PRAGUE -- Fielding a central midfield trio that lacked a dedicated ball winner, U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann had a simple instruction for Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona, and Alejandro Bedoya: Be aggressive.
Those players took that advice to heart, and it proved instrumental in Wednesday's 1-0 win over the Czech Republic.
There's more to Klinsmann's message, of course. Get in opponents' faces, make them uncomfortable and punish their mistakes. It's all part of carrying the play to the opposition, and it's an aspect of the U.S. game that has been highly inconsistent for much of Klinsmann's tenure.
But on Wednesday there were some signs, albeit slight, that the seeds have begun to take root, and it was never more evident than on the U.S. goal. Diskerud, seeing how opposition goalkeeper Petr Cech had rolled the ball out to Vladimir Darida in a dangerous area, pounced with such quickness that, after gaining possession, he soon embarked on a clear breakaway. His shot was saved by Cech, but Bedoya was there to lash home the rebound.
"That's what I've been wanting to step up in my game," Diskerud said afterwards. "And we scored a goal because of the aggressiveness in the midfield, so it felt like we accomplished what we tried to do."
Bedoya, Corona, and Diskerud have long excelled in the attacking side of the game. But for Corona and Diskerud in particular, Klinsmann has been demanding that they add more physicality to their respective games. It's the only way they will go from being bit-part performers to players handed more responsibility when the games really matter.
There is of course a long way to go, and the U.S. will play much tougher teams, though it must be said that the Czechs were no doubt distracted by the Euro 2016 qualifier they'll play against the Netherlands on Sept. 9. Still, Klinsmann admitted he liked what he saw.
"I think they raised the bar for themselves doing that," said Klinsmann about his midfield. "That's what we talked about before the game with Mix and Joe. 'You are wonderful players but you have to raise the bar in terms of aggressiveness.' If it's here and there a foul; if it's going into those challenges being physical. And that's their learning curve, and that's what we kind of tell them, and that's what they did today. They stepped it up. Then once they are high up in possession of the ball, they can play. They can keep the ball, they can move it around quickly and they can create things going forward."
That they can. While Corona didn't quite dazzle the eye offensively like Diskerud did, he succeeded in completing the kind of possession passes that allowed the U.S. to maintain a foothold in the game. Bedoya did have some shaky moments early on but recovered to score the goal, find the range on his passes, and provide the kind of defensive work rate that has long earned him the admiration of Klinsmann. That latter trait provided a boost when Corona and Diskerud were both substituted after 62 minutes and replaced by Alfredo Morales and Brek Shea, with 18-year-old Emerson Hyndman coming on later as well.
"It just makes me feel old," Bedoya joked about sharing the field with Hyndman as well as 19-year-old Julian Green. "With the young guys, you just try to go out there and be kind of a leader. ... Just say some words to them before the game, be aggressive, be confident, don't worry about a thing."
For a Klinsmann-coached team, those are words to live by.
U.S.-Czech Republic notes
Not surprisingly, the result did not go down well with the Czech press. One of the first questions asked of Klinsmann during his postgame news conference was whether he had expected a "simple win." Klinsmann was quick to counter that impression and responded, "That was not a simple win."
That it wasn't. While Klinsmann was pleased overall with the performance, as well as the opportunity to give players like Joe Gyau, Hyndman and Greg Garza their international debuts, he noted that his team struggled at the end.
"It was a tremendous experience for our young group of players," said Klinsmann. "I think they did very well. They experienced that a game goes 90 minutes, or a few minutes more. I think it looked overall very good until the last 20 minutes where you could see that the legs were getting heavy. It's just an experience they have to learn to continue to play with the same rhythm and the same flow until the last minute."
• In addition to the center of midfield, the play of the center backs caught the eye Wednesday night. Most notable were the strides made by John Brooks and Tim Ream. One knock against both players in the past was that they were suspect in the air and didn't play as big as the respective heights of 6-foot-4 and 6-1 their frames would suggest. But on this night, Brooks won all of his aerial duels and made seven clearances. Ream made eight clearances in just 45 minutes of work, including four with his head and another in the 6-yard box that saved a goal.
"That's something that I've improved on a lot at Bolton over the last couple of years," said Ream about his improved aerial game. "And that's something that I really wanted to bring into my game at the national team level.
"Obviously if you're playing week-in and week-out -- especially given how most teams in the [English] Championship play -- you're naturally going to get better at it with the amount of games that we play. And really concentrating in training and working on it and knowing that's one of the stronger parts of my game now."