We can't possibly know yet whether Jurgen Klinsmann is going to transform the U.S. national team into a World Cup contender, or whether his plans to revamp American youth soccer will make any difference. Ninety minutes is not nearly enough time to judge a new coach. Let's talk in 2014.
Truth be told, the Americans looked disorganized and ineffective for the first two-thirds of their 1-1 tie against Mexico on Wednesday night.
Edson Buddle was on an island alone at striker, running with no support. Landon Donovan, still the most dangerous player on the U.S. team, wasn't touching the ball enough. Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco Fiscal looked a bit lost in back. It wasn't until Juan Agudelo, Brek Shea and Robbie Rogers entered the game that things came alive.
But this much was very clear: Klinsmann smiles a lot more on the sideline than former coaches Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena. He is more easygoing, and in his first week at the helm, seems to be fulfilling his promise of infusing the team with "energy and excitement." Does that mean they will win more games? No. But it's a new style, a new voice.
He wants his players to attack, go one-on-one and create offense, rather than hang back and wait for opportunities. He will urge them to be unafraid to try new things, even if they make mistakes along the way. He insists they share his passion and love for the game. And he wants them to have fun -- just as he wants our kids to play more for fun and less for youth coaches with orange cones and drills.
Klinsmann exuded positive energy on the bench. He smiled a lot. He pumped his arm repeatedly when Rogers tied the score in the 73rd minute. And the affable German wore an ear-to-ear grin during the postgame interview, admitting he had "fun" coaching his first U.S. game.
Fun? A coach admitting he has fun? Is that legal? Bradley and Arena are excellent coaches, smart men, and time will tell whether Klinsmann can get more out of the American talent pool. But "fun" on the sideline? That's new. Sometimes new is good and rejuvenating.
His first visible change was having the starters wear jersey Nos. 1-11 and the reserves 12-18, a symbolic move to remind all players they have to fight for the starting numbers.
"It was an amazing learning process that the players went through in just 90 minutes," Klinsmann said. "Slowly, we gave them the task to move, step by step, more forward and get more confidence the longer they are in the game and put Mexico under pressure. That's what we saw in the last half-hour. All the defensive tasks were under control, and they challenged that Mexican side."
Klinsmann said "the most challenging part of building a team is always the back four; that's the backbone of your team. Step by step, we need to get more comfortable with the back four lineup, but that comes game by game."
He believes the United States has talented forwards, but they need confidence and a new way of thinking.
"I think we have players with similar capabilities (as other countries), and we have to just train them that way and give them the confidence," he said. "There are some players that can make a difference here. A Robbie Rogers, a Brek Shea, they have the qualities to go one-on-one."
Shea, the rising 21-year-old Dallas forward, made a splash with his blond mullet, energy and a beautiful assist on Rogers' goal. Agudelo is the kind of aggressive, fearless forward the U.S. team needs. Rogers was opportunistic. And Donovan was able to play as an attacking central midfielder, where he is most lethal.
"(Klinsmann) wants players to play with confidence and play how they want to play," Shea said. "He wants you to have fun, and if you make a mistake, he wants you to forget about it, and he wants everyone else to tell you to forget about it. A lot of it is positive energy."
The United States plays two more friendlies, against Costa Rica and Belgium, in September. We will see if all the positive energy translates to positive results. For now, it's fun watching.