I almost gave up on the United States men's national team. Not because I didn't think they were capable of getting to the World Cup and putting together a good showing in Brazil -- they were always going to qualify -- but because I just didn't want to watch them anymore. They've been dull for as long as I can remember and, despite Jurgen Klinsmann's promises of more entertaining soccer, they spent the first year of his tenure simply being an entirely different type of boring than previous U.S. squads.
Some people are attached to the USMNT because of their national pride, but I'm a different kind of soccer fan. I'm a soccer junkie and I become a fan of teams mostly because how they play and how entertaining they are, rather than due to some kind of affiliation. I don't hate Mexico and I don't like Real Madrid any more or less than Barcelona. I just like good soccer.
Of course, I am an American and that leads me to generally hope that the United States do well. I watch all of their games and I've never cheered for an opponent, but I'm not a fan in the same way that my friends in American Outlaws are fans. I want the U.S. to win, but more than that, I want to see good games.
Most of the Klinsmann regime has been dull, just like the vast majority of the Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena regimes were dull. They had their dramatic moments like Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria and the entirety of the United States' 2002 World Cup campaign, but the actual soccer being played was, until this month, more pragmatic than fun. Klinsmann's team has kept the ball better than his predecessors' teams from the beginning, but their biggest problem has been their inability to create scoring chances.
Something changed for the USMNT this June. They're not just scoring goals and creating chances, they're doing it with confidence and a carefree attitude that's rarely been seen from this team or any of its players in the past. Whether it's a change in Klinsmann's tactics, the evolution of various players, a new attitude among the players or a combination of all of these things isn't entirely obvious. But the effect from whatever's changed is more interesting than the cause, at least to me, personally, as someone who almost gave up on following this team for entertainment purposes.
This team is fun. Finally, for the first time in my lifetime, the United States men's national team is playing really, really entertaining soccer. They stand alone on their own merits independent of their national affiliation, and you no longer have to be an American to enjoy watching them play.
It's not because they're playing like Barcelona (they're not) or because they're scoring lots of goals (they still have a bit of work to do in that department). It's because they're playing to the strengths of the players that they have without playing a rigid, long ball style of soccer. There's more than one style of 'good' soccer; not everyone can, or should, play tiki-taka. A team can attack, pull a defense apart and find ways to score goals without perfect passing moves, and the United States has found a way to play that suits the personnel they have without resorting to Arenaball -- an effective, but often unwatchable style of play that requires players to be positionally disciplined and asks them to wait for an opposition mistake before mounting a serious attack.
Some of this evolution is down to Klinsmann's tactics without a doubt. He has his central defenders playing more patiently, lumping fewer hopeful long balls up the pitch. His fullbacks push higher up and join the attack more frequently. Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey (or whoever is playing in their positions) have more freedom to attempt creative things with their runs and their passing.
However, the personnel available to Klinsmann has just as much to do with the way his team is playing as anything he's done with them tactically. Bradley wasn't playing regularly for an entertaining, attacking team in Serie A while his father was national team manager. Dempsey was playing in a somewhat rigid Fulham team pre-Klinsmann, not for Tottenham Hotspur, who are much more fluid. Jozy Altidore was simply trying to find a place to play, not scoring 31 goals for AZ Alkmaar. Graham Zusi was an up-and-coming MLS super-sub, not one of the league's best players. None of the central defenders on Arena or Bob Bradley's radar had the technical ability of Omar Gonzalez or Matt Besler. Fabian Johnson wasn't even in the national pool yet and Eddie Johnson had fallen off the map as he struggled mightily in the English Championship.
Klinsmann has a very deep pool of players to draw from and his best players are playing regularly for entertaining teams that utilize tactics similar to his. He's not trying to shoe-horn players who are used to playing in rigid and direct sides that don't require their players to be technically proficient into an attacking system based on possession. Altidore, Bradley, Dempsey and Zusi, in particular, are playing exactly how Klinsmann wants his players to play on a weekly basis with their club teams. They're not being thrust into entirely different roles, trying to execute tactics that are nothing like their club team's tactics, they're just doing what they always do.
That's not why the United States beat Panama, but it is why their performance against Panama was the most entertaining performance that they've put in during Klinsmann's regime. It's probably the most entertaining soccer I've ever seen a U.S. men's national team play, and they did it against a respectable opponent in a World Cup qualifier.
For the first time in a long time, I'm actually excited to watch the USMNT's games and the soccer they play going forward. The drama of their matches and the battles for starting spots have kept things interesting when the actual soccer wasn't, but now their games are actually worth watching for people who don't follow the week-to-week developments of the team. They stand on their own, with no rooting interest required to be entertained.
This is the USMNT we've been waiting for. I'm glad I didn't give up on them.