— Benny Feilhaber (@b_feilhaber22) March 25, 2015
By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 26, 2015) US Soccer Players – Wednesday’s 3-2 comeback loss to Denmark continued a few unhappy trends for the USMNT. The passing and possession numbers showed a clear advantage for Denmark. There was the late goal, two in fact, surrendering the lead in the game’s late stages.
The final two strikes (in the 83rd and 90th-plus minutes) of Nicklas Bendtner’s hat trick make it eight goals conceded in the last 15 minutes of matches played since the World Cup. It’s happened in five of those eight matches, and all five were losses or draws. It also happened twice at Brazil 2014.
“We have to step it up in terms of managing the game for 90 minutes,” USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann said postgame. “We lead in Denmark. We have to get it done, the job. We have to go home with three points or at least tie. We didn’t do that, so there is still stuff to improve.”
Equally eye-catching was the difficulty with smooth build-up play out of the back. That’s an oft-stressed theme under Klinsmann but one where progress has been difficult to track.
Friendlies are friendlies, of course. The team always fights for the colors – and they did so quite resourcefully in Denmark – but the final score can only mean so much in the grand scheme. Yet, that begs the question: What is the grand scheme? Where is Klinsmann leading this team, and what manner of road map is he using to get there?
Klinsmann emphasizes certain concepts repeatedly in most of his remarks to the media. He urges his players to strive for the maximum in all aspects of their careers. He expresses a desire to play a fluid, proactive brand of soccer, one where his team seeks to gain, and maintain, control over their matches’ tempo. He aims to use the world’s elite (generally conceived as the dozen or so nations who routinely mount deep runs at the World Cup) as the USMNT’s measuring stick. He depicts his tenure at the helm of the program as a time of challenge, discovery, and dynamic evolution on all fronts.
That’s a highly streamlined version of his message, and it doesn’t encircle the fullness of his core concepts. Still, even under those generalized banners, Wednesday’s 90 minutes poses uncomfortable questions in multiple areas.
The patterns referenced at the top of this page began at the World Cup. They’ve recurred with varying frequency levels ever since. As they continue to show themselves, has Klinsmann tailored his messaging accordingly?
The technical staff has targeted specific activities later in the year as the priority events for 2015: The Gold Cup, the U-17 and U-20 World Cups, and the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship (U-23s). So it’s only fair to approach everything leading up to those events in the context of the preparation process. Questions to the effect of, “Was this a useful experience in general developmental terms?” and “Will this aid in the progression towards trophies and/or successful qualification in those tournaments?”
That’s where it gets blurry.
From the outside, it’s not totally clear how Klinsmann processes the lessons of these setbacks and transmits them to the squad in a useful format. Obviously video analysis is a major tool in his staff’s arsenal, along with a range of the most progressive analytics tools available today. If an SI.com report from earlier this month is accurate, Klinsmann talked to some MLS teams to request additional fitness data on his players while they’re on club duty.
But any pattern that extends far and deep enough risks becoming a rut. Similar issues are befalling a long list of varied lineups and personnel, and against a wide range of opponents. So it’s not out of line to wonder if there’s a break somewhere in the chain, and to drill down in search of it.
Is Klinsmann adequately converting failure into actionable processes and tactics? Are his players absorbing and implementing the information? Are deeper shortcomings simply presenting excessive hurdles regardless of the progress? If there’s merit to the sentiment expressed in Feilhaber’s tweet, and the pursuit of new gains actually has compromised one of the USMNT’s most valued traditional strengths, what’s the remedy?
“We knew it was going to be a scrappy game,” USMNT midfielder Michael Bradley said on Wednesday, noting the cold, wet North Sea environs. “It was going to be a night where certain plays were going to get fouled up and there wasn’t going to be time to worry about it. We’re just going to be running, moving onto second balls, playing forward, moving our lines and trying to influence things as much as possible in those ways.”
In very general terms, that sounds a lot like the program’s fallback blueprint for two decades or more. Those complicating factors are valid, however, and they make next week’s match against Switzerland even more important from an evaluation standpoint.
It’s understandable, even tempting, to write off games like the Denmark loss. Games in Europe have always been tough for the USMNT, and in Aarhus the opposition emphatically affirmed their proud tradition of technique and verve despite a relatively modest player pool.
“Overall, it was an even game,” Klinsmann insisted to reporters.
The final score and the aesthetics suggest otherwise. It’s now up to the coach to make his bold statements unassailable through results on the field.
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