soccer

U.S. men’s soccer: Progress report

After a full USA World Cup campaign that exceeded my expectations, I’m still on the fence about Jurgen Klinsmann.

Strange thing to say, I know, especially while the country is still exhaling from a game that could hardly have been more dramatic unless it had actually gone to PKs. The USA bent but didn’t break for 92 minutes. They broke, only to come back with a fire that belied the fact that they had been through the World Cup’s most brutal schedule in terms of miles traveled and teams played.

And someone wanted to question their fitness? Sure, we need to talk the hamstring injuries, but was fitness the question?

I’d argue the other way. Watch the replays and see DaMarcus Beasley still sprinting in vain to catch up on Belgium’s first goal. See how often Michael Bradley raced back to recover.

The issue isn’t the ground they covered. The issue is that they had to cover so much ground. They ran their way into America’s hearts.

So the reason I’m still on the fence is simple: Nearly three years into The Klinsmann Experiment, what we saw in this World Cup was a quintessentially American team.

We’re singing the praises today of the Americans’ heart, resilience and determination. It’s as true of the German contingent as it is of the old guard. Bradley and Jermaine Jones alike left everything on the field.

We didn’t see tactical and technical brilliance, except perhaps in the middle 80 minutes of the Portugal game. We saw a team that was overrun on the wings and in the center of the field.

I don’t think for a minute that the Klinsmann game plan consisted of allowing Belgium nearly 40 shots. I don’t think the U.S. players were technically good enough to stop that from happening, at least not in the formation and lineup they were playing.

They did, at least, limit the damage — among those 39 shots were a lot of hopeful and hopeless blasts from long range, shots right at Tim Howard from impossible angles, or shots that were rushed by persistent defenders. Then when the big shots came, Howard was there.

But when you’re charting the progress of the USA over the 24 years of its modern history (that is, the era of qualifying for World Cups), you have to wonder — would a lineup of Tab Ramos, Thomas Dooley, Mike Sorber and John Harkes have allowed 39 shots against Belgium? Probably not.

And yet I refuse to believe the talent pool has gone backwards. It’s certainly deeper than it was — we’ve gone from “I can’t believe so-and-so is going to the World Cup” to “I can’t believe so-and-so is not going to the World Cup.” The players we doubted — DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green, John Anthony Brooks — all contributed.

Howard, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and DaMarcus Beasley had legendary defensive performances. Yedlin was more of a Roberto Carlos model defender — fantastic moments going forward, a couple of nice defensive plays in midfield, but then he was caught upfield in extra time.

The midfield was curious. The FourFourTwo/Opta stats engine and WhoScored.com tell me that from a statistical point of view, Geoff Cameron and Alejandro Bedoya had good games. Most observers would argue that Kyle Beckerman and someone other than Bedoya would have been improvements. (The engines offer no such defense of Graham Zusi, who simply wasn’t at his best today, or Jermaine Jones, who had better games in this Cup.)

The USA’s most accomplished field players of the past two years are Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. You’d have to say Dempsey had a good tournament, but he was starved for service today — one of Matthew Doyle’s excellent insights is that Dempsey was so busy coming back to help out in midfield that he could hardly pose an offensive threat. Bradley was such a fulcrum that his errors were magnified — he surely had the most giveaways, but he touched the ball more than the rest of the team.

Busy guy

So we have a couple of questions for Klinsmann:

1. Why leave Dempsey out there alone for so much of the game? And when he went to the bench, why Wondolowski rather than someone with more of a playmaking mentality? (Mix Diskerud?)

2. After seeing Bedoya and others demonstrate no capacity for turning around a game, now do you regret leaving Landon Donovan back in L.A.? (Yes, I’ll ask it — it is and should be a question we ask about this tournament.)

But Klinsmann got results — probably the best results anyone would have reasonably expected with the team that he had and the draw that he had. Think back a month ago — if someone had told you this team would beat Ghana 2-1, draw Portugal 2-2, lose 1-0 to Germany and take Belgium to extra time, you probably would have written them off a delusional fanboys. They also took it to Portugal in every sense.

And I’ll disagree, slightly, with those who saw the attack at the end of the Belgium game and wondered where that was all game. No one attacks like that all game — not even Belgium in this game.

The longer-term questions of the Klinsmann era will take longer to assess. He’s supposed to change the culture, and that won’t happen in three years.

That’s actually the part that puzzles me most. Claudio Reyna unveiled a new youth soccer curriculum a couple of months before Klinsmann came on board. The curriculum and Klinsmann both point the USA toward a more sophisticated style of play. You know — Barcelona. Yet the U.S.-bred youngster who had the most impact in this tournament, DeAndre Yedlin, is about as classically English-by-way-of-college as you can get. He’s fast, he gets down the wing, and he whips in crosses. It’s hard to judge the U.S. youth teams because they’ve developed a strange habit of not qualifying for major tournaments. Barcelona still seems as far away as it ever was.

But Klinsmann is and has long been more “American” than most people realize. He certainly cussed out the fourth official like an American when he held up the sign for only one f’ing minute of stoppage time.

And Klinsmann has always appreciated the American spirit. Perhaps after this tournament, he understands it more than ever.

So now, maybe, he knows what he needs to do next.

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1 reply »

  1. I don’t think this was a particularly great USA FIFA World Cup campaign. Maybe better most from times past. 2002 still stands as the high water mark.

    What is significant about 2014 was the USA T.V. viewership and the number of USA supporters that went down to Brazil to see the matches live and to give support to the team. THAT will be the standard that all future USA FIFA World Cup appearances will be compared to.

    The USMNT is fairly settled in a middle weight soccer power in the FIFA scheme of things. Expected to qualify for the “Finals” and often good enough to make the second round of the “Finals”, but not a contender for the big trophy, whatever it’s name.

    An alternative view would focus on the failure of Portugal in group play, as well as Spain, England, and Italy, for the success of the USMNT as well as other teams from the western hemisphere. The heat, humidity and long travel distances will be blamed for the failure of so many European Soccer Powers and former World Cup Champions to qualifiy for the second round. Should the rest of the world be blamed that so many top European national teams were unprepared to play in Brazil?

    Landon Donovan should not have been cut. It would have been a nice swan song for him. He will be too old for 2018.

    I don’t think Jurgen Klinsmann will still be the USMNT head coach in 2018. when the next FIFA World Cup is supposed to be contested. Just a speculation.

    Congratulations to Costa Rica for being the CONCACAF nation with the most successful 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign.

    I think the Netherlands will win the big trophy this time finally. The best team in the tournament regardless of the diving and flopping.

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