By Charles Boehm – HOUSTON, TX (Feb 26, 2016) US Soccer Players – On Sunday, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Paraguay joined the USMNT in Group A during the lavish and protracted pageant that was the Copa America Centenario draw. Seeing an even larger than usual groundswell of dismay and negativity among USMNT fans on social media, I had the temerity to post two tweets suggesting that this so-called “group of death” needn’t be quite so intimidating. I also said that qualification to the knockout rounds should be a baseline goal regardless of the program’s struggles in 2015.
The backlash was swift and sharp.
“You’ve been drinking a bit too much [insert favorite local beer], buddy.”
“Lay off the sauce, our player pool s*cks.”
“This guy talks soccer… That’s scary.”
“This isn’t about the players. The team is managed by an incompetent charlatan.”
“Did you see the #USMNT in the Gold Cup? Not much optimism with this draw.”
“I have no faith in [Jurgen] Klinsmann.”
“You forgot about JK.”
Clearly, many USMNT supporters do not share my (comparatively) sunny reaction to the draw. For many, it was the worst-case scenario in terms of the seeded host nation’s potential opponents for this unique – and richly-hyped – event. Even if they navigate a path to the quarterfinals as the second-placed team in Group A, Brazil would likely await, as the five-time world champions are odds-on favorites to win Group B. The survivor of that game would most likely face Mexico or Uruguay in the semis.
Some were so aghast at the prospect of this litany of skilled opposition that they pondered conspiracy theories, most based on the idea of backlash for the US Department of Justice’s piercing investigation of FIFA corruption.
“You take down FIFA… you get draws like that for the remainder of 21st Century,” tweeted Roger Bennett, half of the tongues-permanently-in-cheek “Men in Blazers” duo.
Longtime observers of the US soccer scene may recognize all this as one edge of the pendulum swing that the USMNT faithful have ridden for the better part of two decades. Alternately thrilled by their late-blooming soccer nation’s huge potential and its chronic tardiness compared to the rest of the world, Yanks have for years been whooshing back and forth between boundless optimism and gloomy disillusionment, even outright self-loathing.
What appears to be new about this case is the odd twist in which pessimism currently seems to reign on both sides of a fractious divide in the US soccer community.
By now, if you pay any attention whatsoever to the USMNT, you probably have an opinion – quite likely a strong one – about head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Some hail him as a truth-telling reformer, others see only an over-promoted huckster. (A dwindling few of us do still lie somewhere in between, seeing a smart yet incomplete international manager whose cost-benefit columns can be maddeningly difficult to tabulate accurately.)
Four and a half years after his hiring, Klinsmann is so entrenched and influential that his outsized persona filters most peoples’ view of the entire program – a prism of personality, if you will. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. He’s an iconic global star, after all, whatever his US legacy ends up looking like.
In the case of Copa America, both sides of the debate are wearing smoke-colored glasses at present.
Those who view Klinsmann as a straight shooter doing his best with limited, flawed resources point to the array of talent available to this summer’s group opponents. Even casual fans may recognize Real Madrid regulars James Rodriguez (Colombia) and Keylor Navas (Costa Rica), English Premier Leaguers like Bryan Oviedo and Joel Campbell (both Costa Rica) or Serie A standout Juan Cuadrado (Colombia). Placed a mere 42nd in the latest FIFA World Rankings, Paraguay don’t have quite the same pedigree as their neighbors Argentina and Brazil, yet most of their first-choice XI graces the lineups of top clubs in big leagues like Spain’s La Liga, Mexico’s Liga MX and the German Bundesliga.
Conversely, those who’ve lost faith in the USMNT’s management team also see all that danger lurking. Even if they don’t regard it as overwhelming, they express scant confidence in Klinsmann’s ability to come to grips with the threats posed. They think he’s done less with more. Where his backers see refreshing realism, his doubters see a self-interested management of expectations where every loss can be framed as a sign of the difficult job he’s been handed.
Others pointedly note an apparent regression in this regard in recent years. The starry-eyed ’90s visioneering of the “Project 2010” blueprint to win a World Cup has given way (talk about a pendulum swing!) to far more measured goal-setting, like passage out of the group stage of major international tournaments. It will again be the case this summer, despite a handy home-field advantage.
“Would you like an easier group? Maybe on paper. But no group is easy. We’ll take it the way it is,” Klinsmann told reporters at the draw, expressing his hope that the rest of Group A will bring the best squads at their disposal. “The objective is clearly getting out of the group, even if it’s not easy. First or second [place] with that group is both tremendously fine. We’ll just take it the way it is.”
For all the sound and fury sparked by his outspokenness, it remains an open debate as to whether results under Klinsmann have dramatically differentiated him from his recent predecessors. As ussoccer.com noted in September, he’s already almost reached second place on the USMNT’s all-time coaching wins list. At the time of that release, he also carried the best win percentage (0.662 percent) of the modern era. He’s presently 45-21-15 over 81 total matches, a winning percentage of 0.648; Bruce Arena sits at 0.658 and Bob Bradley at 0.612. All three won (and lost) Gold Cups. All three reached the World Cup knockout stages.
Last year was a rough one, and even those setbacks haven’t really pushed the Centenario’s hosts off the inside track for a spot in the tournament’s knockout stages. Perhaps it’s more useful to give thanks for the basic courtesy of a top seed. It’s a small perk that’s eluded the US at World Cup level since hosting duties landed them a prime slot in 1994.
This week ESPN’s Soccer Power Index, which crunches numbers about as intricately and comprehensively as any major statistical initiative of its kind, gave the USMNT a 62 percent likelihood of advancing out of Group C. That puts them a lot closer to projected group winners Colombia (68 percent) than Costa Rica (36 percent) and Paraguay (34 percent). No one near the team is in a position to suggest as much just yet. Still, there’s an argument that even a first-round exit wouldn’t be inherently disastrous if the quality of play was enterprising and encouraging.
Much can and will change over the next three months, of course, especially with uncertainty swirling around the two South American sides’ personnel and prioritization decisions. With one eye on World Cup qualifiers, Paraguay are mulling a less-than-full-strength roster for Copa America and the results of March’s Colombia-USA Olympic playoff will likely affect the winners’ plans for the summer.
But ESPN’s projections underline the strange gap between the USMNT’s sturdy – if unsexy – reality and the downcast mood of the fans at present. The mere existence of Copa America Centenario is a plum gift plopped into the United States’ lap, and some are already finding ways to write it off. Granted, it does look unlikely to change many opinions about the coach.
“We don’t see ourselves as outsiders or underdogs or whatever you want to call it,” maintained Klinsmann, to his credit, in Manhattan on Sunday. “We see ourselves as eye to eye in this tournament and we want to go through the group and then take it one game at a time.”
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