US Soccer Learning That Change Isn’t Easy

Judging by the strident tenor and continuing strength of the ongoing, online, venting session emanating from the US Soccer fan and pundit communities, the 4-2 Gold Cup Final loss to Mexico could be interpreted as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

However, rather than it being simply “one loss too many,” or even the fact that it was a loss to the USA’s most significant rival, there’s something greater going on here.

There is, slowly but surely, a realization that answers we seek are not going to be easy to find. The problems are complex and deeply rooted.

Let’s be honest, if the fix for the USA’s ills was as easy as the very common “Bob must go!” refrain, people would all feel quite a bit better.

Maybe Bob must go. Fine.  He has certainly provided examples of questionable decisions in the 20/20 that is hindsight. (As all coaches will.)

But anyone who’s paying attention also knows that Bob alone isn’t the problem. A chef can only make an exemplary meal with exemplary ingredients. Our player pool is not providing those ingredients.

And that’s not Bob’s fault.

The problem is systemic. And systems are hard to change.

The USA has “grown” a national player pool filled with adequate athletes, that tend to be very limited soccer players. It has prioritized brawn over creativity.  Durability over soccer cunning.   (There are notable execptions, sure.  But we know that exceptions are there to prove the rule, don’t we?)

Frankly, the discussion should be less about who replaces Mr. Bradley, and more about the structure that would lead to long-term success.

Replacing one coach with another is unlikely to change much.

Sure, there would likely be a momentary surge in on field focus and motivation to impress the new guy. There may be some personnel shake-ups on the field. Maybe some new tactical decisions and sophistication might be seen.

But at the end of the day, the new coach will still deal with a mediocre player pool (relative to the world’s best, or even our southern neighbor) that lacks any cohesive system or style.

The bigger issue is that the new coach will assume a position that offers very little influence over changing it.   To foster true change, our youth, professional and National programs would need a discernable style and priority alignment that what exists today.

The question though, is do we have it in us to make the hard changes?

This isn’t new. Let’s not pretend. It’s just hard to deal with.

On August 4, 2009, I went ahead an picked a “style” for the USA to target, and suggested a change:

“If we want a true “style” — and one of possession-oriented, attacking soccer I’d hope — a simple switch of coaches won’t make much of a dent in our current direction. I’d suggest we need to find someone that has a history of building teams with such a style, guarantee them time to experiment and learn the US system (since I suspect this person is not American) and give them greater-than-normal control over the US Soccer development machine. That greater control means they would have a say in both the development and management of quality players.”

If the idea of a newcomer having “greater-than-normal” control sounds familiar, it did to me too. In that post, I said, “Sounds a bit like what almost happened with Jürgen Klinsmann, no?”

But this isn’t about Klinsmann the man. I’m not sure he’s the right person.

However, the right person would be a “name” like Klinsmann I think. Someone who demands respect and can command the attention of our many politicized soccer factions – because a stylistic change needs some level of buy-in from independent sources like MLS, which is becoming the new training/proving ground for US Soccer. One who preferably has a history of building systems, developing players and cultivating a style of play.

And a connection to the ever-expanding Latin player pool in our country via language or experience sure wouldn’t hurt.

There aren’t many of these folks around around.

So what now?

What would be a meaningful move, and thus unlikely, would be a summit somewhere involving Sunil Gulati, the coaches of all Youth and Sr. National Teams (perhaps including the more powerful “new guy”), Don Garber and key MLS leadership, and a smattering of NCAA and Lower Division professional leaders that would discuss some major changes that need to occur for soccer to really move forward.

In fact, nobody should be allowed to leave that summit until some fundamental and strategic changes are identified that all parties can support in that room. Looser NCAA rules for club participation?  Funding changes for Youth Soccer that allow it to better reach the masses (urban or otherwise) and not be confined to the pay-to-play crowd we have today? A plan to increase the level of play in MLS in non traditional ways and by putting money out in the league to support it.

