The immediate year following a FIFA World Cup is typically the lengthiest window for experimentation and making the critical choices about which players to invest in for the future.
With so many official competitions to play in and qualify for on the docket leading into the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, and fewer available friendly dates over the next few years, this period has represented a critical opportunity for the U.S. Men’s National Team coaching staff to “reshuffle the deck” by evaluating the talent pool and testing new formations.
In the nine games since the 2014 FIFA World Cup - the most games the U.S. has played following the tournament since 1994 – U.S. MNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has capped 46 different players, 12 of whom earned their first international appearance, and all with a view towards who can be a factor in the side’s demanding three-year schedule.
“It’s really important that the players right now understand that they’re part of probably the most exciting times of their lives,” Klinsmann told ussoccer.com. “You have the Gold Cup this summer that hopefully qualifies you to the Confederations Cup 2017; some of these guys might hopefully go to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, and now we have Copa America Centenario 2016 in the United States, which is unbelievable to host. Obviously, winning the Gold Cup gives us the Confederations Cup in 2017, and everything gears towards the 2018 World Cup in Russia.”
There’s also CONCACAF World Cup qualifying that begins later this year, which for the United States is the earliest the campaign has begun in decades.
In preparation for all of it, the list of friendly opponents and venues for the U.S. team in the lead up to this summer’s Gold Cup has been particularly intense. While positive results are harder to come by, Klinsmann signaled the goal through these matches is about something else.
“It would be foolish not to use this one year of time to try out a lot of things,” Klinsmann said at the conclusion of his side’s recent European camp. “To integrate new players, to tryout different systems, to move out of your comfort zone going to Europe, going to other places and risking some results. If we wouldn’t do that, there’d be no growth. If we would just be comfortable and play all of our games in the U.S. against teams we’d most likely beat, there is no growth. It’s very important that we understand that we might do it at the expense of some results.”
The latest part of the docket saw the United States take on a Denmark side that is traditionally tough at home, and twice took the lead that held until the 84th minute before falling 3-2 in Aarhus. Six days later, the team stayed ahead of 12th-ranked Switzerland until the 80th minute despite going down a man with more than 20 minutes to go, and grinded out a 1-1 draw. Beyond the results, the experience for a squad that averaged 24-and-a-half years old was far more important than the final score line.
“A lot of what happened the last 10 days was kind of to give them the feeling to take over responsibility, take over the decisions in terms of what you want to achieve and our overall goal. Obviously, in the background is that we develop a style of play that is more proactive, more self-driven from our end. We want to take the game to the opponent and that takes character; a sense of responsibility. That takes courage.”
Above everything, Klinsmann was pleased with the personality his side developed in both of its recent matches.
“Personality means that you signal to your opponent that you’re here to play against them, eye-to-eye. It’s a confidence builder. You want to come to these countries and show them that you’re good as well. When you get those results in those countries, it gives a warning signal to our future opponents in the World Cup or the Confederations Cup. This is very important because at the end of the day, once you start a game, it’s all down to the players and their mindset.
“If they believe they can take the game, like the other night when we took the game to Switzerland and we had the better passing sequences, we had most of the control of the game and we created more chances– they will remember that, even if it’s just a friendly. It’s really something that players always have in the back of their minds. So getting results out of your comfort zone in other continents is really important. Will you lose some of those games? Yeah, you will, but you can still learn a lot when you lose those games.”
The U.S. Men’s National Team will continue its series of tough tests prior to this summer’s Gold Cup on April 15 when the team faces Mexico in San Antonio, Texas. The game will be broadcast live by FOX Sports 1 and UniMas, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. CT.
Shortly after, another European trip will have the MNT face two of the top teams in the world in a span of five days, as it takes on World Cup third-place finisher Netherlands on June 5 at 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPN, UniMas), and current World Cup champion Germany on June 10 at 2:45 p.m. ET (Fox Sports 1 and UniMas).
“Overall I think if we go in the right direction, we’re going to be ready for the Gold Cup no matter what, but until then, we can still try things out,” Klinsmann said.