On paper, Jurgen Klinsmann looks like a genius.
The U.S. men's national team has never had a better year, at least measured by results, and it's only September. The 2-0 win Tuesday night over bitter rival Mexico punched the Americans' ticket to the 2014 World Cup with two games to spare, and set a record for most wins in a calendar year (14) in the bargain.
It didn't come easy. Because of injury and yellow-card suspensions, the U.S. was without Michael Bradley, arguably its best player, and three others — Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron — who normally handle duties down the crucial central spine of the field. But after weathering a tough opening 20 minutes, the cobbled-together U.S. lineup slowly pulled away from a familiar opponent that began the night desperate, but fell apart soon enough.
"We saw that we can actually raise the bar with tempo," Klinsmann said afterward, "and in the second half it was all us."
On the field, Klinsmann's impact is much harder to measure. Former U.S. player and current ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas called it a "classic American win" and he should know. This team still plays, for the most part, like the ones he played on and all the other versions did before Klinsmann arrived in 2011. It relies on good-to-great goalkeeping and plenty of luck on the defensive end to offset a lack of talent. It's good on the counterattack and set pieces, where its speed and height can be deployed with maximum effect.
What this team has over its predecessors is a little more creativity and a lot more depth. When Klinsmann took over from Bob Bradley, his ambition was to build a program with the kind of continuity that world powers like Spain, Italy, Brazil and Argentina have long enjoyed, and settle on a style of play that will succeed in Brazil and beyond. He's made progress on both fronts, up to a point.
"I think that we're step by step getting closer to take the game to the opponents, that we're not sitting back and react to whatever happens. We want to take it into their half," Klinsmann said. "Every game is different. We know that, too. But I think we made big progress in terms of tactical variations and in terms of commitment both ways of the game, defensively and offensively ...
"Maybe two years ago," he added a moment later, "they wondered, 'What is this all about? All this extra work, all this extra here, extra there.' Now it's just normal. Now it's just normal. The players come in, they know there are double sessions waiting for them. The players know what we expect tactically. The players know that there's another guy behind them in every position, that if he doesn't give everything he has, the next one steps in and steals his spot."
Klinsmann hasn't hesitated to shake things up, leaning on some of the same core players Bob Bradley did — goalkeeper Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey up front, and Michael Bradley marshaling both the offense and defense from the middle of the park. But he hasn't been shy about mixing and matching them with young and old teammates of differing abilities and experience levels. The results bear out the success of his experiment so far.
But with it, come expectations, too. Wrapping up the World Cup spot, even with two games in hand, is something the U.S. team was expected to do. It marked the seventh straight World Cup the Americans qualified for. Four other teams clinched Tuesday — the Netherlands, Italy, Argentina and Costa Rica — and the U.S. side would be an underdog against every one of them. Five more were already waiting in the 2014 bracket — Brazil, Iran, Japan, South Korea and Australia — and you'd make the Americans a clear favorite only against the last of those.
Klinsmann understands that. For all the talk about taking the game to opponents, caution is still the order of the day. Donovan and Dempsey are tough, serviceable pros, and Altidore is on his way to becoming one. But none of them is good enough to claim a regular place in the squads of the world's best.
It's no coincidence, either, that Bradley is the squad's most valuable player, since the things he does at a world-class level — control tempo, possess the ball and distribute it with smarts — are the ones this team needs most at the moment. He plays exactly the way you would expect a coach's son to play.
Whether Klinsmann will be able to parlay the traditional American skill set he's stuck with into better World Cup results than his predecessors will be interesting to see. The U.S. team reached the quarterfinals in 2002, largely by slipping past better teams that poured players into the offensive end unaware the Americans could actually hit back. And even then, they had to make the most of their chances. They haven't had much luck playing that way ever since.
This team won't have the luxury of surprise this time around. To get anywhere, the Americans will have to play every bit as good as they look on paper.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.