When discussing the United States’ draw, painful as a bad toothache it seemed, someone quipped that U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann should add a psychologist to his World Cup preparations, someone to lift spirits and ward off doom and gloom through mood-altering techniques of Zen and such.
My response to him: Klinsmann has been doing that all along.
Forging a positive, confident, aggressive mindset was a cornerstone of Klinsmann’s efforts to transform the United States national team from Day One.
Klinsmann told us all along – although it seemed to take a while for it to sink in – that any transformative efforts would not start at tactics. Whether the team lined up in 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 or even that notorious 3-6-1 was almost irrelevant. What did matter was the way his team approached the game. The way it attacked the entire project.
He wanted a team that imposed rather than reacted – tactically and in mental approach. In fact, that mind-set, that positive framing, was absolutely paramount.
He wanted the United States to stop being considered this sleeping giant and start acting like one. That meant imposing its will, regardless of the opposition. He wanted the players to lean on teams the way a New Jersey goodfellow leans on a target. He wanted a team that strode fearlessly into any situation – and then go take it to the poor saps.
So he stressed the benefits of seizing the initiative … and then not letting loose. He scheduled friendlies in tough places and then said “go take it to them!” No, it didn’t always work out in those friendlies, but winning friendlies was never the destination.
Against the lesser sides, if the team got ahead by a goal he wanted the players thinking “get a second.” When a two-goal lead was achieved, he wanted the charges thinking “now we need a third!”
The tactics and strategic approaches (like pressing up higher) would help create a mindset; the mindset would then help drive those strategic approaches, thus completing the behavioral circle.
It’s not like Klinsmann had a crystal ball and had somehow become aware that the United States would be heaved into such a difficult situation. But he definitely wanted the team prepared for such an eventuality, ready to see a pit of despair and see a way out rather than feel bad about wading into it.
And now that the United States has, in fact, been lumped in with three teams that are either favorites to win the whole thing (Germany), blessed with one of the world’s best players (Portugal) or a historical troublemaker for the United States (Ghana), there is reason to believe the immediate, psychological blast wave has been deflected.
Listening to the United States players last week, there was zero indication of any real intimidation. While it’s reasonable to assume the United States players would say such positive things, and while it’s dangerous to guess what is rattling around someone’s noggin, from up close it certainly looked and sounded like Clint Dempsey (pictured above left), Omar Gonzalez, Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi and others were just happy to know more about the impending task – and ready to get the heck after it.
If the United States makes some hay in Brazil next summer, we’ll have to point back to Klinsmann’s initial initiative, his efforts to craft a more positive, less reactionary mindset – his essential Klinsi-ness, really – as a major contributing factor.