By Charles Boehm – HOUSTON, TX (Feb 19, 2016) US Soccer Players – Fans and pundits talk about it a great deal every day. It’s such a basic question that’s still worth asking. What is “American soccer” anyway?
In the modern lexicon of branding, we can talk about crests and kits and mottos and banners and hashtags, or perhaps celebrity coaches or star players. In a traditional footballing sense, a team or program’s “brand” comes before all those things. It shows itself in the personality of play, the collective style, and attitude that makes a squad recognizable even when stripped of its logo and colors and nameplates.
Last month Joan Vila, “head of methodology” at Spanish giants FC Barcelona, led a presentation at the NSCAA Convention in Baltimore titled “A New Idea, A New Concept In Football.” A better title was “Our Game”. That was the overarching theme of a nearly two-hour talk. It was a presentation packed with the theories that undergird the dazzling soccer consistently produced by arguably the world’s greatest professional club.
Most fans know Barca as the home of megastar Lionel Messi along others. It’s also the sporting manifestation of Catalonian nationalism that long ago led its leaders to proudly dub it “more than a club.” What’s less obvious is the fact that their fluid pass-and-move style is the product of years of considered philosophical pondering and cultural contemplation. That gave rise to a manner of playing the game that transcends and outlives any one coach, player, or even generation of players.
“Our game is based in three fundamental concepts: position, possession and pressure,” explained Vila, leading a room full of rapt coaches through a PowerPoint presentation in didactic Spanish while a junior colleague provided translations in English. “We want to enjoy playing, so we need to keep possession of the ball. Because if we don’t have the ball, we have to run [to chase opponents] and we don’t enjoy it.”
And yet: “Statistically our players run more than most opposing teams; however, for us, what’s important is not running, but knowing how to run,” he later stressed. “Historically Barcelona’s game has been associated to technical excellence, plasticity and spectacle.”
That style, Vila explained, is simultaneously the artistic expression of a proud, tightly knit community and a pragmatic response to the demands of Spanish and European soccer’s elite echelons. No talk of a “player’s game” here. The Catalonians have broken down the field – and the sport itself, really – into a series of logical and collaborative patterns that allow the team to elevate their speed of thought to levels that few on earth can match. These “phase spaces” enable a “continuum of complexity” that relies on brains, movement and clean technique on the ball as the field is stretched in possession, then immediately shrinks if the ball is lost and recovery is required.
“So if we say that the traditional perspective divides the game, what we want is to unify the game,” he said, presenting and then sweeping aside conventional notions of attack and defense, creation and destruction. “It’s basically to have all the players of our team intercommunicating, because this way we will be able to play as one, and we will always have the initiative of the game.”
Ironically, it’s a rigid and logical framework that builds a platform for some of the modern game’s most thrillingly creative players to weave their magic. Even vocabulary matters: At Barca the ball is not “stolen,” but “recovered,” attacking is “phase possession”. One does not improve, but rather “optimizes.”
What does all this have to do with the USMNT? For decades, technical staffers in our country have fretted over the absence of a distinctive American style. Myriad disparate influences across a massive, diverse nation – paired with limited and uneven coaching infrastructure – have all too often restricted US teams to a lowest-common-denominator approach, a “reactive” tactical mentality that is the philosophical equivalent of triage in an overcrowded hospital emergency room.
The increasingly desperate search for a transition to “proactive” ways has been perhaps the biggest overarching theme of current coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure. On first glance, it’s hard to detect much in the way of dramatic progress lately. We went searching for our “new self,” but to paraphrase retired USMNT great Alexi Lalas, all we’ve found thus far is a “better version of ourselves.”
Are US teams fundamentally handicapped by the poor fundamentals of the players our system produces? There’s certainly reason to consider this conclusion, and technique and tactical savvy remain some of the most pressing problems at youth level.
Perhaps, though, forward progress has slowed due to the relative absence of a rigorous philosophical approach like Barcelona’s. There, players are simultaneously challenged and empowered by a clarity of purpose and a shared vision that stretches beyond the field of play.
It’s inherently tricky to draw comparisons between the Men’s and Women’s US National Teams. The two squads bring differing tools to face differing challenges in two very different global environments.
Yet during Thursday’s press conferences at BBVA Compass Stadium in advance of the USMNT’s next Olympic qualifier, I was struck by the clear signs of the WNT’s collective identity. Even as that squad transitions from one generation of players to the next and works towards a way of playing less reliant on strength and more on technique, their roles and duties are well understood – even from the outside.
“They are world champions for a reason,” said Richard Hood, head coach of Trinidad & Tobago, who are heavy underdogs in Friday’s semifinal meeting with the USWNT. “They have a few new players in the squad, but they play to a particular system and they are well-trained. They are well-prepared at the system they play, their organization, the way they play.”
Are the USMNT incapable of such a vision? Or, perhaps they’re caught between identities and in need of superior leadership to complete the journey? Such questions may linger until Russia 2018, and quite possibly beyond.
More from Charles Boehm: