How do we raise soft, tattooed millionaires? Alexi Lalas on RSD

Alexi Lalas is a Soccer Hall of Famer. He’s also an entertainer, with interests in music as well as riling people up from a soccer broadcast studio. So when he rips the U.S. men’s national team as “soft, tattooed millionaires,” he’s drawing on both backgrounds.

In our conversation, Lalas explains that “tattooed millionaires” came from a solo release by Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson (no, not the “More Cowbell” guy on SNL), and then we talk about whether everything from the now-defunct Bradenton residency program to the Development Academy is giving us a generation of coddled, entitled men’s soccer players.

We also talk about specialization, playing in multiple soccer environments (i.e., not just in the Development Academy), high school/college soccer, the Apollo Theater, diversity of playing styles, Michael Bradley’s understanding of livestock, and Brad Friedel playing basketball.

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Attendance check: Club over country?

Attendance at last five Atlanta United home games:

July 4: 44,974
July 29: 45,006
Sept. 10: 45,314 (first game in new stadium)
Sept. 13: 42,511
Sept. 16: 70,425

Attendance at last five Seattle Sounders home games:

July 23: 43,528
Aug. 12: 43,350
Aug. 20: 40,312
Aug. 27: 51,796
Sept. 10: 44,697

Attendance at last five U.S. men’s national team home games:

July 15: 27,934 (Gold Cup; Cleveland)
July 19: 31,615 (Gold Cup quarterfinal; Philadelphia)
July 22: 45,516 (Gold Cup semifinal; Arlington, Texas)
July 26: 63,032 (Gold Cup final; Santa Clara, Calif.)
Sept. 1: 26,500 (World Cup qualifier; Harrison, N.J. — sellout and a loss)

Attendance at last five U.S. men’s national team home friendlies:

Oct. 11: 9,012 (Washington)
Jan. 29: 20,079 (San Diego)
Feb. 3: 17,903 (Chattanooga, Tenn.)
June 3: 17,315 (Sandy, Utah)
July 1: 28,754 (Hartford, Ct.)

Attendance at last five FC Cincinnati (USL) home games:

July 29: 23,548
Aug. 5: 25,308
Aug. 23: 20,058
Sept. 2: 22,643
Sept. 16: 30,417

Attendance at last five U.S. women’s national team home games:

April 9: 11,347 (friendly; Houston)
July 27: 15,748 (Tournament of Nations; Seattle)
July 30: 21,096 (Tournament of Nations; San Diego)
Aug. 3: 23,161 (Tournament of Nations; Carson, Calif.)
Sept. 15: 17,301 (friendly; Commerce City, Colo.)

Attendance at last five Portland Thorns home games:

June 28: 16,199
July 15: 16,804
July 22: 18,478
Aug. 5: 18,243
Aug. 19: 19,672

What’s going on here? Do we officially care more about club soccer than international games? How can the Thorns outdraw the women’s national team? How can Atlanta, Seattle and Cincinnati outdraw men’s friendlies?

 

We’ve won over the English

Brilliant read from the Telegraph celebrates Tim Howard, U.S. fandom, Clint Dempsey’s goals, Michael Bradley’s distance covered, and the USA’s knack for making World Cup games interesting …

Setting aside the 1-0 defeat to Germany, they were all belters. Edging out Ghana late on, succumbing to a Portugal equaliser even later on, and a deranged attempt to upset Belgium with only the power of hard work and Gatorade.

via 33 reasons why we love the US men’s soccer team.

And it’s true. Miserable flop or wild ride, the USA does not do boring.

2002: Stunning first-half rout of Portugal, surviving the South Korean tempest, referee robbery against Poland (but advancing anyway), dos a cero, denied by KAHHHHNNN against Germany.

2006: The Italy game alone: McBride’s bloody face, 10v9, a game-winner unluckily (though correctly) waved off. Then the Reyna injury curse striking at the worst possible time against Ghana.

