The soccer bro behind me in Row 15 just couldn’t possibly contain his excitement. On a plane full of quiet, sleep-deprived passengers headed east on a Sunday morning, coach Jürgen Klinsmann and the U.S. Men’s National Team had him yipping, clapping, and writhing in his cramped middle seat as the squad outplayed Germany for an impressive 4-3 win. It’s the smallest of small sample sizes, but let’s concede that this isn’t something that might’ve occurred even a decade ago — be it the match result or the effusive fandom in a random place. As Walter Bahr, who played on the USMNT that memorably defeated England, 1-0, in the 1950 World Cup, told ESPN during the pre-match coverage, “U.S. soccer has made more progress in the last 10 years than the previous 90 years combined.”
It’s hard to see where he’s wrong on that point, as the clear majority of America’s best football outings have come in the (not to quibble too much with Bahr’s assertion) last 15 years or so. There was Bruce Arena’s arrival in 1998 as head coach, which gave the squad a certain measure of swagger and cachet that had clearly been missing in the Steve Sampson era. The highlight was a 2-0 win over Mexico in the 2002 World Cup Round of 16, a result so stunning that it’s commonly known only by the match score. (Just say “dos a cero” and fans both north and south of the Rio Grande will know precisely what you’re talking about, for better or worse.)
Arena gave way to Bob Bradley in 2006, whose turn culminated with the dramatic win over Algeria in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup. But Bradley’s tenure, much like Arena’s before his, crumbled under the buildup of unrealized expectations. So when the opportunity to bring in Klinsmann, a World Cup-winner with an elite soccer pedigree as well as a budding eagerness to prove his coaching bona fides, came along in 2011, after the U.S. again failed to gain any prolonged traction on the international stage, the combination proved irresistible.
Klinsmann’s run to the 2006 World Cup semifinals as Germany’s head coach would be, on its own, a résumé which would eclipse most other international managers. For that reason, the expectations regarding his U.S. gig couldn’t have been clearer: There must be clear gains in competition against elite nations, regardless of setting and opposition. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the friendliest turf imaginable (DC’s RFK Stadium) or against a second-tier squad (Germany’s “B+” side, in the words of ESPN’s Bob Ley). International friendlies, World Cup qualifying, and everything in between is fair game.
So it was yesterday in front of a rabid DC crowd of 47,000-plus that Jozy Altidore played what amounted to the game of his life, giving the U.S. attack space in the German end and getting the team off to an excellent start with his goal in the 13th minute. An own-goal caused by German goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen’s temporary insanity netted another one three minutes later, and Clint Dempsey’s two second-half strikes gave the U.S. all the cushion they’d need, though two late German goals kept tensions high to the end. My flight had deplaned by the time it went final, but the soccer bro was surely making some NYC cabbie’s life a loud, rousing hell as he headed wherever he was going.
Technically, the friendly doesn’t mean a whole lot, and some can try to downplay its significance once you factor in that Germany wasn’t playing its most elite side, but on the day marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of American soccer, in a stadium situated near our nation’s capital, it was our German ex-pat coach who guided the U.S. to a needed knockout of his former team. That the result came just a few days after America’s listless loss to Belgium was everything Klinsmann could have hoped for. Despite a historic win in Mexico City last year, the “make or break” narrative had already started to creep up, zero World Cups and not two years after his hire.
But the US didn’t break yesterday, even under a German onslaught in the waning moments, and Klinsmann, in a most German kind of way, was characteristically unemotional about the significance of beating his home country. He delivered the usual platitudes, but his team’s play was anything but boring. The first goal from Altidore, who hadn’t scored for the USMNT in 19 months, set the entire tone: aggressive, relentless, confident. It was, at least soccer-wise, un-American in the best possible way.
Klinsmann’s record now stands at 13-8-6, and this Friday kicks off another three-match round of 2014 World Cup qualifying. First up will be the chance to avenge a 2-1 loss to Jamaica back in September. The Kingston home crowd will be raucous, no doubt, but Klinsmann’s crew is riding a high they needed badly. After yesterday’s win, nothing feels impossible.
And if Klinsmann can get the USMNT to play that way every time out, that might be when the fun really starts.