Results do matter

September, 15, 2011

U.S. soccer's Jurgen Klinsmann era has kicked off under the dubious mantra: "Results don't matter." Baloney, in sports, results always matter.

Like the vast majority of U.S. soccer observers, I applaud the Klinsmann hiring as an innovative move and have no issue with the German legend experimenting with players, formats and styles of play. I also understand that sometimes you have to take one step backward in order to take three strides forward. Just don't tell me winning isn't important.

The U.S. is 0-2-1 in Klinsmann's first three games against nobody's idea of world-beaters. For all the talk of Mexico being a top-10 team internationally, El Tri wins in Europe and South America about as often as the U.S. does. Both CONCACAF powers benefit enormously from playing in the second-weakest FIFA confederation and would struggle to qualify for the World Cup out of any other region except Oceania. Costa Rica didn't qualify for the 2010 World Cup and made a quick exit from the 2011 Copa America, and Belgium is, well, Belgium. Haven't seen them at the World Cup in a while and don't expect to see them at Euro2012 next summer either.

The main reason Bob Bradley was fired as the U.S. men's national team coach was because he allowed Mexico to discover that it could win on U.S. soil again. But the summer's Gold Cup humiliation was just the capstone on a string of poor results stretching back to the dispiriting 2010 World Cup exit at the feet of Ghana.

Yet, for Klinsmann it's suddenly about a new identity, not results. Why? Since Paul Caligiuri's 1989 goal against Trinidad & Tobago that launched the U.S. back into the World Cup finals fold, every U.S. team has been characterized by a strong work ethic, a never-say-die attitude, outstanding goalkeeping, a progressively better counter-attacking game, and sophistication on set pieces.

For me, Klinsmann inherited a team that needed more poise at the back (how many times was the ball just booted back to the opposition from the penalty area during the Bradley reign?), plus better coaching in stopping midfield turnovers and conceding early goals. Instead, he's instituted a complete overhaul in style and tactics, and he's already in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water -- in the process becoming Icarus Klinsmann, not the U.S. soccer savior that everyone wants him to be.

Hey, who doesn't want to see Barcelona-style soccer? It's fantastic. The speed, power and skill at which the new Germany plays is wonderful to watch as well, and kudos to Klinsmann for kick-starting that process in his new position. But having sat in a Venice bar in March 2006 and watched Italy dismantle Klinsmann's Germany 4-1, I very much doubted he would still be in charge at the World Cup that summer. But in Germany's next match, Klinsmann got the result he needed to stay at the helm, a 4-1 thumping of the U.S. But he didn't get the result all of Germany wanted a few months later, when they played Italy again at home in a World Cup semifinal.

That epic semifinal was played in Dortmund, a German soccer fortress for decades. Yet Italy won 2-0. A factor in the win was that Marcello Lippi's team had no concern about the aura of playing Germany at the World Cup in its favorite stadium because Italy had humiliated the Germans only weeks earlier. Yes, results do matter.

Its not Klinsmann's fault that Mexico no longer fears playing in the U.S., or that after its performance in the Gold Cup Panama feels the same way. But now, under Klinsmann, Costa Rica has a win under its belt north of the border as well. The U.S.'s home-field aura of invincibility is losing its luster fast, and the new head coach needs to reestablish that quickly.

Beating Honduras and Ecuador at home next month is much more important than pretty passing patterns in the middle half of the field. There is every chance Klinsmann and his team will be seeing the likes of Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama in 2014 World Cup qualifying. For that reason, it's best not to let regional opponents know they can beat you at home. That's why results matter now.




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