x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Football: Team USA fans can take it as they like it with Jurgen Klinsmann

Klinsmann has applied his original coaching techniques to get the American side working efficiently again, writes Mike Tierney.

United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann has steadied the ship with the national side.
United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann has steadied the ship with the national side.

It is easy to lose count of the television commercials and movie trailers that have borrowed for their sound track the musical query, How You Like Me Now?

If we can tolerate one more episode, it would be appropriate for the rhetorical question to be posed by Jurgen Klinsmann, manager of the US national football team.

Nearly two years have passed since USA Soccer dubbed Klinsmann the lodestar of the senior side, giving him a wide berth to fulfil a daunting mission: elevate a recently ascendant but plateaued programme to a nosebleed-inducing level.

Some 209 nations belong to Fifa, football's world governing body, and the populace in most of them eat, sleep and breathe football. Americans might nap and nibble on it; only a few are rendered breathless.

Still, no US coach is under greater scrutiny. To the masses, the players are barely recognisable, if not anonymous, which makes him the face of the federation. And the bar, heretofore set at merely advancing out of the group stage at the World Cup, has been raised.

When Klinsmann was appointed, it was fair to ask: "Do we like him now - and will we ever?"

At quintuple the salary of his predecessor, Bob Bradley, USA Soccer hired a coach of unassailable intelligence and a broad-minded approach in a sport hidebound by tradition, yet whose managerial methods and tactical acumen have been suspect dating to the creditable but disappointing third place as coach of Germany in the 2006 World Cup - and the subsequent blink-and-you-missed-it stint with Bayern Munich.

It is fair to guess that Klinsmann, a German citizen, absolutely kills it in job interviews. Speaks five languages. Eclectic enough to have been educated in the field of bakery, his family's business, and to pilot helicopters, which he has used to commute in traffic-clogged southern California, his longtime residence.

There is no chapter in any mainstream coaching handbook about taking players on field trips. Or introducing them to yoga or meditation.

Klinsmann has embraced both, going so far as to furnish Bayern's headquarters with statues of the Buddha.

The old guard in America must have wondered if USA Soccer were hiring a Teutonic version of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. ("One, two, three … omm!")

Klinsmann's methods inevitably caused hand-wringing, especially among players.

In the lead-up to World Cup qualifying, even during it, he would alter the line-up from game to game - and not inform affected individuals until the day of.

The perception was, he was overly focused on the intellectual at the expense of the physical, the psychological rather than the tactical.

Too, the transition to a promised attacking, freewheeling style of play seemed at times moving at a glacial pace.

Much of the American football family covered their eyes and plugged their ears when the team bowed to Honduras - Honduras! - in the opening match of the last phase of Brazil 2014 World Cup qualifying.

It now safe for them to free up their senses.

Team USA enter the summer hiatus on a wave of four wins and a draw. With four qualifying matches left and only a top-three finish needed, Klinsmann could insert a few Buddhas in his line-up and still scrape up the necessary points to punch a ticket to Brazil.

Given the overhaul of squad and philosophy, it was too much to expect a seamless, snap-of-the-finger switch to Klinsmann's system.

Team USA have displayed more giddy-up in attack, if not as much as the coach anticipated to this point.

Whether Klinsmann gets credit or not, a star has been born under his watch: the striker Jozy Altidore, who produced 31 goals last season for the Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, is scoring at a goal-a-game pace for the national side.

If the wizened Landon Donovan returns cured of burnout and meshes with Altidore … and the back line is sufficiently rebuilt … and the German-born team members blend with the home-growns … well, not only can Klinsmann ask, "How you like me now?"

Americans can ask: "How you like our chances of reaching the quarter-finals - or beyond?"