“The most important thing is the ball. When you have it, you can do so many things. When you don’t have it, you can only do one… You have to go chase it.” – Hugo Perez, USMNT 1984-1994, U-15 National Team coach 2012-2014
By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 24, 2016) US Soccer Players – The USMNT got a beating by Argentina in Houston on Tuesday night, as anyone who took part in it readily admitted afterwards. The pronounced superiority of the world’s top-ranked team led the media coverage of the Copa America Centenario semifinal. It was one-sided enough to distort most any attempt to glean meaningful lessons for the USMNT.
That said, postmortems are a useful and necessary step in making the most of such a truly rare experience for the United States and their CONCACAF neighbors: a must-win match against an elite team in a meaningful competition. The sobering realities slapping everyone in the face this week sometimes only arrive every four years. So it’s actually an enormous benefit to get one at this point in the calendar.
Most of this site’s readers are all too familiar with this tale, but let’s break it down again for lucidity’s sake. For most of the past quarter-century, the United States built and maintained a reputation as a spirited, organized, hard-working team that is “tough to beat,” but not consistently capable of “taking the game to” top-level opposition.
That’s not to say that measured, creative attacking play hasn’t featured. It has, especially against CONCACAF counterparts, as they grew more fearful and cautious of the region’s stirring giant. Against the global elite, we still find ourselves soaking up pressure, stuck in the antagonist’s role instead of dictating terms. So it was against Argentina, and also for long stretches in the tournament opener against Colombia.
Why? In a word: possession. US sides – youth national teams as well as the senior squad – traditionally struggle to keep control of the ball and move it at a sufficient tempo against elite opponents. The same is true of US club teams in the upper reaches of international competitions like the CONCACAF Champions League. Many elements factor into this: Basic technique, speed of thought, quality of coaching, clarity of tactical ideas and roles, individual game circumstances, and more. We’ve all seen scenarios like Tuesday’s unfold repeatedly over the years.
Argentina controlled nearly all 90 minutes of that match because of what they did both with the ball and without it. Their passing and movement in attack was crisp, purposeful, and collectively coherent – hinting at their shared understanding and repetitions together. When the US did win possession back from them and looked to transition into attack, La Albiceleste‘s suffocating press closed down time and space with admirable speed, snapping at heels and forcing one cheap turnover after another. It was more than just the USMNT not looking sharp going forward. The constant pressure made it difficult for them to go anywhere. Even goalkeeper Brad Guzan found himself pressed at times when his teammates had no other good option but to play it back to his feet.
Possession mastery is the release valve for that attempted asphyxiation. String together a few one-two combinations or sidestep a tackle or two to break through the first wave of pressing, and suddenly the pitch opens up for a surge forward. Or, simply sustain a game of keep away in your own half long enough to manipulate space and tire the opposition. Even if you must concede the impetus, on balance, to a team as sublimely talented as Argentina, a few moments with the ball here and there provide priceless relief for the back line, and occasionally even a counterattack, something the USMNT has done with deadly precision in the past.
Certainly, Argentina manager Tata Martino has arguably the world’s deepest, most diverse player pool. World-class players make their coaches look like geniuses, while also making their adversaries appear more pedestrian than they really are. Yet the principles of pass-and-move soccer are not limited to the game’s rich and famous; far smaller nations and teams with fewer resources have put them to use. Just ask the MLS sides that chased shadows when playing Real Salt Lake during that club’s heyday of possession-centric play.
Most of you can guess what comes next here, too. Jurgen Klinsmann was supposed to be the key to implementing this next stage of evolution. That’s the “proactive” stuff we’ve heard ad infinitum since he took the job almost five years ago. Under his guidance, the program would finally internalize the centrality of possession-based play, or so we heard. In fairness, we have seen stirring moments of methodical, enterprising build-up play, most memorably in friendly wins over Nigeria and Germany.
Yet the cultural shift to make these moments the norm, the instinctive default in times of adversity, seems to be moving at a glacial pace. It’s not solely Klinsmann’s responsibility. It’s far too big for any one person. Still, no one in US Soccer Federation history has ever had more power and experience or a bigger bully pulpit to push it along.
It’s not just who you call up to the senior squad, or how you arrange them, though both of those are crucial. (And this columnist suspects a few adjustments to the current team could make a dramatic difference right away.) Who are you hiring – or not firing, as the case may be – to guide the youth internationals? What kinds of players are those teams monitoring and selecting? What sort of ideas is your well-funded national youth league (the Development Academy) a laboratory for? Does the establishment welcome subcultures where these attributes are prized and cultivated? Is there a guiding philosophy to the whole system? Do you approach the game as a craft, something to study and master? Is the way you play valued as form of entertainment and artistic expression beyond just the numbers on the scoreboard at full time?
In sports and in life, the American psyche generally values results over aesthetics and pretty much everything else. That’s a firm breeze blowing in the face of Klinsmann, Sunil Gulati and anyone else who’s truly serious about evolving the way we play and consume the beautiful game here. That task is far from impossible.
Whether they answer it now or in 2018, the central questions facing Gulati and the rest of the federation’s leadership will be the same: Has the current technical staff delivered substantial, tangible progress in this department? And, can they continue to do so at an equal or higher rate of speed in the future?
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