless.
The problem on Friday night was not that the U.S. lacked width. They had similar problems at Azteca and became the first American team to ever win in Mexico.
The problem on Friday night was not because of the style Klinsmann has brought to the team.
No, it was none of those. The U.S. lost to Jamaica on Friday night because they didn't have an alternative.
While Klinsmann's belief in the style he implemented is admirable, it has also made him inflexible, and that can be fatal. When the U.S. had a string of friendlies and the results didn't matter, Klinsmann rightfully stuck with his plan and built his team.
But now the results do matter. The German is still riding the same plan, but the issue is when that fails, he hasn't shown an ability to change, and on Friday it bit the Americans. Did the loss prove the style that the U.S. has spent more than a year building, and by extension the Klinsmann era, is a failure? Not any more so than the signature, inspiring wins in Italy and Mexico prove Klinsmann is right.
The U.S. tactics on Friday were identical in principle to the tactics they played with against El Tri in August, Guatemala in June, the Azzurri in February-despite Jamaica playing differently than any of the Americans' other opponents. Even as the Reggae Boyz clearly poked holes in their approach, it took Klinsmann more than 70 minutes to make a change.
Approaches, styles and commitment are necessary, but so is flexibility. Every team must have an alternative game plan to some extent-all of the top squads in the world have do.
The world's best team, Spain, showed off their flexibility this summer in Euro 2012 when they were able to swap out a striker for Cesc Fabregas and play with deep runners instead of a forward pressuring the opponents' defensive line. They have played Xabi Alonso next to Sergio Busquets in a double pivot at times, and at others pushed him forward.
So even Spain, with a midfield composed almost entirely of players from the same club -- something that should allow them unmatched stability -- has shown the ability to adjust depending on opponent, situation and injuries.
In 2002, the best U.S. team ever showed incredible flexibility en route to the only World Cup quarterfinal the Americans have ever reached in the modern era. Bruce Arena's team was able to use Frankie Hejduk as a left back, dropped him in the round of 16 when they went to a three-man back line, then they brought him back in the quarterfinals as a right midfielder. Landon Donovan played as a striker and a midfielder (on both wings and underneath two strikers). He pushed opposing defenses deep, created width and exploited space in the center depending on where the other team was vulnerable. That is just a sampling of an ultra-versatile team, which was not coincidentally also ultra-successful.
It doesn't matter what team it is or in what competition, flexibility is a must. There is no single way to play in every match, and if a team relies on the same approach, they will always be vulnerable. The U.S. knew it a decade ago, Spain knows it now, and pretty much any team out there that has any modicum of success knows it. The question is: does Klinsmann know it?
Maybe most concerning of all is not that the U.S. hasn't shown flexibility, but Klinsmann hasn't shown any indication he thinks it is necessary. He has spoken about his style and his commitment to it, almost holding it up as gospel-like playing with the ball is the way a soccer team is supposed to play, and to abandon it is heresy.
The idea that there is a "right way to play" isn't rare anymore; it has been trotted around for a while. With the success of Spain and Barcelona at the international and club level, many have bought in. Teams are supposed to play an ‘attractive' style, so the theory goes.
In reality, there is no right way to play soccer. Playing with possession is fine; so is playing the long ball. Conceding possession and looking to counterattack is also just as legitimate, even though it can be unbelievably attractive, as evidenced by the Americans' second goal against Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup final.
On Friday night, when the U.S. scored after just 36 seconds, it was with quick play and a longer ball that isolated Herculez Gomez on a defender. Yet at no point again did the Americans try to play quickly or over the top to Gomez, which wouldn't have been very different from the play that led to the goal. They did not attempt to create the same situation that proved so fruitful early on.
It is not their style.
While Klinsmann's reign is still very much a work in progress and it is possible he could change his tune, the reality is we are 13 months in and he has not shown any hint of flexibility. He took over the U.S. team with a commitment to institute a style and a way to play. He stuck to it and the team is undoubtedly better now than it was last August, but it is not good enough because no one way is good enough.
Jamaica exposed the Americans' inability to adjust and preyed on their predictability. Now with a rematch against the Reggae Boyz looming and the U.S. a loss away from the brink of elimination in World Cup qualifying, Klinsmann will have to prove that he and this team is flexible. Every great team is.