Thursday, June 19, 2014

USA Soccer Development - or why isn't the US playing better?

I thought Bob Sturm said it well the other day when he told people to save the style discussions in his blog post. Some people either didn't read it or ignored the point, so much so that I feel the need to add some detail.

The argument is going something like this, "The US should attack more. That is what Klinsmann promised. This isn't beautiful soccer."

What are we now, Brazil?

In what world does the US go from being a third-tier team to being able to look down on ONE OF EIGHT EVER WORLD CUP WINS in four years?

But in the "everyone is an expert in the World Cup because that is what people are talking about" environment we are in, that is becoming the narrative. Well, it is an uneducated narrative, and some of you frankly know better...

Not to be mean, but to make the point - Did Chile beat Spain with open, fluid play? Oh, you funny guy. You funny guy.

Let's look at simple facts. Sorry, guys, I know. Facts, scmacts. Too bad - don't like 'em, go read something else.


Okay back to it.


Know that we need to really roll up the sleeves and dive into a lot of stuff. This isn't a simple question with a simple answer. I am going to go into the background of the team, talk briefly about player availability and then go into the discussion on tactics. Note that for brevity's sake, I am going to break out a lot of the player development stuff because that is a really long discussion in its own right.


In 2010, the US team had a collection of hard charging, no-quit defenders and defensive middies, and a fantastic goalkeeper - basically, pretty athletic with some skilled players in a few positions. Bob Bradley, like Bruce Arena before him, took that collection of players and did the tactically smart thing to do - absorb and counter.

It is what the US has been since its re-emergence on the World Cup stage, with marked improvement since the 1990 team that was basically a collection of college kids sprinkled with some professionals here and there, and the development of the team has followed the development of the players, shaped in large part by the development of Major League Soccer - either directly (Donovan) or as a springboard (Howard, Dempsey, Bradley) for players.

I can hear the complainers now. "Now wait, we're talking about the tactics here, not players." But if you do not change the raw material you are working with, and that raw material doesn't have the tools to do different things, then how can the tactics be significantly different?

Player Development

This is definitely a longer post, but I will sum up with this - Klinsmann worked hard to develop the player pool both inside and beyond MLS, with failures and successes on both fronts. Beckerman, Besler and Zusi all came singularly from MLS and played significant roles on Monday. He also recruited players like Brooks and Johnson. Finally, he managed players already in the pool when he took over, like Bradley, Dempsey, Beasley, Jones.

Beyond that, though, we need to look at what will significantly change the pool of players - what will really grow the potential options the US national team coach has to choose from.

What is the US?

Now that we have talked about it, let's take a closer look at that raw material and compare it to other teams. Use whatever metric you want - salary, level of play, whatever else you might come up with. All are subjective but if you work through where the roster of potential US players is relative to other teams, I think you will consistently find that we aren't in the top tier of traditional potential World Cup winners (Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy) or even the second tier of current potential winners (Colombia, Holland, France). They are in that muddy middle with so many teams, like Ghana, Switzerland, Ecuador, South Korea, etc.

They have for some time not been what they were in 1990 - the bottom tier. The success in 1994 proved that we had the potential to be in that third tier, although obviously 1998 showed that it was just that - potential - rather than "where we are." The break-out of 2002 showed that we could be even more than that, and had the potential to get into that second tier, but 2006 showed we were still mucking around in that third tier, dependent on performance and opponent to decide how well we played and whether we went through.

Where was the US on Monday?

Which brings us to where we are today. In the Group of Death. All four of these teams advanced in 2010, with Portugal and Germany going out to eventual champions Spain, the US losing to Ghana and Ghana losing to semifinalists Uruguay. And nothing that happened on Monday changes any of that. Portugal is still good enough to win their remaining games and advance. Germany is in the driver's seat and can end Ghana Saturday, but Ghana won't go out like Cameroon did.

Specifically, on Monday we were playing Ghana, a team that like the US is long on athleticism and has usually resorted to absorbing pressure and counter-attacking to get results at higher levels.


So with that raw material to work with, and with that landscape to deal with, what is the best way, the most realistic way, to get results on this stage? What do you do in any situation like this? Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, compare them to your opponents strengths and weaknesses, and then go with the tactics that will play to the best tactical situation possible.

In the case of Ghana, we are talking about a team that didn't have a strong forward presence, and a team that could match and probably exceed the US in terms of athleticism. A team with not as good of a goalkeeper, but player for player probably better in the field, especially in terms of where those players played professionally. Against that kind of a team, with the strengths the US has, the best bet was to force them to attack on the wings, stay organized in the middle, and score when you have the opportunity.

And that is exactly what the US did. It may not have been super comfortable - I know I was on pins and needles, even though I understood the logic and thought it sound - but if you have to decide whether you are going to rely on Tim Howard to save a shot from distance or Bedoya (or any other set of US wingers) to attack and defend at pace, I know which set of abilities I want to put my faith.

Obviously, the early goal helped. And it was a great piece of situation awareness and killer instinct, wasn't it? Early on, a throw in 50 yards from goal, on the side line. But the team smelled hesitation, Beasley played a high ball to Jones to used a very skillful tough to get the ball to an onrushing Dempsey. Clint then used some real class to skin the Ghana defense and finish before their keeper knew what was coming.

What would have happened if the US had not had that moment, but had started out sitting back? Probably a tie game.

Another thing to consider in the flow of the match - injuries. Dempsey, Altidore, Besler - all with injury concerns in the first half. That is going to temper your eagerness to get forward, especially when the tactical situation actually calls out for patience.

This, unfortunately, is where all the clamoring for pretty soccer dies, because it is a results based world. In fact, it is why beautiful soccer is so appreciated - because it is so hard to get to a level where you can win with style and panache. The US isn't Brazil, it is a team that is hamstrung by its limitations in players and what their capabilities are. In fact, Brazil isn't "Brazil" either. The levels are different, but everyone dreaming of the return of the 1970s Brazil are not going to find it in the 2014 edition.

And the US limitations mean that no matter what Klinsmann wanted to do, what they did do on Monday was exactly the right thing to do.

Oh, and against Portugal, a team that certainly is better than the US in terms of player for player? Now you want the team to open up and play more pretty soccer? That is a longer discussion, but I think you know the direction I will be heading.

As to Klinsmann's promises of more open play, it is all a sliding scale, isn't it? I think if you look back at all of the games the US played, especially over the last two years, you will see a lot more open play in situations that under Bradley and Arena, the team had played more conservatively. Probably the best example was against Mexico earlier this year. Very rarely did we play open, attacking soccer against Mexico, yet just a few months ago, we were out of the 4-2-3-1 or similar variation we had used for over a decade and into a traditional diamond 4-4-2, and in the first half, it worked well. Second half, not so much, but subs had something to do with that.

So there were improvements on the field in terms of style of play. It just wasn't on the biggest stage in the world, in the most important tournament in the world, in the toughest group in said tournament, in the most winnable game in said tournament.

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