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Thursday, March 1, 2012
Updated: March 2, 8:25 AM ET
Klinsmann must refine, not reinvent

By Leander Schaerlaeckens
ESPN.com

Juergen Klinsmann and Bob Bradley
Jurgen Klinsmann wants the U.S. to play a more technical, proactive game, but the U.S.'s win over Italy proves the team is still better at its defensive-minded, Bob-Bradley style of play.

The biggest news coming out of the U.S. national team's 1-0 win over Italy on Wednesday night wasn't the historic upset, even if it had taken the Yanks all of 78 years to finally beat the Azzurri in their 11th crack at them.

Nor was it that the U.S. showed itself capable of dictating the play for some stretches against a world power. Or that it held off the Italians' relentless attack for 90 minutes, stealing an opportunistic win on Clint Dempsey's 55th-minute winner.

The real news was the inconvenient truth that lay at the heart of the landmark performance: The U.S. is still much better equipped to compete with the world's best when it reverts to its old, scrappy, defensive ways -- its hard-nosed in-house style of so many decades -- rather than the "proactive" technical game coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been preaching since taking over in July.

"Any result on the road in Europe is a good result, but for it to be Italy is something special," ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman said. "It was hands down the signature win of the Jurgen Klinsmann era."

But if that era has been defined by Klinsmann's zeal to push the U.S. to a higher soccer plane stylistically -- forever advocating high pressure, tempo, and a concerted effort to build out of the back and impose order on the game instead of hit and hope -- there was a sobering lesson to be learned from the Italy game.

For spells of the match, all of them coming in the first half, the U.S. did as Klinsmann wishes. It pressed for possession, held the ball, made runs, attacked with vigor. Yet during that opening half, the U.S. was far more likely to surrender a goal to the Italians than it was to score one of its own. Andrea Pirlo's laser-like long balls over the top of the U.S. defense and the movement and moxie of Sebastian Giovinco were carving the U.S. to pieces. It was the linesman and his oft-used offside flag that kept Italy in check, not the U.S.

Michael Bradley
One of the U.S.'s key players of the Bob Bradley era, his son Michael Bradley, put in an impressive shift against Italy.

It wasn't until the Americans bunkered down in the second half that the whole became bigger than the sum of its parts again, that the game became winnable. Defending heroically and venturing out only on the well-chosen occasion, the U.S. settled the contest down and snuck the game-winning goal past the Italians. In that half, Klinsmann appeared to be learning more of the lessons that his predecessor, Bob Bradley -- whom Klinsmann is being paid so handsomely to be different from -- knew well. And in that half, his team looked far more Bradleyesque than it did Klinsmannian. The two holding midfielders shielding the back line, the wings sitting deep, the isolated forwards preying on a chance; it all smacked of the U.S. of yore, of Bradley's 4-4-2 system. It wasn't pretty. The U.S. reverted to what it had always been, Klinsmann's polish wearing off quickly. And that was just fine. Those cynical methods, not Klinsmann's swashbuckling aspirations, were what won the game.

"It's a wonderful result," said former U.S. defender and current ESPN analysis Alexi Lalas. "But if you put it up against what has been promised, it fails to live up to that. The way that this team was successful is nothing new. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Yesterday was a wonderful example of what the U.S. is. But when for seven months we're talking about fundamentally changing the way the team plays and then we have a result that mirrors all that is good for many years about this team, celebrate it, but don't tell me it's a new style."

When the Klinsmann era began, the coach changed, but the talent pool did not. The abilities of his players stayed the same. Klinsmann is trying his hardest to make them better in training. But this has never been a national team coach's job, chiefly because there isn't time to address fundamentals in short camps. And so the core of players he is growing to rely on -- which, by the way, isn't all that different from Bradley's, either -- can't reasonably be expected to abide by an entirely different philosophy than the one that was designed to best suit its strengths in the first place.

The further Klinsmann has gotten into his tenure, the more he has found himself fielding the same players who were regulars under Bradley and discarding the ones deemed unworthy by the former U.S. coach, including Edgar Castillo, Michael Orozco and Robbie Rogers. In fact, of the 15 players who appeared for the U.S. against Italay, nine had appeared in at least six of Bradley's last nine games in charge and eight of those started the game. That's discounting the injured Jermaine Jones and Landon Donovan, who also would qualify as such. Jonathan Spector and Edson Buddle, meanwhile, also were frequently called in by Bradley while Brek Shea was handed his debut by him.

The only players brought into the fold by Klinsmann who were still on the team Wednesday were the dubiously performing Danny Williams, and fellow German-Americans Fabian Johnson and Terrence Boyd, who made his debut this week. This is no knock on Klinsmann's selection policy, but it does suggest he is finding the Bradley-era team and its mindset and methods remain the best available option today.

Klinsmann is right to try to improve on what the U.S. primarily is: a pragmatic, defense-first side that relies on cohesion and athleticism. But in trying to remake it entirely, to attempt almost to rewrite its DNA, he is in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

"In our effort to improve, we can't get rid of a lot of the traits that have enabled us to grow and improve over the last 20 years at a very rapid rate," Lalas said. "It doesn't mean that you don't try to play better and you don't try to become a more sophisticated team, but I also think maybe Jurgen Klinsmann needed to go through a process and recognize the realities of what he has to work with. Maybe Klinsmann says to himself, 'What I thought it was going to be and what it ultimately is going to need to be to be successful are different things.'"

If there was any lesson to be learned from Wednesday's game, it's that what the U.S. has been all along, what we'd grown somewhat tired of watching, wasn't so bad after all. And the sooner Klinsmann accepts this and figures out how to refine, rather than reinvent, the faster the national team will reach that next level.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.