Oh, and they should invite Adidas. Or Nike. Or whoever writes the bigger Qatar… I mean check.  Because, without finding a way to dangle a big check in front of these disparate audiences, many won’t line up.

Because after all, we aren’t trying to fix soccer.

We are trying to fix American soccer, and even in – or especially in – this economy, money still talks.

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Panama Loss Provokes Difficult Reality Check

There’s nothing like a USA National Team loss to get the fingers on the keys.

Sure, there are parallels to the New England Revolution’s loss last night, with both teams frustratingly not turning it on until it was too late. However, the emotion surrounding the two, for me at least, isn’t the same. And thus, my frustration isn’t either.

(And to be fair, by the time I made it through the Revolution game on the DVR – hey, the Bruins did deserve some attention – I was too tired to repeat the common refrains we’ve heard this season, though with a slightly brighter attitude based on an energetic second half. There, that about covers it.)

For the USA’s Gold Cup loss however, there are some thoughts that jump out at me and I am awake enough to write about them.

First, the difference between the USA’s ability to beat Canada two to zero, and lose two to one against Panama is, to me, more about playing style than playing ability.

Is Panama that good of a team? They aren’t bad, but no, I don’t think they are terrific.

But they are skillful. They control the ball and play with the skill, quick passing and trickery that the USA so infrequently displays. They play like you’d expect from a good Central or South American side.

For the USA, beating Canada is like beating a slightly worse version of itself. When in doubt, effort replaces skill in order to win.

Playing Panama is an adjustment and a reminder that despite the fact that players on the field for the US represented (theoretically) better pedigree as judged by their club teams, pedigree and professionalism are no replacement for skill and “soccer brains.”

This is simply another piece of evidence that true soccer skills development is something the USA needs to figure out in our youth development program. By the time players get to MLS, or get shipped overseas, it’s too late.

That skill deficit is something we hand to our National Team coach, Bob Bradley, to deal with. And while many USA fans have reasons they believe Bob Bradley is not the right coach for this team. I find many of those reasons farcical or delusional.  However, the the other idea that’s really sticking with me: there may be a different reason to see Mr. Bradley off into a new role.

Bob Bradley understands the game, has tried to bring in fresh/better talent as possible and treats his duties with respect (even if he’s unable to dress that way.) There comes a point where the talent within the USA team will only go so far.

However, the USA has a history of coming out flat and either being outplayed or giving up an early goal in the beginning of matches.  Tonight, it was both.

While the eleven players on the field are who really make a difference  and a coach can only do so much to predict or prevent individual errors, this early-game lethargy is the one argument against Mr. Bradley that I find most compelling.

Of course, it’s true that after an opponent gets comfortable in a lead, the USA looks better because they are allowed to see more of the ball as the opponent tends to bunker and counter-attack. But there’s rarely a killer instinct in this team that can sense and attack another team’s weaknesses during nearly any part of the game.

When there’s a history, a pattern, a near predictability to the USA’s inability to start a game with a fire in its belly, what does that tell you? It makes me start to wonder about the coach’s ability to properly get his team mentally ready for the game.

And that’s a problem that Mr. Bradley needs to answer for.

Switching gears, I think there are a few rapid-fire points worth considering at a player-level:

  1. Anyone that is still insistent that Michael Bradley is only on that field because his father is the coach is watching with their eyes closed. Michael Bradley is clearly an imperfect, if improving, midfielder, but he is a driving force in the USA midfield. If Bob Bradley was fired tomorrow, the next coach would have a similar interest in having Michael in his team.
  2. There’s quite a bit of banter on Twitter (and elsewhere) about Freddy Adu and how he “cannot even make the 18 man lineup” for the US team he’s training with. I’ve commented on Freddy before, and hope that there’s still an exciting future for him. On a more timely note, however, given that first 45 minutes we all suffered through today, it is hard to think that Freddy would have been a step down for many of those players. I haven’t seen much of the Turkish Second Division, but I bet that if you come out that flat you risk bodily harm. If not by the other team, maybe by your own fans.
  3. Lastly, I don’t know what Jermaine Jones was saying or thinking when he came off the field against Panama tonight. However, he’s not done nearly enough in that USA jersey (and certainly not tonight) that he so coarsely removed and threw for him to be given a pass. With that petty display by Jones, Maurice Edu just got his starting role back in my mind.

