By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 29, 2022) US Soccer Players – The USMNT’s final pre-World Cup camp is in the books. The results against Japan and Saudi Arabia answered some questions and left a few more hanging. Players now return to their clubs for several more weeks of action until the final roster convenes in the Middle East just before the main event in Qatar.
For those fretting about the current state of things, here’s some historical perspective on the lead-in to the program’s last five World Cups. The past suggests that friendlies like this month’s can be an imperfect metric for tournament performance.
With the entire nation watching for the first time, the USMNT made a surprisingly solid showing at the 1994 World Cup. Then it stunned a few CONMEBOL powers with a run to the 1995 Copa America semifinals. The team finished second in the Concacaf Hexagonal and upset Brazil in the semifinals of that year’s Gold Cup, a winter tournament at the time.
A 3-0 friendly win at Austria that April fueled coach Steve Sampson’s confidence in a new 3-6-1 formation. The Yanks went undefeated in three warm-up matches vs North Macedonia, Kuwait, and Scotland in May. So there was collective optimism in the soccer community as the USMNT jetted to France 98.
That turned out to be naive. High hopes crumbled quickly after rough losses to Germany and Iran. The tournament would end with three losses, just one goal scored and an early trip home. In retrospect, the warm-up games were all on home turf and weren’t exactly against elite opposition. But it likely would’ve taken a dramatically different sequence of events to change the World Cup outcome.
US Soccer hired Bruce Arena away from early MLS dynasty DC United, and eventually steered a path to third place in a treacherous Hex. Toward the longer term, the new Bradenton Residency Program was launched in Florida to fast-track promising youth players from around the country. A startling 4th-place finish at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship suggested it had rapidly borne fruit, with standouts DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan soon promoted to the senior squad.
However, a rugged group stage assignment of Portugal, Poland, and tournament co-hosts South Korea tempered expectations. The countdown to Japan/Korea offered a mixed bag in that sense. Winning the program’s second-ever Gold Cup title in the winter gave proof of concept to Arena’s ideas, which were built on a sturdy defense. Friendly wins over Mexico, Uruguay and Ecuador were encouraging. Yet those transpired on US soil. Trips to Italy, Germany, and Ireland ended in defeat, extending a track record of difficulties in Europe.
The USMNT closed their preparations with a sobering 2-0 sendoff loss to the Netherlands in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Dutch coach Dick Advocaat said afterwards, “It is always good to win. Maybe it is good for the Americans that they lost, too.”
Arena crafted a cohesive unit from a balanced mix of kids and veterans, MLSers, and foreign-based players. The Yanks shocked the world with a gritty run to the World Cup quarterfinals, where Germany were lucky to escape 1-0 winners. A new high-water mark was set.
Arena’s results earned him a second cycle in charge. Picking up 22 of a possible 30 points and finishing tops in the Hexagonal for the first time ever, albeit via a quirky head-to-head goal differential tiebreaker with Mexico, seemed to vindicate that. The maturing youngsters powered a climb up the FIFA World Rankings to the program’s highest-ever spot, fourth, in April 2006.
Going 6-2-2 in friendlies over the first five months of the year stoked further buzz about a good run in Germany, even with a daunting Group E assignment. Eleven players returned from the 2002 roster, providing continuity. A 1-0 win over Poland in Kaiserslautern that March seemed to have broken the streak of struggle in Europe, even if subsequent losses to Germany and Morocco posed warning signs.
Then the Czech Republic, targeting danger men Beasley and Donovan, leaped out to an early 2-0 lead en route to a humbling 3-0 setback in the World Cup opener.
“I think the players as well as coaches are a bit shocked right now,” Eddie Lewis told reporters afterwards. A valiant 1-1 draw with eventual tournament winners Italy would prove mere consolation as Ghana stunned the USMNT in the group-stage finale and the 2006 run ended in disappointment.
Bob Bradley extended the Yanks’ growing body of work in Concacaf. The US edged Mexico for first place in the Hex, powered by an undefeated home record throughout qualifying. Confidence both inside and outside the team surged when the USMNT knocked off mighty Spain en route to the Confederations Cup final in the summer of 2009. That event also provided an in-person preview of World Cup host South Africa and its venues.
Conversely, other friendly results in the lead-up were less heartening. The USMNT lost at Slovakia and Denmark in November 2009, then fell 2-1 to the Dutch in Amsterdam the following March. In the sendoff series in May, a 4-2 loss to the Czechs in Connecticut was balanced by a comeback win over Turkey in New Jersey. The schedule also allowed a friendly with Australia, a 3-1 win, on site in South Africa one week before the World Cup opener vs England.
Perhaps all that played a role in the impressively resilient march to 1st-place in Group C. Comeback draws vs England and Slovenia set the stage for the iconic last-gasp win over Algeria. A heartbreaking 2-1 extra-time loss to Ghana in the round of 16 stung, leaving the sense that more was possible. Yet the Yanks exited with heads held high.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT jetted off to Brazil with belief soaring among their supporters. The German-American coach took the job pledging to build a proactive style that would make the team more assertive at the World Cup, and had overseen the best year in program history in 2013.
A three-game sendoff series vs Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Nigeria was crafted with Group F adversaries Ghana, Portugal, and Germany in mind. Wins over all three opponents offered a boost, albeit with some asterisks. Klinsmann was trying out a new 4-4-2 diamond formation and had shocked everyone by including Landon Donovan in his final roster cuts at a May training camp at Stanford University.
Yet the squad seemed to improve on implementing the tactical tweaks from game to game. The win over Nigeria in Jacksonville, Florida was particularly impressive, showcasing the possession-centric identity so central to Klinsmann’s appeal.
Getting out of the group at the World Cup hinged on more traditional traits, however, with a 1-1-1 record marked by grit, resilience and sterling goalkeeping from Tim Howard. The round of 16 loss to Belgium, while a narrow defeat, raised many of the familiar old questions about philosophy and identity that predated Klinsmann.
It’s hard to keep track of how many times the word “unprecedented” has been applied to Qatar 2022. It really hits home when examining the countdown for teams like the United States, who by the luck of the draw must play their first match on the second day of the tournament.
The region’s desert climate forced a first-ever shift from Northern Hemisphere summer to late autumn to dodge dangerous heat. It also plunked this World Cup right in the heart of the European club calendar.
That rules out the extended May or June camps that were a hallmark of those past five tourneys. Gregg Berhalter won’t be able to gather his many players based on the Old Continent until about a week before opening day. The other side of the coin is that most of his MLSers will finish their seasons in October, necessitating a domestic camp to keep them sharp.
All this also means that there’s scant opportunity for the dress rehearsals that Saudi Arabia, Canada and others have scheduled in November.
“There’s not a lot of time,” said Berhalter after Tuesday’s 0-0 draw with the Saudis. “The teams that are playing on the back end of that first group game (window) have a ton of time, have the luxury to play a friendly game. We have to see. I think it’s going to be pretty tight.”
Does all this elevate the weight of this month’s games? Or is this situation so unique as to toss aside past assumptions? Perhaps it actually even offers Berhalter an element of surprise vs. Wales, England and Iran. These are some of the questions facing the USMNT coaching staff in the coming weeks. We won’t know much more than that until the final whistle blows on USA vs Wales at Al-Rayyan Stadium on November 21.
More from Charles Boehm:
- With the World Cup looming, the USMNT gathers in Europe for final friendly window
- USMNT takes timely new test with Japan friendly
- Orlando City hoists the 2022 US Open Cup in an interesting year for the tournament
- La Liga gets serious about the United States
- Yanks in the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League group stage
Photo by Brad Evans – ISIPhotos.com