How Klinsmann formed the USMNT's stunning ascent

Posted by Doug McIntyre

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- If you take a moment to think about it, what Jurgen Klinsmann and his U.S. national team have accomplished since the last time the Americans and Costa Rica were about to square off in a crucial World Cup qualifier is nothing short of amazing.

Back then, in late March, the Yanks were coming off a nervous semifinal round showing and had dropped the Hexagonal opener in Honduras in February in a manner that left some fans, media, and anonymous U.S. players openly questioning the coach's ability to successfully lead the squad to Brazil 2014.

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Now, heading into Friday's high-profile tilt here against the Ticos, Klinsmann has his team riding the longest winning streak in international soccer, and the 12 consecutive wins have come in style; after finding the net just twice in the first four matches of the year, the U.S. has knocked in 41 goals in its last 13 games, good for the highest scoring percentage in program history.

The question is, how has this remarkable, unlikely turnaround happened? Even some of the players seem stumped.

"I don't know the reason for that," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said Wednesday before the team's first training session in San Jose.

It probably comes down to a combination of factors.

When Klinsmann was hired in July 2011, it was on a platform of change. The adjustments began immediately. From a tactical standpoint, the main switch was the way he instructed his players to press foes further up the field while also keeping the high back line. It was a departure from the more defensively conservative approach of his predecessors, sure, but the bigger changes came off the field.

From the start, Klinsmann hasn't been shy about challenging his players and taking them out of their established comfort zones. Double-training days became the norm. Long-settled-upon jersey numbers were switched around. (Clint Dempsey, the whispers went, wasn't thrilled about being assigned Landon Donovan's No. 10.)

And along the way, core veterans including Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and, most famously, Donovan were passed over on various rosters, for various reasons.

Not surprisingly, there were some early growing pains as players, typically creatures of habit, got used to the on-and-off-the-field adjustments. But whatever dissent existed within the ranks didn't come to a head until several unnamed players took aim at the coach in a Sporting News article published just days before the U.S. and Costa Rica were scheduled to meet in a March 22 qualifier outside Denver. After a clear-the air-meeting, the U.S. beat the Ticos in a blizzard, then went to Mexico City and stole a rare point on the road against El Tri.

"It put things out in the open," Dempsey said earlier this summer. "Anytime you have a situation like that, it can go one of two ways. I think it helped us because it brought us closer."

If the March controversy united the locker room, the 10-day camp preceding three June qualifiers allowed the Americans to iron out the offensive kinks.

"The opportunity to be together for that amount of time helped a lot," midfielder Graham Zusi told ESPN FC in late July. "You're getting reps that you need to be on the same page, you're learning about people's tendencies. I think that's really why we started clicking."

There were signs the squad was figuring it out earlier in Klinsmann's tenure, even if the consistency wasn't there.

"I think if you look back into last year there was still a lot of games where we played well," Bradley said Wednesday, citing a 4-2 loss to Brazil in May 2012 as one example. "You lose the game, but for me, attacking-wise on the night we were very good, scored a very good goal and really had chances and against a very good team."

Since then, the Americans have slowly but surely matured.

"There's a clearer understanding of how we want to create opportunities, how we want to attack on the flanks and with numbers in the box," assistant coach Martin Vasquez told ESPN FC last month. "I think struggling in the beginning to score goals had to do with understanding how to do that consistently."

But as much as it's down to players to execute a particular game plan, Klinsmann deserves a huge share of the credit for the Yanks' turnaround, too.

Beneath the German's cheery facade lurks a relentless competitor who, though sheer force of will, turned himself into a world champion and one of the best strikers of his generation.

And now, he's fully (and finally) imposed that will on the U.S. squad by making gutsy, sometimes unpopular decisions along the way -- most of which, it must be said, have paid off handsomely. Sure, he's benefited from the successful recruitment of dual-nationals, plus the ever-deepening domestic player pool. But Klinsmann's approach (not to mention the credibility that a World Cup title as a player on the résumé brings) has also helped him create a culture that's forced even the veterans he inherited to improve significantly, something few could have realistically expected when he took the job. "The coach may be different, but the players are the same," the refrain went at the time.

But Klinsmann demanded more. Lately, he's gotten it.

"The biggest thing he's done is make it competitive," Donovan told broadcaster Fox in an interview last month. "Sometimes, as older players we want the opportunity to get the benefit of the doubt. But that's out the window and I think that's better for all of us. It's made us compete harder."

It's also put the U.S. in position to qualify for Brazil with a win in Costa Rica -- depending on the results of the other CONCACAF games -- with three Hex matches still to play. Unlikely? Perhaps. After all, the U.S. has never won here before. But considering the way Klinsmann and his team have reversed their fortunes over the last six months, would anyone be amazed?

ESPNFC's Jeff Carlisle contributed reporting to this story.

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