I scoured the U.S. National Team squad named by new coach Juergen Klinsmann on Thursday, desperately hoping one name would be on it. And, when I saw midfielder Jose Francisco Torres included among the 22 names, I knew U.S. Soccer had hired the right guy. Thanks to Klinsmann, "El Gringo" was back in the fold.
It doesn't take huge amounts of courage or avant-garde German thinking to include a player like Torres in the squad that faces Mexico at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia next Wednesday (9 p.m., ESPN2, Univision). All it requires is an open mind and the realization that pure soccer skill sometimes trumps brawny athleticism.
Just rewind back to May 29, 2010, when 55,407 fans packed the very same Linc to watch the U.S. take on Turkey in the team's last game before departing for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The starting U.S. central-midfield pairing of Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark was largely inefective, and Turkey led 1-0 at halftime.
Enter Torres. The diminutive midfielder came on for Clark as the second half started and made a measurable impact. His ball distribution immediately involved more players in the attack, and the way the passes were being switched around the field seemed to light a fire under U.S. talisman Landon Donovan, who had been quiet.
U.S. striker Jozy Altidore began to hold up the ball more with the improved service from Torres, which led to an equalizer. With the score 1-1 and the majority of the huge crowd on its side, the U.S. continuted to press. The attacking mindset paid off in the 75th minute, when a Clint Dempsey goal made it 2-1.
That was the final score, as Torres played a key role in possessing the ball and making the Turks chase the game. It was by far Torres' best performance for the U.S. Ahead of the World Cup, it looked like Torres could be the starting point of an offense that would see Donovan, Dempsey and Altidore firing on all cylinders.
But then-manager Bob Bradley proceeded to bottle it. After sitting out the first game against England, El Gringo got the start against Slovenia. The U.S. laid an egg in the first 45 minutes and trailed 2-0 at halftime. Torres, despite a first half that saw him make some nice touches, was subbed off before the restart and the U.S. rallied for a 2-2 tie.
El Gringo never saw significant playing time for Bradley again, which was a real shame. When a Mexican-American chooses the U.S. over Mexico for soccer, it's a significant cultural development ... and one that must be nurtured and appreciated. The longterm ramifications of having a hero in the Mexican-American community play for the Stars and Stripes can't be underestimated.
Back in September 2010, when the U.S. renewed Bob Bradley's contract, I was still beating the Torres drum. On this blog, I wrote, "I get the fact that Bradley identifies with the typical U.S. player ... a combination of hard man, running machine and latent skill. But maybe, just maybe, a manager like Juergen Klinsmann could look beyond the stamina and physique of U.S. players and unearth a gem."
With his first U.S. squad, "Klinsi" certainly didn't disappoint on that front. He also called in tiny left back Edgar Castillo of Mexico's Club America, as well as former Philly Union defender Michael Orozco Fiscal, who now plays for San Luis. Even with his MLS picks, Klinsmann went for the unexpected by tapping the silky skills of Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman.
Add the fact that Klinsmann also has named U.S. legend Tab Ramos among his initial batch of assistant coaches and you get the feeling that the long-overdue commitment to Latino talent ... as well as style of play ... will come to the forefront. My sons Alex and Ben played a pre-Super Y tourney against Ramos' academy team a few years ago, and the boys from North Jersey certainly knew how to pass and move.
How all this plays out will be fascinating to watch. But, one thing is for certain: When Klinsmann coached Germany to a third-place finish in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, his team was certainly easy on the eye. One key tenet of that development was integrating Germany's massive Turkish minority into the national-team set-up.
And if Klinsmann can repeat that feat here and spur waves and waves of Hispanic boys to make themselves known to U.S. National Team selectors, the sky really can be the limit. If that happens, it won't matter if most of the country's best athletes from other ethnic groups continue to choose football, basketball and baseball ... we will still win a World Cup someday.