This week US Soccer fans saw something new. They saw a team in the red, white and blue attempt to possess the ball, pass the ball, and play out of trouble. They saw players chosen on the hope (if not much prior proof) that they can play a fluid, attack minded game of soccer.
They saw glaring imperfections, certainly. It was, after all, a loss.
There were weaknesses at certain positions. There was a dullness in the attack – a certain lack of killer instinct – that let down some of the more fluid passing which led up to the final third. Defensive confusion and giveaways remained.
But these imperfections were forgiven, if not forgotten.
Because the product put on the field by US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann (recently hired by US Soccer head honcho Sunil Gulati) showed a new, better direction than what fans and critics had been seeing in a flat, seemingly stagnating US team.
Despite the result, this loss was at least a sign of intent that the USA is looking for a better way to play, and that maybe – just maybe – our players are actually capable of it. Credit to Jurgen Klinsmann for that change of heart and change of style.
It may or may not be fair for this laissez-faire reaction to a loss to a tiny CONCACAF region, certainly Bob Bradley would not have been let off the hook for it. Nor is this optimism in a new style not meant as an indictment of former USA coach Bob Bradley, a capable tactician and able coach who achieved admirable, and in some cases headline-worthy, results from the USA team during his tenure. Bob should be respected, thanked and will undoubtedly find (and perhaps has already found in Mexico) other coaching jobs in which he can sure up his legacy if that’s even required.
However, there is a reason that the phrase “change is good” has come to be. It’s not, it turns out, just a desperate under-breath murmur of someone whose cheese has moved.
The jury is out on Klinsmann’s long-term effectiveness in finding, recruiting and motivating the type of creative, skillful and reliable players the US Men’s National Team seems to lack. But he’s certainly showed he’s going to give a chance to players others might write off.
There were some new players on the field who had not seen much time prior to Mr. Klinsmann’s hiring, but no absolute unknowns. In fact, this improved soccer happened with many of the same faces as we’ve seen before – including quite a few that are favorite targets of the soccer pundits as unable to pass muster.
If the first couple games (at least the middle 90 minutes – second half against Mexico and first half against Costa Rica) have shown, you don’t need wholesale changes in personnel to play attractive soccer at a high level. This is noteworthy, as the only significant difference is the coach.
I also briefly mentioned Sunil Gulati above, as it was his long flirtation with Juergan Klinsmann that ultimately brought the passionate German to lead this US team. Say what you will of Mr. Gulati, but he did (eventually) get his man, and presumptively he wants the style that Mr. Klinsmann appears to espouse.
However, as I scan my home for red, white and blue soccer artifacts, I see not only my US Men’s National Team colors, but those of another property in which Mr. Gulati still has a role. Mr. Gulati is, however behind the scenes, President of the New England Revolution. From RevolutionSoccer.net:
“In addition to his role as President of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Gulati is in his ninth year as President of the New England Revolution (Kraft Soccer, LLC), following a three-year term as Managing Director. He came to the Revolution after serving as Major League Soccer’s Deputy Commissioner from its launch until 1999. In his role with the Revolution, Gulati oversees and advises on every aspect of the soccer organization, including the club’s technical and business affairs.”
There’s more than a passing resemblance between the pre-Klinsmann US National Team and today’s New England Revolution. Results aside, there are (unfortunately) many stylistic similarities that jump out as well. The inability to score from open play with any regularity. Over dependence on defensive midfielders. Constant proclamations of wanting to play possession oriented soccer, without any visible ability to get it done. A fan-base that worries that the current on-field product is the best our talent will allow.
New England fans are yearning for similar changes for their red, white and blues as they are for the US National Team. And increasingly, glances are being cast at the coaching staff in New England.
Of course, the New England Revolution is coached by the very well respected, traveled, and tenured Steve Nicol. Steve Nicol, as the Revolution’s multiple appearances in MLS Cup can attest to, is a good coach. He’s also the longest-serving coach in MLS history and is managing what appears to be a stagnating club.
Nicol’s supporters, and there are plenty, will claim that he’s done yeoman’s work with the talent provided to him. Perhaps so, but that’s likely true of any MLS coach if people are to honestly assess talent levels across the league, and it rings eerily familiar to the refrain US Soccer fans used in supporting Bob Bradley.
Wholesale changes in MLS are not only unlikely and are often unproductive. One wonders however, what is possible with the players already on the Revolution roster if a breeze of change blows through the coaching ranks. Isn’t it funny how much better players seem to acclimate or “fit into the system” when that system is totally bought into and producing results?
So as New England fans sit (eerily) quiet, they can only wonder if Mr. Gulati has now finished celebrating his success in reeling in Klinsmann for the National Team, and plans to take the same seriousness in reviewing how to get more out of the talent that is in New England today and perhaps how to get more on board.
Much like Mr. Bradley, Mr. Nicol deserves our gratitude, respect, admiration and thanks. But after 10 years at the helm with the same coach, a team going nowhere fast maybe it is time to test whether “change is good” for New England too.
So President Gulati, we know the “thrill is in the chase.” Since you’ve landed your last conquest, isn’t it time for a new thrill?