2010: 1-1 vs. England, Coulibalied against Slovenia, ALGERIA!!, extra time against Ghana.

Not a world champion, not always in the knockout stages. Never dull.

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.

USA: An opportunity to cherish

Today’s World Cup knockout game against Belgium is the reward for years of suffering and patience.

FIFA likes to pitch the World Cup as a tournament for every team in the world. The qualifiers aren’t really qualifiers. They’re part of the tournament. The field of 32 is in the World Cup finals.

For a country like American Samoa, as chronicled in the must-see film Next Goal Wins, any game with “World Cup” in the name is a wonderful event. But for the United States, qualifiers are anything but festive. They’re painful experiences that fans watch between the fingers over their eyes. The relationship between fans and the team through the qualifying process is deep and yet fragile. “We love you,” fans will say, “but in the name of Joe Gaetjens and Earnie Stewart, do not lose this game!”

Nor are qualifiers routine. The fretting over England missing the group stage for the first time in eons left out one important historical note — England didn’t qualify for USA 1994 at all. And that was a team that had come within penalty kicks of making the final (the two-team final, not the 24-team final) in 1990.

That’ll happen to the USA one day. It nearly happened to Mexico this time around, and you saw in this tournament the kind of soccer Mexico is capable of playing.

At this moment, we’re well past all that. The roller-coaster of qualifying is forgotten for now. And the USA slogged its way through the Group of Death with one exhibition of resilience and spirit, one truly outstanding performance, and one weary last stand. This team has met every reasonable expectation anyone could have.

And now, this team is ideally placed. No burden of being the favorite. It’s the classic American underdog story with the added incentive of knowing that the upset is there for the taking. The USA may be the No. 2 team in this matchup with Belgium, but they’re No. 2 with a bullet. No one expects the USA to win this game (though I’m sure Michael Bradley would say otherwise), but everyone thinks it’s possible.

In so many U.S. games, both men’s and women’s, we have often feared that the team is playing for the future of the sport. Women’s soccer fans don’t want to think about where the sport would be if Megan Rapinoe hadn’t hit the perfect cross for Abby Wambach’s perfect finish three summers ago in a quarterfinal in Dresden, much less what would have happened without Alex Morgan and Amy Rodriguez’s goals to dispatch Italy in a last-ditch qualifier the year before. The men have had countless qualifying dramas through the years.

This year, soccer’s naysayers could hardly have faced a more emphatic rebuttal. The ratings are astronomical, and they don’t include the big public gatherings. Celebrity fans have emerged from every corner. The trolls are left with the argument that MLS doesn’t bring in all these fans, as if the people who spread out food for the Super Bowl watch every NFL game or the people who watch the World Series spend every weeknight riveted to a Diamondbacks-Marlins matchup. And they forget soccer’s diversity — MLS is part of a grand landscape that includes the Premier League, the Champions League, Mexican soccer, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A, the NWSL and local teams all over the map.

Today, all those fans are gathering to watch and celebrate. They’re going without Belgian food and drink for a day with a little laugh. They’re cheering in public spaces both real and virtual. They’re defiantly chanting their belief, even if their brains tell them Belgium’s the favorite.

No one’s fearing a loss. The country is imagining what happens if the USA wins.

Just imagine …

Diamonds are the USMNT’s best friend

Can anyone make sense of the new diamond midfield that’s really more of a parallelogram? Today, Zonal Marking and MLSSoccer.com’s Central Winger gave it a try.

With the fullbacks spending so much time on offense, maybe it’s the old W-M formation:

football formations

Or not — Jones may be nominally the left mid but is more of a destroyer. Like so.

football formations

That doesn’t seem right, does it? Maybe move Beasley farther up the field and shift the defense to cover that space. Have Beasley link up with Dempsey on the left, like so:

football formations

You could call that a 3-3-1-2-1, but the midfield roles should be fluid. So for sake of simplicity, we’ll call it … uh … we’ll call it …

… oh no …

A 3-6-1! RUN!

