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The Americanization of Stoke City is Bad for the U.S. National Team

On Sunday, Geoff Cameron was named man-of-the-match in his first game for his new team, Stoke City.  After weeks of waiting and paperwork, Cameron was finally able to take the pitch after a transfer that continued the gradual march of quality U.S. players into higher leagues.  Playing midfield (!) his City team held the usually high-scoring Arsenal to a scoreless draw and added another point to a total that, by the end of the season, will undoubtedly be enough to remain in the top flight of the best soccer league in the world.

On the heals of this successful debut, national teammate and sometimes backline mate Maurice Edu announced that he had freed himself from the mess that was Rangers in the Scottish system and was coming to Stoke.  The move brought memories of past U.S. players gathering at prominent teams, including Landon Donovan and Tim Howard at Everton, pairings that brought the less glamorous (at least in casual soccer fans’ eyes) teams into the U.S. consciousness.  Two U.S. national team players potentially starting for the same EPL side would naturally lead one to think that Stoke City would become a more recognized, acknowledged, and embraced side for U.S. soccer fans.  It also seemingly fulfills U.S. national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s desire to have more of his players playing at a higher level.

But before we all go out and buy our striped Britannia shirts, I would suggest that this exodus of U.S. talent to Staffordshire is actually a negative to the U.S. national team and I think we will rue the day both players joined the side.  For those unaware, the Potters play a style of football that can generously be called survivalist and traditional or, more accurately and more negatively, can be called dragging soccer back into the 1960s.  The strategy for Tony Pulis’s side is simple: pack your own end of the field with as ten of your starting 11 and, when you finally gain possession of the ball, hoof it up-field to your target man (this season, English national Peter Crouch).  To call this a defensive style is slightly misleading, as it is rather a physical style where the defenders will do what they can to dispossess the opposition of the ball.  Away teams going into the Britannia know they will come out black and blue, and they will struggle for every chance on net they get.  Against the Potters, an away draw is usually a very good thing.

That is not to say that such a style of play is reprehensible (at least until they, say, break someone’s leg).  The fact is Stoke City are way out of the spending league of teams at the top of the EPL table, and their embrace of this physical style have allowed them to stay up in the top flight since 2008.  But their style is not the style of play that Klinsmann is trying to impose on his team and it is actually quite the opposite.  Klinsmann wants the national team to play a smooth passing, possession based but attacking style of play.  This is the exact opposite of how Stoke approach a game and I wonder if the vast difference in play will negatively impact Edu and Cameron.  Players are often asked to play multiple styles between national and club teams, but this instance may be different.

Why? The positional play will be different for both teams.  Edu has normally played as a holding midfielder in the U.S. system but after his successful stint in the Mexico friendly, there may be a future at that position in the next World Cup.  Cameron lined up in the midfield on Sunday but his national team future is seemingly in the backline.  For players who have struggled to establish a set position nationally, this back and forth could hinder the U.S. team.  Both of these players should be playing for a team that will at least be nominally similar in style and playing the positions where they look most promising.  If that is in the Championship or another league, so be it.  When Jurgen Klinsmann said he wanted his pool of players to play at the highest level, this is not what he meant.  I hope we do not regret these signings, especially at such a critical position, but I suspect we will.