The United States Men’s National Team program has hit a clear tipping point. Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup coupled with the stunning 2-0 loss to Honduras in the CONCACAF U-23 Championship represented a double-whammy indicting the current direction of the program.
Poor results and national team regression come at a point where the sport is more popular than ever before in the United States. Thanks to this reality, non-qualification for the FIFA Confederations Cup and likely non-qualification for the 2016 men’s Olympic soccer tournament likely diminish some of the growth potential for the sport both in terms of viewership and finances prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Major League Soccer, which has grown and improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, combined with the growing structure in the lower divisions of American soccer should in theory have created a more competitive national team program. But the opposite appears to be the case: The top line talent for the United States team was arguably stronger in 1995 when the US made the semifinals of the Copa America tournament than today. Major League Soccer began play in 1996. The quality depth of the US player pool, it can be argued, was stronger in 2005 than today, even though MLS was struggling at the time though far more Americans were playing leading roles at European clubs during that period.
In the coming days, US Soccer President Sunil Gulati and Technical Director/Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann must provide answers to all of the concerns swirling around the program.
The worrying situation as I see it is outlined below.
Youth results not good enough, style lacking
Jürgen Klinsmann has hailed the generation of players now featuring at the U-20 and U-23 levels as a stronger group of youngsters than the most recent periods of time. On paper this is true, but the reality is that the results for the United States at youth competitions have gotten progressively worse since the late 2000’s.
At one time, the United States could be counted on to have enough technical players to make it through a youth tournament looking good. But since 2009, the program has collapsed and stands on the brink of missing a second successive men’s Olympic tournament. The United States’ successes in the mid 2000’s at U-17 and U-20 World Cups seem ages ago, and in fact most of those players have either flamed out or cycled through the national team program with notable exceptions of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Brad Guzan.
Klinsmann also promised that youth teams would play a similar style as the men’s national team. But with the senior team fluctuating between tactics and the youth teams struggling for results, this has not happened. On Saturday, the U-23 team led by Andy Herzog, Klinsmann’s top deputy and former FC Bayern teammate, set up and played in a completely different stylistic fashion than the senior team later in the evening. This continued a pattern of experimentation with tactics and constant formation changes at all age levels of play during the Klinsmann regime. Both teams, however, shared the same result — a crushing defeat. Where the overall program direction is stylistically and tactically must be addressed.
Over-reliance on older players and poor tactical decisions
For all of Klinsmann’s tinkering in friendlies, he has returned to older, more experienced players in the big moments.
Saturday’s squad selection was unimaginative and tactically wrong. Klinsmann decided to employ a 4-4-2 diamond formation, using the oft-injured Jermaine Jones on one of the wings. Jones is a gamer and played his heart out in extremely humid conditions. He’s also turning 34 in less than a month and forcing a guy to play in difficult role for 120 minutes was a mistake. Klinsmann also opted to keep the ineffective Clint Dempsey on the pitch for 120 minutes. Dempsey, whose game has regressed since his move to Major League Soccer in 2013, has proven time and again he cannot effectively combine with Michael Bradley when the Toronto FC midfielder who captains the US team plays in a more advanced role as he did Saturday night. But with the difficult conditions, Dempsey, who is in his 30’s and ineffective could have easily been withdrawn and replaced by DeAndre Yedlin midway through the second half. Instead, Klinsmann pulled the young Gyasi Zardes, leaving an ineffective Dempsey on the pitch. If Yedlin had been brought in for Dempsey, Jones could have been moved to a withdrawn holding midfield position in a 4-2-3-1 formation pairing with Kyle Beckerman or maybe Danny Williams who should have been brought on at some point.
If Klinsmann wanted a goal, not bringing on Chris Wondolowski defies logic though Bobby Wood has come good and produced again under pressure. But given the number of older players Klinsmann played, including DaMarcus Beasley who came out of international retirement this year at the manager’s request, Wood is one of the younger players who has been given a real run in the side. While Klinsmann claims he is thinking long-term, his squad selections outside of friendlies indicate he is more concerned about his own short-term job security than fixing the US program.
The US program has suffered from a malaise in player development at the youth level at places like IMG Bradenton, the USSF’s national residency program in Florida. Additionally, players are falling through the cracks of the system all of the time, and many who finally get an opportunity after growing up in the US to play professionally in the US lower leagues opt to represent different nations having been ignored by the US Soccer hierarchy.
Does the United States care more about short-term result or long-term goals? We know the rhetoric is for the latter, but the evidence seems to support the former. Again, this question needs to be answered.
Soccer as a “cause” among the US media
Unfortunately, the United States has many in the soccer media who continue to view promotion of MLS and the US National Team as a “cause.” I was once in this boat, but as the sport has become more popular and a big business in its own right domestically that the time to play cheerleader has long since passed. Questions must be asked and answers will have to be forthcoming and honest. Otherwise heads should roll from the very top. But many in the US Soccer press and among bloggers are so invested in a defensive view of the American product, both at the club and national team level, that they ultimately do a disservice to the effort to move the program forward.
Because of this attitude, many newer fans to the game have simply skipped watching MLS or the lower domestic leagues and turned attention to Europe, particularly the English Premier League. In some cases, these fans have even forsaken support of the US Men’s National Team to watch England or another foreign national team. While front-running is unfortunately a reality of many American sports fans, the media’s passiveness and protectiveness of the US program including MLS furthers this attitude.
Neither the anti-Klinsmann crowd nor those who support the US manager have all of the right answers. Klinsmann’s numerous opponents often point to the national team’s stagnation and his comments criticizing MLS without truly considering the collapse of the youth programs along with the failure of MLS to produce enough high-level talent to fill the player pool. The manager’s proponents often blame MLS fanboys for his troubles and have rallied around Klinsmann ignoring his lack of tactical acumen, his inability to impart a consistent style and his unwillingness to even select some consistent European-based players like Eric Lichaj. The truth is that Klinsmann has a vision for the program but no real mechanical skill to get the US where he wants the program to be. But at the same time, his critiques of MLS, player training and fitness levels are worthy of further discussion. However those conversations always seem to regress into a conversation where MLS defenders face off against those who hate the league and are unwilling to give it any credit, thus achieving nothing in the way of practical suggestions.
The state of the program is as bad as it has been since the 2006 FIFA World Cup loss to Ghana. That defeat led to several months of careful introspection and planning. The US team came back and performed at a higher level between 2007 and 2010 than it had been 2003 and 2006. However, at the time these conversations took place in more of a vacuum as the sport had not yet become a fixture on the sporting landscape in this country. Now, it is a mainstream topic and I fear that the conversation will not be as thoughtful and lengthy as in 2006.
Since Klinsmann appears to be headed nowhere despite the dual poor results on Saturday, it’s up to the media and backers of the program to ask the appropriate questions. The ball is very much in the court of public opinion. Now is the time to demand answers to everything we have outlined above.
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