By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 1, 2016) US Soccer Players – Here we are again. The USMNT just finished a major international tournament marked by a series of spirited, committed performances that still weren’t quite enough to reach the summit. For the next few weeks, the rest of us will grope for clarity about what it all means.
Wins over Paraguay and Ecuador reminded us of what’s possible. Losses to Argentina and Colombia seemed to confirm what most people think is beyond the program at this point. As several pundits have noted, the conventional wisdom seems to be that the USMNT beat the teams they should’ve beaten, and they lost to the teams no one expected them to beat. This is probably a simplistic viewpoint, but it reflects the common, and blunt, calculus of match results.
We already knew that the US program has by now grabbed most of the low-hanging fruit on its two-decade-long rise out of obscurity. The next steps are incremental gains, difficult advances very much subject to the law of diminishing returns, and so it remains. That also makes the measurement of progress a more difficult, and argumentative, process.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s selections and tactics continue to puzzle and intrigue in equal parts. Yet he’s earned enough respect from the outside world and no small number of domestic onlookers as well to rate as a hot contender for England’s recently vacated manager job. After everything, we are still talking about a manager who was shortlisted for 2014 FIFA World Coach of the Year.
It all adds up to a mixed bag, for better or worse. The USMNT’s recent results are something of a Rorschach test. What observers see is what they already think they know about Klinsmann, his team, and the program at large. For many, gutsy, tenacious wins like the trio earned in Copa America Centenario look an awful lot like Algeria ’10, Spain ’09, and Portugal ’02. Or dare we even say Colombia ’94? Others consider them to be breaking new ground, on bigger stages, and on a more competitive global landscape.
We’re five years into Klinsmann’s tenure and it’s still unclear to most observers, at least what he truly, specifically wants his team to look like in the run of play. Are they still a transition-oriented outfit best served by getting into the final third as quickly as possible? Will the amount and quality of the “proactive” play we’ve heard so much about increase? Why haven’t US teams – and for fairness’ sake, I’m including youth national teams as well as MLS clubs competing internationally here – progressed further in terms of the “keep away” possession traits that would allow the US to better influence a match’s tempo at any given point?
It’s a big task, but it’s not hard to wonder why we’re not further along at this stage. Speaking to Colin sports-talk jock Cowherd this week – whose Fox shows have hosted some of the most visible mainstream discussions of this topic since the Copa – Clint Dempsey spelled it out.
“There’s a lot of kids all over the world, and also right on your front door, that have talent. It’s about growing that talent, finding the right academies, developing that style that you want to play in the States,” said the veteran USMNT striker. “We have a lot of different people from all different countries and everybody has kind of different styles – [we have to] kind of figure out what our style is as a country. How we want to play? Do we want to be a team that’s possessing the ball and being creative and creating chances, or are we going to be a counterattacking team? I think there’s a lot of questions you have to ask yourself.”
It’s true that style is an area where Klinsmann works with what he has available. He may have long ago conceded to himself that his idealistic talk must give way to cold pragmatism. Yet that doesn’t mesh too well with the extra-influential role entrusted in him by his technical director duties, which have an important explanatory component.
All too often, Klinsmann’s pregame words tell us almost nothing about the tactics or personnel he plans to utilize, which is understandable if he fears compromising privileged information. But it’s not necessarily much better at his post-game availability, either.
— Caitlin Murray (@caitlinmurr) June 26, 2016
a lot about what he expects from his players, what’s missing from his team compared to the world’s elite, the flaws he sees in the US soccer system…. All are important and useful topics, but they don’t add up to an actual blueprint for how the USMNT should look when the whistle blows on a huge occasion like the Copa semifinal vs Argentina.
As that frustrating night in Houston made all too obvious, the US still has to wage asymmetrical combat with adversaries of that magnitude, even as the federation labors behind the scenes to improve its identification and development of players. The latter are the tools at Klinsmann’s disposal. The former are the tactics and maneuvers he employs to make the most of them.
“[After] that early goal, I think our players could just feel that, probably in every position on the field, they’re just better than we are,” remarked Klinsmann, rather blithely, after the 4-0 loss to Argentina.
The quote above might just epitomize the wide rift in opinion about Klinsmann’s suitability for the US job at this point. Put simply, OF COURSE the world’s #1 team is better than the US. No one would seriously argue with that statement.
The same is true for nearly any team that faces La Albiceleste, or FC Barcelona at club level, or any other industry leader in any field. A big part of the game’s appeal is the underdog winning. That requires the favorite losing. Just ask England, deserving Euro 2016 losers to little Iceland, or Italy, who comprehensively defeated reigning European champs Spain in the Round of 16 but were defeated in the group stage by plucky Ireland.
“We have shown that we are capable of raising our game when it matters,” said Ireland coach Martin O’Neill after that match. “Some of our players don’t play at the highest level, but we work all the time at staying positive, neutralizing other teams’ advantages and getting the maximum from our own game. We work at believing in ourselves, believing we can compete at this level, and on nights like this we show everyone what we are capable of.”
It’s completely understandable for a coach to point to limited resources. Still, that’s the job. Carpenters blaming tools and all that. As they hunt for more sophisticated way of playing, Klinsmann and the simply can’t afford to let the traditional qualities of belief and resolve lag in the slightest.
The likes of Iceland and Ireland face more built-in limitations than the USA. Yet in a sense, those restrictions liberate them to play the permanent underdog. The Yanks have for some time been able to stand toe to toe with teams at that level. It’s the growth required to climb above them that’s so laborious.
To a great extent, American soccer watchers still don’t know who to trust. We have steadily grown more self-assured as domestic professional leagues take root. The sport’s audiences both on television and in the stadiums grow. Expectations rise for all levels of the national-team program.
The rank-and-file still prefer to consume both on-field product and developmental expertise from overseas. It only takes one underwhelming performance or negative result against superior opposition to send that painstakingly built confidence tumbling down.
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