We’ve entered year five of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as U.S. men’s national team coach, and his world remains a nebulous, volatile one. The progress fans were promised when he succeeded Bob Bradley has yet to arrive, and any hope that the program’s reinforced foundations have a.) actually been reinforced, and b.) will offer a better tomorrow is obscured by the present, one where half the fanbase see Klinsmann as acceptable; the other half, a fraud.
This international break’s two results did little to unite those worlds, but a subtler, less equivocal truth is starting to emerge. As Klinsmann continues to use friendlies to experiment — as he starts the likes of Michael Orozco and Ventura Alvarado in central defense for what should be a high profile match — the importance of actually watching these games gets diminished. As Steve Davis said last week, drawing big lessons from these games is always a mistake, but now the joy of viewing them is starting to evaporate, too. When it comes to the actual quality on display, some of these games just aren’t actually that good.
For the most devoted of national team fans, supporting the team is not optional, but for those of us who take in soccer as entertainment, this summer has been rough. Poor Gold Cup performances with brow-furrowing team selections have established a pattern that extended into this break. The excitement of a coming U.S. friendly has been replaced with memories of sitting through two hours of alternating boredom and frustration – the type of performances that leave people feeling so disappointed by international soccer.
It’s not fun to see a team, matched up against a foe with Brazil’s talents, use the game as a test bed for Alejandro Bedoya in defensive midfield. It’s not entertaining to see a team match Championship-level defender Tim Ream against Premier League-caliber attacker Willian. It’s not a fun soccer experience to see Jozy Altidore abandoned at the top of a formation, and a game’s entertainment value destroyed when a cast of players in unfamiliar roles lack the chemistry to execute attacking movements.
These games are on ESPN and FOX Sports. The networks send their A-list talent to cover them. We get pregame shows, one-on-one interviews, a barrage of coverage from the usual suspects with the idea that this is entertainment.
But it’s not. It’s more akin to a bad movie than something that generates excitement. The pomp, circumstance, ritual of the U.S. friendly has the feeling of a big Pixar blockbuster, but the experience has become Pixels – a trite idea from a bad production company, pandering and poorly executed, with a leading man so many have grown tired of.
And yet, this is exactly what the U.S.’s leading man, Klinsmann, should be doing. Before, when the U.S. was less prone to wild experimentation in friendlies, did consistency serve the greater good? Perhaps, but perhaps not as much as giving Herculez Gomez more time before the 2010 World Cup would have. When Bradley trotted out 4-4-2 after 4-4-2, did the U.S. become a better team? Probably. The U.S. mastered the system that served it so well that cycle, but it also left the team inflexible, reliant on one approach, and short on answers when injuries and poor performances called for new solutions.
Klinsmann hasn’t exactly solved those problems – though it’s hard to dispute the program uses a much deeper player pool than it did before. He is trying, though. Instead of looking at matches against Brazil and Peru as points of pride, tying himself to an obligation that only serves to obscure the program’s real goals, Klinsmann has started DeAndre Yedlin in midfield. Instead of looking at the Gold Cup as a be all and end all, he rolled the dice with a defense centered around John Brooks and Alvarado. And instead of bringing players like Geoff Cameron and Bobby Wood into camp this summer, he felt the team’s long-term goals would be better suited by letting them battle for time with their clubs.
In that sense, constantly selecting hamstrung, experimental teams seems like a sound strategy. In the short-term, though, it makes for a terrible product. In flashes, the U.S. can be very entertaining to watch, with the rest of the world justifiably enamored with Klinsmann’s perceived transformation of the program. But what the rest of the world gets in distilled highlights, hardcore U.S. fans have to wrestle out of 90 often arduous minutes. The flamboyant displays we see against Germany and Holland are actually just stints in a broader, less convincing spell of performances.
That’s the type of description you give to a team that’s struggling, but to say the U.S. is struggling would be harsh. Yes, the team just lost 4-1 to Brazil on home soil, but we’ve been here before – starting second-choice teams against a world power, leading to a “well, we’re just not sure” conclusion. Be it in training or when players are back at their clubs, most of the team’s progress goes on outside of what we see in their occasional 90 minutes on the field. To draw conclusions from games alone seems to make sense, but particularly under Klinsmann, it may be a small piece of the picture.
Is the team making progress toward Oct. 10? Hard to tell. Are we getting a better idea of who will start in defense? Not really. Did anything happen this week that a month of club performance can’t overshadow? No. For as much as he stresses in-game performance, Klinsmann seems to have developed a decision-making process that far transcends what we see on the field. And because these friendlies aren’t treated with any urgency, we’re left reading scattered tea leaves from an otherwise dull meal.
At some point, that will change, be it in World Cup qualifying or, if CONCACAF doesn’t regain some of its swagger from Brazil, in Russia. Then again, the last qualifying cycle gave us experiments like Jose Torres at left back, Eddie Johnson at left wing and Brad Evans at full back. None of those players even made the trip to Brazil.
Until these games have some real stakes, whenever that may be, we are adrift at sea, with our ability to enjoy the U.S. at the mercy of our mercurial master and commander. Many of us are Russell Crowes, passionately imploring the horizon via 140-character bursts. Others of us are Paul Bettany, indulging in diversions between chasing rare quails at port.
But we are all waiting, hoping, passing the turbulent days the same way we embrace the peaceful – with irrelevance. Stress, hope, demand or demur, we’re trapped on this ship until Moscow’s tented roofs come into view, left to wait out the journey as if each day, each meaningless game, isn’t as irrelevant as the one before.
Perhaps we’ll reach shore in 2017, a year before we need to, but until then, our goal will be unchanged. We’re left to wait out the years until a game final matters, until our captain has to put out a real crew, and we can finally talk about these games without sounding absurd. We can pray that day is Oct. 10, but if the U.S. doesn’t qualify for a Confederations Cup, they’ll be no worse for it. It’s not like the glories of 2009 vaulted the U.S. to new heights.
But maybe, just maybe with the pressure of a U.S.-Mexico showdown, Klinsmann will give us a product to justify our time. Unfortunately, between now and 2018, it may be one of the few times we’ll have something entertaining to watch.
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