So as we look forward to the game against Guadeloupe, we look through a fog that worries about a lack of skill, motivation and questions around our lineup.   Hopefully we can muster a solid drubbign of Guadeloupe amd we cam chalk up some of these concerns as a post-loss over-reaction.

Hopefully.

U.S.A Beats Australia, But What Did We Learn?

The United States National Team defeated their Australian counterparts 3-to-1 this morning, with Edson Buddle stealing the headlines on the back of his two-goal performance.

The game, though a nice victory, was a bit of a bland appetizer before next week’s main course of the a first-round matchup against England.   A small stadium, poor field and half-throttle play for stretches of the game made it hard to get over excited about today’s victory.

And while I could use my previously favored method of looking at the glass as being either half full or half empty over a number of areas, with a week before the World Cup – where the glass is either over-flowing or shattered – I will instead just poke at a few interesting themes.

  • I’m having trouble deciding what’s more frightening… Oguchi Onyewu starting against England on June 12th or him not starting against England on June 12th.  If he starts, Bob Bradley has more faith in talent and experience than recent competitive game-time or proven recent form.  If Gooch doesn’t start, Jay DeMerit and Clarence Goodson need to play a whole bunch better against England.
  • Do we fall out of love that easily?   I’ve seen some of the post-match analysis from the “usual suspects” and the name that seems missing?  José Francisco Torres.   I’ve not been very impressed by the Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark combination’s ability to close things down,  possess the ball in the midfield or add the creative element so missing from most of our games.  Torres was a pint-sized revelation against Turkey, but didn’t get a sniff of the field today.   I haven’t seen any reports regarding Ricardo Clark’s apparent injury, and I hope he’s fine, but an injury there might force Coach Bradley’s hand a new direction.   (However, it’s not clear that it would tilt him toward Torres over Maurice Edu…)
  • Luckily, US fans can move from man-crush to man-crush fairly easily.   With our Torres love being put on the back burner since he didn’t play today, it’s now Edson Buddle, 24×7.  Hey, two goals will do that.  I’m happy to join the bandwagon and am all for playing forwards who are confident and in a hot-streak.  Oddly the USA appears to have at least two of them, but US Soccer golden-boy Jozy Altidore isn’t one of them.  Time will tell how bad Jozy’s sprained ankle really is, but at this point, I’m more worried about the center of the formation – both in midfield and defense – than who is up front. 
  • Clint Dempsey appears to have a chip on his shoulder.  This is good – as long as he doesn’t get pulled into some silly fouls.   I sure hope Landon Donovan wakes up with a similar chip… just so we don’t leave anything to chance.  Can we start a rumor that David Beckham was up in the stands calling him Landycakes? 
  • Every team needs a player who frustrates them by adding some ingredients the team really needs (like speed) while frequently screwing up the easy (looking) things.   For the USA, this is Robbie Findley.

Today’s win against Australia was a positive step forward.   It was imperfect.  It showed areas of weakness. But it was a win.

England, however, is more than a little better than Australia. Luckily, the USA is more than a little better than it played today.

Have a good week boys, the real game is next.

Logic trumps Emotion: The US National Team’s “Provisional 30”

US National Team coach Bob Bradley today announced the 30-man provisional US World Cup team that will head to Princeton, NJ for its pre-World Cup camp.   This is not an easy task and Coach Bradley will inevitably have people pick away at his choices from every conceivable angle.

