It's a good thing U.S. men's coach J√ºrgen Klinsmann is who he is (World Cup--winning striker, iconic German player and manager), because no American coach could have avoided withering criticism after starting 1-3-1. But that was part of the point of hiring Klinsmann: His status gives him the freedom to make big changes at a time when the results of friendlies matter little. Truth be told, Klinsmann has nearly three years until the next World Cup to get it right: Four teams from the CONCACAF region should qualify for Brazil 2014 (up from three), which means only a catastrophe will keep the Yanks out of soccer's quadrennial showcase.
That's the good news. The bad news is Klinsmann has plenty of work ahead to transform a reactive team into an attacking one with the chops to go deep in the World Cup. The U.S. has scored just twice in Klinsmann's five games, a shortage that might get worse next month with two tough friendlies in Europe, one of them against France. The attack has been slowed by injuries to midfielders Stuart Holden, José Torres and Landon Donovan, the last of whom has yet to play alongside fellow World Cup 2010 star Clint Dempsey since Klinsmann took over in July. And while 21-year-old Brek Shea has been a revelation on the left wing, moments of fluid passing in Klinsmann's ground-based system have seldom yielded goals.
Defensively, the U.S. has been solid under Klinsmann (four goals allowed), although four of his first-choice back five will be into their 30s by the next World Cup: goalkeeper Tim Howard (who will be 35) and defenders Carlos Bocanegra (35), Steve Cherundolo (35) and Oguchi Onyewu (32). Center-back prospects Michael Orozco Fiscal and Tim Ream have been less impressive in spot duty, raising questions about when Klinsmann will finally call up towering 23-year-old Omar Gonàlez of the Galaxy, a front-runner for MLS Defender of the Year.
Some of Klinsmann's changes have been refreshing, including his old school competition for jersey numbers 1 through 11 (which go to the starters on game days), his positive outlook and his insistence that players be starters for their clubs (no matter the league) in order to be called in. Even then, Klinsmann's lineups have at times been counterintuitive: how to explain his preference for MLS veteran Kyle Beckerman as the regular holding midfielder over Italian league starter Michael Bradley?
The harsh reality for U.S. fans is that these growing pains may well continue beyond next month's matches in Europe. They're a reminder that U.S. Soccer has put its full faith in the school of Klinsmann, knowing that if his changes pay off in 2014, few will remember that he won only once in his first five games.
With an average attendance of 17,795 through Sunday, MLS was on pace to surpass its alltime high of 17,406, set in the league's inaugural season, 1996. Much of the credit rests with the remarkable Sounders, who have averaged 38,496 at CenturyLink Field this year. (Seattle has led the league in attendance in each of its three seasons.) Last Saturday the team opened the upper sections of the stadium that are usually covered for soccer and drew 64,140 fans—third-most ever for a stand-alone MLS match—at the farewell game for retiring goalkeeper Kasey Keller, a 2--1 win over the Earthquakes. To put the turnout in perspective, the only soccer crowds around the world that were bigger than Seattle's last weekend were those in the home stadiums of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA (SHEA, KLINSMANN)
NEW KID ON THE WING While Shea (11) has flourished under Klinsmann (below), the Yanks came up empty again in a 1--0 loss to Ecuador.
OTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES (KELLER)