By Don Markus The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — After Jurgen Klinsmann took over the U.S. national soccer team nearly two years ago, the positive results were not immediate. As recently as late May, when the Americans lost a friendly to Belgium, there were questions about whether the former German star and coach was a good fit.
While the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup is clearly not the World Cup in terms of competition or worldwide significance, Klinsmann’s imprint is becoming apparent as the U.S. continues to blow out its mostly overwhelmed opponents.
With the team making its first appearance in Baltimore since 1997, Sunday’s 5-1 rout of El Salvador before a pro-Salvadoran sellout crowd of 70,540 at M&T Bank Stadium was the latest example of the progress the U.S. has made under Klinsmann this summer.
The Americans silenced the crowd – think of Steelers fans gobbling up most of the seats for a Ravens home game – with two early goals, overcame a questionable penalty kick that cut their lead in half by intermission and put away the match shortly after Klinsmann’s first substitution.
“I think that it’s important that we sent out the signals right at the beginning of this game,” Klinsman said of the 2-0 start in the first 30 minutes. “To be honest, the only team that can really lose is us. We all expect, the fans expect, for us to win the game. These teams are not easy to play. That’s why you need to take it very seriously.”
The result was the ninth straight victory for the U.S. — the fourth in the Gold Cup, three in World Cup qualifiers and two wins in friendlies, including one over Klinsmann’s former team — and a spot in Wednesday’s Gold Cup semifinals against Honduras at Cowboys Stadium in Texas.
“What we’re trying to do, we’re trying to catch up with the big teams in the world, and if you raise the bar, it’s all about speed,” Klinsmann said. “I’m not talking about physical speed. I’m taking about mental speed, passing speed.
“It’s about compactness, about going both ways the same way with 11 players involved, offensively, defensively. That’s what we’re working on. I think you see players trying to keep the tempo high, moving the ball around quickly and hopefully creating their chances.”
The U.S. took advantage of its early chances, with Clarence Goodson coming up from central defense to score at close range on a feed from Landon Donovan in the 21st minute and U.S. team rookie Joe Corona giving the Americans a 2-0 lead in the 29th minute.
Conversely, El Savador did not, much to the disappointment of its fans who packed the parkways for hours and then the stadium. U.S goalkeeper Nick Rimando knocked away two point-blank shots — one with a foot and the other with a hand in the 26th minute, but faced only two others all day.
“It was a tough game. It was a game that had a lot of ups and downs for us. The U.S. has a very good team and a very good system,” El Salvador coach Agustin Castillo said. “When we had our good moments, we were not able to find the back of the net. That’s what made the difference.”
In retrospect, the timing of Klinsmann’s first substitution proved crucial. Taking out Chris Wondolowski, the tournament’s leading scorer, in the 60th minute, Klinsmann watched as veteran Eddie Johnson, who plays for the Seattle Sounders, scored 14 seconds after taking the field and four days after rejoining the team.
One of the fastest players in U.S. soccer history scored what Klinsmann later said was the fastest goal ever after he made a substitution. It came when Johnson headed in a short corner feed from Donovan past whiplashed El Salvador goalkeeper Dagoberto Portillo.
“That was pretty fast,” Klinsmann said with a smile. “Eddie was planning to come at a certain point because we want to get him reconnected with this group. Wondo deserved to start the game based on what he’s done. It worked out really well.”
Said Donovan: “If I was a defender, I wouldn’t want (Johnson) coming into the game at that point.”
Donovan said that Wondolowski, who had scored five goals in the first two Gold Cup victories (including a hat trick against Belize) and assisted on Corona’s goal, deserved at least an unofficial assist on Johnson’s 16th career goal as a member of the U.S. national team dating back to 2004.
“Wondo put them under constant pressure for 55, 60 minutes,” Donovan said. “In all these games, guys who have come in the second half had a lot of space and a lot of room to maneuver because of the work the guys had put in early and wore teams down and that was the case today.”
Donovan, who added his 54th career goal in 54 games with the national team in the 78th minute and added his third assist of the game on Mix Diskerud’s goal in the 84th minute, said he noticed a change from the crowd immediately after Johnson scored.
“My experience in these games is that they show up with their El Salvador jersey on and once we score a few goals they rip it off and they have a U.S. jersey on,” Donovan said. “The crowd got more and more pro-American as we scored goals. I think in the end they wanted to see a good game and we wanted to give them one.”
The U.S. is hoping to have a similar performance when it plays Honduras, a 1-0 winner over Costa Rica in the second quarterfinal Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, in the semifinals in Arlington, Texas. The final will be played next Sunday at Soldier Field with the U.S. expected to meet longtime rival Mexico.
“They are the best team we’ve seen in the tournament,” Castillo, the El Salvador coach, said of the U.S.
Klinsmann understands the expectations facing his team. Regardless of the world rankings – the U.S. was ranked 22nd going into the Gold Cup but is expected to move up past Mexico this week – Klinsmann is not going to put too much into the results to date.
“This is a process and hopefully that process is coming along,” he said.
Nearly two years in, Klinsmann and the U.S. team are starting to fit nicely together.