(repeat to yourself: tactics don’t matter … tactics don’t matter … tactics don’t matter …)

The men’s national team vs. the media

I’m late getting to this intriguing Jonah Freedman piece about the rise in scrutiny on the U.S. men’s national team, which Freedman posits as a sign that we’re finally getting serious about this soccer thing.

That sort of phenomenon is alien to U.S. Soccer circles. The coaches and players aren’t called out onto the carpet on a regular basis. And as a result, we don’t have enough of a critical soccer culture here in the US. …

The point is, when the press starts taking risks – questioning the status quo, and truly holding people’s feet to the fire – that’s when we truly start to change as a culture.

“This country needs that exposure,” continued (Herculez) Gomez. “This country needs football to matter.”

Michael Bradley may disagree, of course. The Bradleys may include a terrific journalist (Jeff) in their immediate family, but they’ve long been wary of the media. Bob Bradley was cautious to the point of saying virtually nothing. Michael can be downright snippy when asked perfectly reasonable questions.

(Quick aside: Bob Bradley’s reserved nature should NOT stop major news outlets from doing substantial pieces on what he’s doing with Egypt. An American coach keeping things together amid the chaos is a fascinating story that the U.S. non-soccer media should step up and recognize.)

On the men’s side in particular, U.S. Soccer has kept a steady ship. Older players set the tone. Newer players know their place. Reporters who deviate from the team’s internal narrative may get a polite but firm talking-to.

But the hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann rocked the boat. He is an international icon who will, on occasion, speak candidly. He has brought in new players and new methods. We can’t write about the team without recognizing the changes or at least asking what the heck is going on.

And that’s not such a bad thing.

Every national team coach has to remember one thing: The team belongs to all of us. It’s a national investment. The media have a watchdog responsibility.

I’ll disagree with Jonah on one point. We haven’t progressed that much as a soccer nation because the reaction to Brian Straus’s comprehensive story was based simply on the fact that the story was written.

When we start talking about the substance of such stories, we will have progressed.

Adjusting the U.S. men’s soccer depth chart

Strongly recommended from a couple of weeks ago: Soccer America’s exhaustive look at the U.S. depth chart. That sort of analysis always tricky once you get beyond “goalkeeper” because positions are so fluid. Their rankings separated “striker” from “forward,” and still. some players were listed where you wouldn’t expect (Eddie Johnson at left mid, Brad Davis at attacking mid, etc.).

But the analysis at each position is worth reading, even if some guy decided to comment several times that the USA needs to play more like Barcelona. Really, that has never occurred to anyone else in the United States. Thank you so much for sharing!

After reading that, today’s U.S. roster announcement has only a few surprises. The 24-man roster includes all the no-brainers (listed with SA’s rank):

  1. Tim Howard, #1 goalkeeper
  2. Brad Guzan, #2 goalkeeper
  3. Geoff Cameron, #1 center back
  4. Carlos Bocanegra, #2 center back (the only position on the SA chart from which two players will be in the lineup)
  5. Fabian Johnson, #1 left back
  6. Danny Williams, #1 holding mid
  7. Michael Bradley, #1 attacking mid
  8. Clint Dempsey, #1 forward

One core player has, in the words of Crocodile Dundee, gone walkabout and is not on the roster:

  1. Landon Donovan, #1 right mid

Another core player is out injured, and he’s singled out in the roster announcement:

  1. Steve Cherundolo, #1 right back

His backup’s commitment to the USA has been questioned, but odds are good that he takes the field in Honduras and ends the questions once and for all.

