By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 13, 2017) US Soccer Players - Most likely, the USMNT won’t look back particularly fondly on Wednesday’s 3-2 Gold Cup win over Martinique. The underdogs roared, while the favorites fumbled, forced to sweat out a result that most expected to be a one-sided victory. A largely plodding first half gave way to a suddenly white-knuckle second, leaving many fans caught somewhere between frustration and adrenaline.
Is this a bad team? Has Bruce Arena lost the plot? A few deep breaths and a little perspective may be useful heading into Saturday’s meeting with Nicaragua, another David-and-Goliath occasion which may shape up in similar fashion.
“Trust the process” has become a stale sports meme thanks to the Philadelphia 76ers’ overuse of it as a rebuilding mantra. Regardless, it may be a useful phrase for USMNT watchers this week.
Arena has made clear that hunting a sixth Gold Cup championship is hardly the only or even the top priority this month. He wants to evaluate a few fresh faces, give opportunities to overlooked ones, and shape his player pool with the next year or so in mind. This would not appear to be mutually exclusive to making a trophy push. Co-favorites Mexico are doing much the same thing.
Fans generally find this sort of outlook laudable in the abstract. Some even thank the heavens when they see their wishes for certain younger or fringe players to get a call up granted. When they and their heroes don the jersey on game day – much less pay US Soccer’s or CONCACAF’s increasingly astronomical ticket prices – it quickly becomes a buzzkill at best, or an outright travesty at worst.
Arena called in a squad light on international experience, then started two dramatically different XIs in these first two games. When cast in this light, the shortcomings shown in terms of passing rhythm and situational leadership should become less galling, less surprising. This is what experimentation looks like. Thomas Edison tried out upwards of 3,000 designs before he settled on the best recipe for the light bulb.
Put bluntly, many of these guys are still getting to know one another, and coming to grips with what’s required. Their job is to synthesize all this quickly, and churn out quality when it counts. If they don’t take the chance that’s handed to them, the repercussions hit home on a personal level, and with more force than what even the most dedicated fan feels after a suboptimal showing by the team.
Yes, Arena did have a decent amount of pre-tournament camp time with which to prepare his group, thanks in large part to MLS clubs doing the federation a solid by letting players report early. Does it really all boil down to poor execution by the players? After a game like Wednesday’s, a realistic viewpoint would concede that he and his staff could probably have done a better job with the granular details as well.
This is the process. Players and coaches do their best to prepare for these occasions, then execute. Sometimes it’s not good enough. Sometimes the opponent rises to the occasion. Sometimes you do just enough to keep moving forward in a tournament setting like this, knowing that every game is a new landscape. There’s still ample time to turn this choppy week into a forgotten footnote.
An opponent like Martinique is generally perceived to be cannon fodder for even the most inexperienced US side. A program with the USMNT’s ambitions should welcome such expectations. They do, however, carry a cost when a couple of ‘blah’ performances stack up as they have this week. Originally labeled as ‘easy wins,’ the Panama and Martinique games may well become chips on their shoulders. It gives them even more to prove to their coach, their supporters, and themselves.
It’s more than a little unfair to all parties when outside observers casually dismiss the quality, savvy, and resilience of these so-called minnows. Recall that a much more battle-tested USMNT lineup fought hard to grab a 1-1 draw with Panama in a World Cup qualifying encounter earlier this year. Meanwhile Martinique knocked off Trinidad & Tobago – the nation that held the US to a goalless draw in the previous round of qualifying and made life difficult in last month’s Hexagonal clash in Colorado – to reach this edition of the Gold Cup.
The United States and Mexico would like to think that they’ve grown big and strong enough to bat aside these pesky little neighbors regardless of the circumstances. Circumstances have a funny way of wreaking havoc just the same.
Arena will likely urge his charges to direct Wednesday’s difficulties towards ensuring that Saturday becomes a blowout. Martinique’s decision to press the USMNT high and dictate terms more than the typical Cinderella will be a teaching point for all involved here. If Nicaragua tries something similar, the US should deliver a swift and painful reckoning.
If they don’t? Then perhaps some second-guessing of the process may be in order.
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