What to expect?
So the US is headed into another World Cup. As they have in recent years, they come out of CONCACAF having secured their place in the World Cup relatively comfortably, but this time, something is new. This is not the “We have to get out of the first round” Bora Mulitinovic side that was borne of hosting the 1994 World Cup, nor is it the Sampson-Arena-Bradley “We are what we are, let’s do the best we can” sides.
No, this time, we went out and paid handsomely for Jurgen Klinsmann of Germany fame, with the specific goal of being more than just “what we are.” It was a transition that had to come at some point, and credit has to go to the Federation for being proactive about it rather than waiting for the average American player to improve to a level where the transition would be relatively easy. No, Sunil Gulati went out and pushed the envelope with this decision.
Raise the Bar
It has been pretty clear for some time that the US mens’ soccer program has been making progress, albeit incremental progress, for years. The 2002 and 2010 editions certainly exceeded expectations, including fantastic results against big teams such as England, Portugal, Mexico and amazing moments against teams like South Korea and Algeria. Even the 2006 edition had a phenomenal match against the eventual champions, Italy, and was more of a run of poor performance rather than a lack of talent.
But with the population of the US, their history in sports in general – including the Olympics, and the overall competitive nature of those crazy Yanks, there has long been a sense that things could and should be better. Maybe a misunderstanding of the lack of depth that the Americans have feeds into that perception, but at the end of the day, if we can have success in random Olympic sports, why can’t we have success in football?
But the huge question is how? And if we think we know how, then how far do we expect them to go, and how soon?
Klinsmann came in for this World Cup cycle, and made it clear that he was here to chance the status quo. A whole new slate of coaches up and down the US soccer program gave him a free hand to have influence all along the development stream. But how soon would that bear fruit?
On top of that, he went aggressively for anyone who might qualify to play for the US, especially in Germany. In a way, it made sense. It takes 6 to ten years to really influence the development of a soccer nation, and to really make an impact, we’re probably talking 15 to 20 (starting with kids in the 5 to ten year old range to teach simple technique and molding them until they are 20 to 25). So that was mathematically impossible, at least to show results for the 2014 World Cup.
Third, he began his process, teaching his philosophy.
The results of the first effort won’t be known for some time, and trying to read into results from those teams at this point requires more insight into the future than I possess. The initial results of the second effort were not good, although if you saw it as a chance early on for him to seek out any possible diamonds in the rough, and use what he knew (Germany football) to compare to the bottom half of the US player pool, it probably was effective at giving him some baseline information.
The results of the third, though, were quite apparent and mostly positive. The US, after struggling on the road at Honduras, ended up tearing through qualifying to top the group, and on that run, saw the team break a little out of their usual two-defensive-midfielders, defend and counter-attack against good teams mold. It included a friendly win at the Azteca – no small feat that, although it was hardly best of the US v best of El Tri.
Which leads us to preparation for the World Cup in Brazil, which included two very intriguing story lines.
Qualifying v. competing in the tournament proper
Every US coach since Mulitinovic has had to focus first on qualifying out of CONCACAF, then on preparing for the competition in the World Cup itself. Two very different types of play. In CONCACAF, you have anywhere from one to three quality opponents – usually Mexico and often Costa Rica, and sometimes a third from the group of Honduras and the like. Most of the time, few of those players have the kind of size and quality that you have in playing in the World Cup, even from the top teams. This leads to a faster, more skilled team designed to break down the Guatemalas and El Salvadors.
Steve Sampson recognized it, but between the transition of MLS hindering the development of certain players, and the whole issue with a certain team captain, he walked into a firing squad in France. Certainly starting against Germany was a tough row to hoe.
Arena got it right once, and did a good job overall the second time, but in this writer’s opinion, the veteran leadership simply wasn’t the same in 06 as it was in 02 and you got a drop in form in the first match that cost them a lot. Oh, and a converted midfielder (without the size and strength of Tony Sanneh) at left fullback against one of the best European teams at the time – recipe for failure. The nice thing, from this writer’s perspective, was the difference in response from the ’98 failure to the ’06 flop – it was more of a “we are better than this, and let’s get to work” rather than the ugliness that was post-98.
Bradley had the amazing run in the Confederations Cup to bolster his side, but he still had to make some transitions that obviously paid off against what was perceived as a very tough opening match, clearly highlighting the point about CONCACAF v. let’s say, England.
Klinsmann, on the other hand, has kept a lot of his team together, even to the extent of including a converted midfielder at left fullback. But a lot of his team, especially the young and quite inexperienced defense, is what he used to get through qualifying – one that was less reliant on defend and counter and oftentimes was more attacking in philosophy.
With one key exception…
This has been discussed to death, and for good reason. The most decorated and statistically relevant player in US history, Landon Donovan, was left of the plane for Brazil even though he obviously still is a competitive player and likely one of the best 15 players the US has.
After reading and discussing, this writer is of the opinion that it came down to two things. First, mentality. Donovan is talented, no doubt, but he isn’t the hard, aggressive, competitive player that, say, Michael Bradley or Clint Dempsey is. And that apparently is a huge part of the kind of camp that Klinsmann wants. Personally, it is hard for me to balance that with what Donovan did to win the Algeria game – if that doesn’t personify the “never say die” mentality, I don’t know what does – but again, I am trying to understand and explain what I can about Klinsmann, not justify it.
Second, I think he wants to make sure that it is clear that his captain, Dempsey, has no ghost in the room in terms of “the most decorated player in US history” who might be pacing himself in terms of level of play because he is on the wrong side of 30.
But bottom line, he clearly is saying that he needs the players he feels are able to best help this team right now. It is a pretty bold statement, and may not be the best bet. Frankly, I can see a need for a player like a rested Donovan in the third game against Germany (talk about a chance at redemption). But it is the decision Klinsmann has made.
So with all of that being said by way of landscape – and that is a lot of ground to cover – we come to the question we started with, “how are we to judge Klinsmann in this World Cup?” Without going into much detail, let me say that the “if we don’t get out of the group, it is a failure” is out the window. Simply look at the opponents to know that. The US has never had a tougher task to get out of the group. So what is it? For me, this side should be good enough to win a “must win” game against Ghana. So that is step one.
Next, make the most of it. Play well against Portugal and Germany, and if they make the plays to win it (a free from Ronaldo or some-such), so be it. But make them earn it. Leave everything on the field, and ideally, by trying to play – not by trying to bunker and steal on the counter. Especially against Portugal. If we beat Ghana, tie Portugal and need a tie to advance, bunker until the cows come home against Germany. But that is situational. Ultimately, play well, play like you belong, and if you lose, lose because the other team was better, not because you made a stupid mistake. Lose because they have the best player in the world, not because we brought someone less experienced than Landon Donovan.
Ultimately, if you don’t advance, have it be because the opponents were better, not because you brought youth rather than Landon Donovan.