There are few luckier draws on the soccer calendar than playing Belize at your place.
The team is nicknamed the Jaguars, but in the parlance of the game, they’re known as ”minnows.” Belize is ranked No. 130 in the world. The Central American nation is the size of Massachusetts, with the population of Wichita. It has only been playing international matches since 1995, and the Gold Cup opener Tuesday night in a raucous Portland stadium was the Jaguars’ first-ever appearance in a major competition. Their federation had to stage a telethon just to cover the costs.
It’s one measure of how far soccer has come in these United States that the hosts were expected to crush Belize – and did.
The only suspense came after a wide-open Ian Gaynair headed in a cross in the 40th minute to pull the Jaguars back within 2-1. But Chris Wondolowski countered less than a minute later with his third goal of the opening half, so that by the start of the second, the only question left was whether U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann would push for more.
It wasn’t a long wait for the answer. Klinsmann subbed out Kyle Beckerman, a mostly defensive midfielder, with Stuart Holden, a gifted attacker with a bad-luck run of injuries, and Holden promptly responded with the first of what turned out to be three second-half U.S. goals in a 6-1 final.
”We took it seriously. We mentioned that before, yesterday and the last couple of days,” Klinsmann said. ”The team was very focused. They wanted to get the goals, and they did.
”And therefore,” he added, ”we are very satisfied.”
The Gold Cup final is scheduled for July 28, concluding what’s been an interesting couple of months for soccer in the Americas, at least the part covered by what’s known as CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football).
Mexico and the United States, the region’s powerhouses, were both unsettled heading into a World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium in late March that ended in a 0-0 draw. As both Mexico’s continuing woes and the Klinsmann quote above demonstrates, only one of the two coaches has managed to put his house in order since.
A story in the Sporting News the week before the Mexico City match quoted a handful of unidentified players and people close to the team who portrayed Klinsmann as a poor tactician, and out of touch with the sentiment in his locker room to boot. A few complained that Klinsmann, a great German player and one-term World Cup coach, favored German imports – who qualified for the national team as the sons of U.S. servicemen – over U.S.-born players, shuffled the starting lineups on a whim, and didn’t post them until the last minute.
More damning still was the perception both inside and outside the team that the implicit promise Klinsmann made after taking over from coach Bob Bradley in 2011 was a long way from being fulfilled. Instead of transforming the U.S. national team into a proactive side that possessed the ball and attacked, he too often relied on the same reactive tactics that Bradley had: a helter-skelter defense and the occasional hit-it-long-and-hope counterattack.
But little more than three months later, Klinsmann has his team on top of the region’s World Cup qualifying group and within easy reach of a spot in Brazil for 2014. Between qualifying matches and friendlies, the United States is riding six-game winning streak. They still retreat into a defensive shell against better teams, for the most part, but they’ve won at home and nearly every match they’re supposed to – and as they did again against Belize – played some very attractive soccer along the way.
Klinsmann took heat for casting aside veterans such as Carlos Bocanegra and, for a while, Landon Donovan, for a revolving-door approach to the roster that has resulted in nearly 30 different lineups during his tenure, and even for involving himself too deeply with the national team’s youth development programs. The experiment is a long way from over, let alone successful.
But what’s coming into focus already is the depth of Klinsmann’s ambition. He’s relied on most of the core players that Bradley did, but has mixed and matched them with young and old teammates of differing abilities and experience levels in search of a style that will succeed in Brazil and beyond. In short, rather build a team, he’s determined to build a program with the kind of continuity familiar to fans of Spain, Italy, Brazil and Argentina, but unseen on these shores so far.
The jury will be out for some time on that one. For all the arrows that are pointing in the right direction at the moment, it’s important to remember this was still Belize.
”A little disappointed to give up a goal,” said Donovan, who’s been on fire in the two since his return to the team, ”but I think it was a great night for us, a great night for the fans and a good start for the tournament.”
Right. But remember, that’s all it was.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.