Monday, July 7, 2014

Evaluating Klinsmann and the 2014 World Cup

So here we are - days after the US lost to Belgium in a clear case of depth v. lack of depth, but also unmitigated fight to the death v. quality talent, and the US almost pulled that thing off.

The narrative, though, has been all over the place. The part of the narrative that I have found to be most off the reservation is the thought that the US didn't make the quarterfinals, and that makes this team not as good as others.

Frankly, I am shocked to see some of the journalists who are putting that out there - quality professionals who know enough to be better than that. Sure, for the random new fan to the game, fine. It is easy to look at past results, see 2002 and 1930 and go, "Hey, we have done it before, we should be able to do it again." But for those following the team and the sport on a regular basis to say that is more than a little surprising.

And the ones complaining about Klinsmann not having a good replacement for Jozy Altidore or not playing a more "attractive, attacking style of football"? Shocking.

Why? Let's discuss.

First, let's take Altidore as that will illustrate other things, as well as answer the direct question. Who? Seriously, who should be a direct, one for one replacement for Jozy Altidore? Landon Donovan? Eddie Johnson? Neither player does what Altidore does well. And if you really look for players who might do that, you will find that there isn't a player eligible to play for the US who can be that player.

Second, the desire for more attacking football. Who exactly is going to play on the field that can do that? The only purely offensive player available was Mix Diskerud, who didn't play in the tournament. Looking at his performances over the last year and looking at the opposition the US faced - the Nos. 2, 4 and 11 teams in the world, along with the US' own kryptonite in the World Cup (before this year) in Ghana. And not just level of play, but level of physicality of the teams. Here would be a better place to argue about Donovan, but even he showed clear moments of inconsistency in the '06 and '10 World Cups. If you watched this year's World Cup games for the US, you saw the team never had time for inconsistency.

Third, the overall issue of advancement. The US has never had a tougher group - in terms of talent, historical mismatches, physical ability, etc. 2002? Poland was weak - and ended up beating the US, almost knocking them out of the tournament. 2010? Algeria? Not this year's version, the 2010 version. 2006? Ghana advanced because of how poorly the US played against the Czech Republic and Ghana directly, not because they were as good as even their team this year. 1998? Iran? Come on now. 1994? Colombia surely was a top club, but neither Switzerland and Romania compared to Portugal.

The biggest issue the US soccer program faces, though, is one of depth. Look at where the Belgian players play - league, team, starter v reserve, etc.  While Bradley, Dempsey and Howard are at that level, and Jones can make a good argument, the rest of the team simply doesn't compare player for player to any of the teams they faced outside maybe Ghana.

And there is not a thing that Klinsmann can do about it, beyond what he did - which is give a wide variety of players looks against quality competition. The fact that he found and developed players who weren't on Bradley's radar screen (Johnson, Brooks, Green, Chandler), integrated them with players who were established like those previously mentioned (including Jones - remember, Jermaine was trying to play for the US leading into the World Cup 2010 cycle), and also found a way to develop and integrate players from MLS as well (Besler, Zusi, Beckerman, Yedlin) sure seems to show that he gave anyone eligible a chance and picked what he thought were the best.

Now on some that he didn't bring, we can quibble a little. Goodson and Donovan probably could have added something - especially Donovan in the Germany and Belgium matches. But since you had Gonzales, Besler and Cameron playing the vast majority of the minutes, and Brooks doing a fabulous job in his limited time, you can't really say with a straight face that the decision to leave Goodson behind impacted the team. And as discussed on this blog previously, whether it was that Donovan was too big of a presence in the lockerroom relative to other players who needed to lead, or that he wasn't the best example of consistent effort and fight (something that was obviously a key part of what Klinsmann successfully developed from this team, and was a key part of their success in the tournament), you can at least see Klinsmann's reasoning, even if you don't like it or agree with it. (Personally, I don't agree with it - I think a manager's job is to *manage* personalities like that...)

But that aside, clearly, this team accomplished more against more difficult opposition than the 2010 team, especially considering the injury to Altidore. We can't simply ignore that major fact, folks - this team was build around one key target forward and when he went down, the team had to adjust. They did so against the three toughest teams they faced and should have beaten one, could have tied another and ran out of gas against the third.

