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.