  1. Timmy Chandler, #2 right back

The attacking options are less settled. Jurgen Klinsmann has been challenging a lot of players, even Dempsey, to be more consistent internationally even if they’re tearing up their domestic leagues. For now, these guys are ahead of the rest:

  1. Jozy Altidore, #1 striker
  2. Eddie Johnson, #1 left mid, though we know him mostly as a forward

The next players down the depth chart who were selected and seem likely to be in the mix unless they lose form or health:

  1. Omar Gonzalez, #3 center back
  2. Edgar Castillo, #2 left back
  3. Jermaine Jones, #3 attacking mid (“attacking” may be an ironic word here)
  4. Graham Zusi, #2 right mid

The rest of the roster for Honduras would be the players you’d call “bubble” players:

  1. Sean Johnson, #6 goalkeeper
  2. Matt Besler, #5 center back
  3. Michael Parkhurst, #3 left back (also mentioned at right)
  4. Brad Evans, #5 left mid but listed on USSF release as a defender
  5. Maurice Edu, #4 holding mid
  6. Brad Davis, #4 attacking mid (more likely on wing?)
  7. Sacha Kljestan, #3 right mid
  8. Jose Torres, #2-tie left mid
  9. Herculez Gomez, #3 striker

Evans puzzles me. Is he on the roster because he can cover left back? That’s traditionally a weak spot for the USA (and most teams, really), but couldn’t F. Johnson, Castillo, Parkhurst and even Bocanegra keep that position covered?

That covers the 24-man roster. Add the injured Cherundolo and the itinerant Donovan for a total of 26.

Who else could we see in the Hexagonal? The Twitter reaction I’m seeing is mostly about younger guys who might need more international seasoning before they’re thrown in the fire in Central America.

  1. Sean Franklin, #3 right back
  2. Eric Lichaj, #5 left back
  3. Mikkel Diskerud, #2 attacking mid
  4. Josh Gatt, #4 right mid
  5. Joe Corona, #2 left mid
  6. Terrence Boyd, #2 striker

They’ll have great chances to play their way onto the roster, and that takes us to 32 players in the pool.

Then we have players at unsettled positions:

  1. Nick Rimando, #3 goalkeeper. Johnson leap-frogged Rimando, Tally Hall and Bill Hamid to get the call this time. In the long run, Rimando offers more experience. 
  2. Juan Agudelo, #3 forward
  3. Chris Wondolowski, #2 forward

And a few more players who must have been close calls this time:

  1. Clarence Goodson, #4 center back
  2. Kyle Beckerman, #2 holding mid
  3. Ricardo Clark, #3 holding mid. Really, Edu is ahead of both Beckerman and Clark when he’s in form.

That’s 38 players who could be named to a qualifying roster without surprising anyone.

And still we have the younger wild cards:

  1. Bill Hamid, #5 goalkeeper. A good run at D.C. United could make things interesting. Still a young keeper.
  2. Alfredo Morales, not listed on defense. Youngster is new to the team.
  3. Chris Pontius, #4 left mid. Hard to imagine where he’ll be if he stays healthy.
  4. Brek Shea, #5 (tie) left mid. All over Sky Sports News for his EPL transfer. If he breaks into the lineup and plays well in England, Klinsmann will have a hard time overlooking him.

And the more experienced guys who’ll also be hard to overlook if they’re in form:

  1. Jonathan Spector, #5 right back. Experienced. Just needs to get in the swing of things in England.
  2. Oguchi Onyewu, #7 center back. Not too long ago, he and Jay DeMerit (and Spector and an out-of-position Bocanegra) shut down Spain.
  3. Benny Feilhaber, #5 attacking mid. Might have had his last audition for now. (Update: Or not — Klinsmann says he’s very much in the discussion.)
  4. DaMarcus Beasley, “also considered” left mid. If Eddie Johnson can have a renaissance this late in his career, surely Beasley can manage it as well.

That’s 46 players. That still omits a few players from the recent friendly against Canada (with good reason). It doesn’t include all of the 49 players who took the field for the USA in 2012. It doesn’t include Heath Pearce, who started 11 games in the 2010 qualifying cycle. It doesn’t include Freddy Adu, who played nine games in the 2010 qualifying cycle and is still quite young but last played for the USA in 2011.

Does that seem like too many? Consider the numbers from the last qualifying cycle, including the games before the Hexagonal: 48 players.

This is a long, long process.