Was it better than 2002? I don't think so, but remember, that was a very unique group - in large part it was the last run of a lot of the 1990 and 1994 veterans to break out, driven by the failure of 1998, and juiced by some incredible young talent in O'Brien, Beasley and Donovan, etc. What 02 did against Portugal was bigger than what 14 did against Ghana, although would not have been bigger had they held on to beat this year's Portugal. What 02 did against a soccer-mad South Korea was phenomenal (if you ever want to see the impact of home fans, watch that game. Ooof.) and probably on par with what 14 did v Portugal. 02 did stumble against Poland, but made up for it against Mexico and Germany. The 14 team didn't play as well against this year's Germany team or Belgium as well as 02 did in those two games. 

Then again, that doesn't take anything away from this year's bunch. What they did - in large part without Altidore - against the competition they faced, was something to behold.

Seriously - how many pundits who said they wouldn't get out of the group who now are questioning whether they were successful because they didn't beat Belgium? All of you lose your credibility cards. It is simple logic folks. If you hold people to a standard, and they exceed that standard, you can't move the goalposts just because you want a story or don't like the manager or whatever reason you have in your head.

Now - that does NOT mean that there weren't issues. Clearly there were. Injuries in the Ghana match - injuries that didn't happen to Ghana, so we clearly see that it was what the US was doing, not something impacting both teams. So was that training, nutrition, preparation, what? Whatever the cause, it needs to be evaluated. 

Tactics? Not so sure - at least from a managerial standpoint - as from what I saw, there was a game plan in each game and it attempted to play to the US strengths and against the opponents weaknesses, and for a large part was effective. Ghana - they don't have strength in front of goal, so let them play the ball into our centerbacks. Portugal - the 4-2-3-1 worked like a charm there and but for Cameron's two goofs, could easily have been a 2-0 win. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it. Germany - with the weather being what it was, the goal of advancement being what it was, and players starting to wear down, what the US tried was at least effective enough to get them out of the group with a significantly less damaging loss to Germany than Portugal had - hence the difference in who advanced. Belgium - it certainly was more sitting back than most are comfortable with, but clearly the US didn't have the legs to attack much. So those complaining that the team sat back to defend as much as they did - think about it - with players getting worn down and tired, and the options from the bench obviously showing a lack of ability to contribute (Davis, Wondo, etc.), what options did he have?

Yes, I did suggest prior to Belgium that Mix be considered. And yes, that was an option that we will never know if it would have worked or not. But one player isn't going to address the clear lack of depth difference. Simply compare the Belgian rosters from game to game and you will see they were able to rotate a LOT more quality players over their games than the US was.

So that leaves us with the one thing that needs to be addressed across the board as the only way to really improve dramatically the level of play from the US in future World Cups - depth. The US needs to develop at LEAST another Altidore-type, Dempsey-type, Bradley-type, and they need at least three or four wingers better than what Zusi is now. More depth on the back line wouldn't hurt, although you clearly have four serviceable centerbacks. Add in that Yedlin looks legit, Johnson surely was good value for so much of the tournament, and you still have Chandler among others who can work their way in. While I don't want to take it for granted, the US pipeline of quality keepers sure seems to be in full force.

But again, an array of attacking options will be necessary, and not just one layer deep.

And THAT is a topic for another post.

As far as this post is concerned, again, the bottom line point is relatively simple - the USA advanced out of the Group of Death that in of itself was a major feat. It was against a much harder group than the US faced in 2010, and they played competitively against a much stronger team in the Round of 16. Anyone looking down on Klinsmann and this US team is, frankly, looking for an excuse because the facts simply don't support it. Again, there is reason for concerns, and need for improvement, but relative to the accomplishments of the team, those pale in comparison.

So be so very proud of this team, fans if the USA. Be very proud. Any doubt that the US can advance out of any group is now gone, washed away with the grit and determination, mixed with the skill and athleticism, of a wonderful collection of US players.

1 comment:

Kailei Higginson said...

You also forgot to mention that travel, which I think finally caught up with us. Limited depth, with extensive physical fatigue becomes the issue.