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February 7, 2015
It's just a friendly, but U.S. wants to end skid in StubHub clash against Panama

By Scott French
LA Soccer News Contributing Editor

CARSON, Calif. -- The U.S. men's national team has won just once in nine outings since beating Ghana in its World Cup opener last summer, and that's something weighing on the Yanks as they prepare for Sunday afternoon's friendly against Panama at StubHub Center.

They're winless in five matches since beating the Czech Republic in early September, conceding late goals in all five games (after going ahead in the first 10 minutes in four of them), including a 3-2 defeat last week in Chile, and if results seem unimportant in friendlies, think again.

“You don't want to lose games, no matter what stage of the year you are [in] or who's there and stuff like that,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said as the annual “January” camp neared its completion. “You want to get always results and also to get the respect from the opponent, and you'd rather get a compliment than [criticism].”

Klinsmann, since the World Cup, has done some experimenting with personnel and systems as he looks to prod the U.S.'s evolution as a global force in the game, and patience is required. Jermaine Jones is transitioning from midfield to central defense, and the Yanks have tried out a 3-5-2 alignment during the current camp and in the first half against Chile -- it's “definitely a card that we should have in our back pocket,” Klinsmann said -- and such moves are not always conducive to positive results.

The games don't matter, not really, until this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup, but that's not a view Klinsmann and Co. endorse.

“Results always matter ...,” captain Clint Dempsey said. “We need to get back to winning ways. Make it where it's unacceptable to lose. Make it where you have that kind of mindset, that kind of winning mentality, get back to winning ways.”

The deepest problem, Klinsmann says, is about culture. The U.S. is still developing a soccer culture, and things that seem natural to players who grew up in Europe or South America don't necessarily register here.

“In many different ways, [the results are] explainable,” said Klinsmann, one of the finest strikers Germany has produced. “The tension drops after the World Cup. I think all of the teams go through that, but I think the more experienced teams, the teams that have far more peer pressure in their environment, they maybe allow themselves to drop 10 or 20 percent and not 30 or 50 percent. That is the different to what we deal with [in] the aftermath of the World Cup in Brazil.”

MLS-based players have traditionally populated the annual “January” camp, which has served as a sort of preseason, with players building their fitness over several weeks. Klinsmann, who included 11 Olympic hopefuls and several other newcomers in his camp roster, was disappointed with his team's fitness level at the start of camp and noted its impact after the loss in Chile.

He's proposed a longer MLS season -- 11 months, if possible -- and says the annual camp perhaps should be retailored, either as a normal camp with games attached or as a preseason gathering without matches. Discussions among U.S. Soccer officials will follow Sunday's game.

“It's difficult for me now to get [the players straight] out of vacation. Some of them played their last game in October. In October!” Klinsmann said. “I want to help them get back into shape, get back into rhythm, but, oh, by the way, we're going to play [two friendlies]. So some learned over time and prepared themselves really well, and some don't have that knowledge yet.

“They don't have that 'oh, OK, at the beginning of December, go to Athletes' Performance in Phoenix and get myself fit.' That culture we don't have yet. What the other sports are doing really well, they use their preparation for preseason, four to six weeks prior to going into preseason with their NBA team, NFL team of whatever, they go to these fitness institutes and they get themselves fit.”

The team has progressed in this regard since the loss in Chile, and it expects a difficult encounter from Panama, which has risen among the region's elite teams and nearly qualified for last year's World Cup, missing out (with Mexico squeaking through) only after conceding twice in stoppage to lose to the U.S. in the final qualifier -- the most recent meeting between the sides -- nearly 15 months ago.

“Over the last six, seven, eight years, you could see Panama getting stronger and stronger in our region, and they confirmed that in the last World Cup qualifying cycle,” Klinsmann said. “If it wasn't for us, you know, they would have gone to Brazil. Unfortunately, in the last two minutes for them, things ended up the wrong way.

“But you can see that they are very hungry, that they are eager to make it, to break through, [they have] a very, very good pool of young players coming through -- they confirmed that [as runner-up in last month's] under-20 World Cup qualifying -- and so there's a lot of respect from our end.”

Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez has included just four players from that November 2013 qualifier -- LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jorge Penedo, FC Dallas forward Blas Perez, Colorado Rapids forward Gabriel Torres and Venezuela-based midfielder Marcos Sanchez -- and has brought in a half-dozen stars from the team that beat the U.S. at the CONCACAF U-20 qualifiers last month in Jamaica.

The U.S. has available nine players from last year's World Cup team, including Dempsey, Jones, forward Jozy Altidore, midfielder Michael Bradley and defender Matt Besler. The rest of the group is young or internationally inexperienced or both. Klinsmann would like to send them back to their clubs on a positive note.

“You want them to get rewarded for a monthlong camp,” Klinsmann said. “You want them to get a positive result. You want them to get a good game. You want them to kind of say, 'It was a lot of work that we put in here, let's get three points, even if we know it's a preseason, friendly game.'

“It's an international game, so we want them to pick up on the importance of an international game and get the result that they deserve, because, overall, they worked very hard, every one of them. ... They gave everything in training, so you wish for them that, you know, get the result and walk out with a smile on your face.”

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