Klinsmann Era Begins Here in Philly

Klinsmann Era Begins Here in Philly

Philadelphia will be the center of the American soccer world tonight as Jurgen Klinsmann makes his debut as coach of the U.S. national team against regional rival Mexico (9PM/ESPN2). I don’t think I am going out on a limb here by stating this will be the most heavily scrutinized friendly in the history of U.S. Soccer.

 It’s a perfect storm of soccer storylines, and it will all come to head this evening at Lincoln Financial Field.

The New Coach

Fans of the USMNT watched U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati very publicly and very unsuccessfully fall all over himself in an effort to hire Klinsmann – twice. The sticking point centered around the amount of control Klinsmann wanted over the entire U.S program, from the national team on down to the youth levels.

It’s hard to say what finally persuaded Gulati to cede to Klinsmann’s demands, but the 4-2 loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup Final was almost certainly the breaking point. A little over four weeks after that humiliating and deflating loss at the Rose Bowl Gulati formally introduced Klinsmann as his new coach.

So, who is Jurgen Klinsmann? What can you expect from him? How will his tenure as coach differ from Bob Bradley? Well, as a club player he played in the top flight in Germany (VfB Stuttgart), Italy (Inter Milan), France (AS Monaco), and England (Tottenham Hotspur). He’s won a UEFA Cup (with Inter Milan), and a World Cup (West Germany, 1990). To put it simply, he was a world class player with a gift for putting the ball in the back of the net.

If you are so inclined, check out this profile of Klinsmann, written by Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff prior to the 1994 World Cup.

He went on to coach Germany to a third place finish in the 2006 World Cup. En route, he was credited with introducing a flowing attacking style to the traditionally staid defensive-minded German team.

Klinsmann’s style, both tactically and personally, could not be any more different than his predecessor. Bradley was tight-lipped, and whether by preference or necessity played a defensive counter-attacking style. Klinsmann seems completely at home in the spotlight and appears to enjoy the back and forth with the media. He’s stated that he wants to bring a similar free-flowing, possession oriented, attacking style to the US program.

This is not to say Bradley did a poor job. In fact, under the circumstances I don’t know how much more you could have reasonably expected from him. I am simply highlighting the differences between the two.

Now, it’s one thing to say that you want to implement a positive possession-heavy style. It’s another thing to execute that style in light of the current US player pool. Klinsmann’s style demands attacking play from the flanks. He needs his outside backs to make overlapping runs. He needs his midfielders to run at people on the flanks. This could be a problem considering: 1) the US strength is in the center of the midfield, 2) they’ve been searching for a left back forever and 3) Their best right back (Steve Cherundolo) will be 35 years old when the next World Cup rolls around.

What You Can Expect Tonight

Klinsmann met his team for the first time on Sunday. Yes, this past Sunday. To expect him to completely change the style of play in four days is absurd. Would a result be nice? Sure. Is it worth getting bent out of shape if they don’t win? No way.

Realistically, the two most telling takeaways from this whole exercise is/will be his roster selection and choice of formation. In keeping with his desire to introduce more a more Latin influence to the team he’s brought in a number of players who play in the Mexican first division, who presumably are more familiar with the players on the Mexican roster (Jose Torres, former Union player Michael Orozco-Fiscal, DaMarcus Beasley,  and Edgar Castillo).  

He’s also called in previously out of favor players like Freddy Adu (who prior to the Gold Cup semifinal and final couldn’t sniff a national team call), Heath Pearce, and Kyle Beckerman. Youth was also served as players like Brek Shea, Tim Ream (who was benched following a shaky performance during the Gold Cup group stage), and Bill Hamid were brought in.

Perhaps the most interesting roster choice, from a storyline standpoint, was that of Michael Bradley – the son of the just fired Bob Bradley. How will he adjust to playing for the man who replaced his father? The change could liberate him as claims of nepotism (which were wholly unfair) will no longer hound him. National team stalwarts Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Cherundolo, and Carlos Bocanegra provide a veteran presence.

Due to either club obligations or injuries you will not see Clint Dempsey, Timmy Chandler, or Maurice Edu. Mexico will be without Chicharito, who is recovering from a concussion suffered during Manchester United’s North American Tour.

Formation-wise the conventional wisdom says that Klinsmann will trot out his preferred 4-3-3. If that’s the case perhaps we’ll see a lineup of: Howard (GK), Castillo (LB), Ream (CB), Bocanegra (CB), Cherundolo (RB),  Jermaine Jones (Center Midfielder), Bradley (Center Midfielder), Torres (Attacking Midfielder), Break Shea (left wing), Donovan (right wing), and Buddle (striker).

What Will the Crowd Be Like?

Last I saw the advance sales were in the 25,000 range. No matter where in the United States the Mexican team plays they always seem to have more support. This was obviously true in Los Angeles for the Gold Cup Final, where at a minimum the crowd was 80/20 Mexican.

I’d imagine this will be a pro-Mexican crowd, but nowhere near the extent we saw in LA.

I’ve debated this topic with a few people on Twitter, but the powers that be (US Soccer and the Eagles – who obviously own and operate Lincoln Financial Field) have done a terrible job of marketing this game. You couldn’t go more than ten minutes on sports talk radio or Comcast SportsNet without hearing or seeing a promo for the July 23rd Real Madrid/Union game.

This game? I’ve barely seen banner ad on the various soccer websites I frequent. Also, the tickets are expensive. After all of the fees/price gouging the cheapest ticket is $46.75, and that’s for a seat in the upper level behind the goals. Also, the game is taking place just two weeks after 57,0000+ people shelled out money to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid. Finally, the game is at 9PM on a Wednesday night.

This will be third time the USMNT has played in Philly/Chester over the last 15 months. So, why play this game in Philly? Perhaps the Eagles, fearful of losing precious preseason gate money due to the NFL lockout, pushed to host the game to offset potential losses.

Perhaps there will be a strong walk-up crowd, but I am skeptical there will be more than 30,000 in the building. It’ll look awful on television, but what can you do?

If nothing else, and for better or worse, we’ll always be able to say that the Jurgen Klinsmann era began here in Philadelphia.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”