Choosing this team, and soon having to narrow the list to the 23-man FIFA limit, is a difficult task for any World Cup bound coach – at least as far as media/blogger critiques are concerned.   I do not plan to second guess the Coach . . . but that does not mean I don’t have some opinions on the choices, or on those left out.

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann, Brad Guzan

Thoughts on the goalkeepers: Frankly, this was the position with the least mystery.  The three choices are all capable keepers and probably well ahead of others that follow on the depth chart.   No surprises.

Defenders:  Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Steve Cherundolo, Jonathan Spector, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Jonathan Bornstein, Heath Pearce, Chad Marshall

Thoughts on included defenders:  Hard to say that there are any real surprises here.     Bornstein seems to get more criticism than he deserves, but is a Bradley favorite.    Onyewu is coming back from injury and – if we are honest – didn’t look like a world beater in his pre-season friendly matches with A.C. Milan.   Goodson and Chad Marshall are in a tough spot for making the 23 man limit, since others like Bocanegra and Spector are more versatile across the back line. 

Thoughts on excluded defenders: Edgar Castillo looked like a possibility for a while but was never too likely to bounce Bradley favorite Jonathan Bornstein. (Nor was it clear he should.)   As a New England Revolution fan/watcher, I have a soft spot for Michael Parkhurst and Kevin Alston, but Parkhurst had not done enough to be here and Alston isn’t ready for a World Cup.   (Watch this space though…)

Midfielders:  Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Francisco Torres, Alejandro Bedoya, DaMarcus Beasley, Sacha Kljestan, Robbie Rogers

Thoughts on included midfielders: Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley were obvious choices.  Watching qualifying and Gold Cup games also mean that Holden, Clark, Edu and Feilhaber were all likely choices.   After that, it gets a bit interesting.   Many in the US fan base will be glad to see Torres included, though he’s not a lock for the 23.   Beasley, Rogers, Kljestan and Bedoya are bubble players right now.  Beasley brings experience while Bedoya represents the future.   Rogers is a bit of an enigma, having performed very well for the USA against lower-level competition, but not really looking like a game changer against stronger opponents.  Kljestan is a positive offensive factor, when on form, which is never guaranteed.

Thoughts on excluded midfielders: Generally speaking, there were not huge surprises here.   Kyle Beckerman’s fate was probably sealed when Maurice Edu reached full fitness. 

Freddy Adu:  If you’ve read my work before, you know I have a soft spot for Freddy Adu.  Seeing his pro-club teammate Eddie Johnson make the 30-man cut must be extremely hard on Freddy, who seems to be finding his form to some degree in Greece.   I could argue that there’s more experience in Adu than Bedoya (or Rogers?), despite both showing promise, but that’s from an outsider’s view so I’ll defer to the Coach’s perspective.   

Forwards:  Jozy Altidore, Robbie Findley, Brian Ching, Edson Buddle, Eddie Johnson, Herculez Gomez

My thoughts on included forwards:  Clearly, current-form rules the day.   Buddle, Gomez and (even) Johnson have been scoring and that is clearly the determining factor here.   Jozy was a lock, though his season was more about promise than results.  Ching will need to prove he’s game-ready in camp to make the 23, but there aren’t many other forwards like him available.  Johnson would be a surprise to make the final cut, but that is what the camp is for.

My thoughts on excluded forwards:  This was always going to be the most scrutinized group.

Charlie Davies. Coach Bradley did what he had to do.  The World Cup is not a place for sentimentality.  It is a place for the best team you can assemble – which at forward has a lot to do with form and confidence.   It’s not a popular thing to say in US Soccer circles but ever since that horrible accident took place Charlie was always on the outside looking in. 

Jeff Cunningham and Conor Casey:  Jeff and Conor must be wishing that the World Cup was in 2009 instead of 2010, because they were the hot properties of last year, but haven’t made an impact this year, while others have been shining for their respective leagues or teams. 

Kenny Cooper:  Hindsight is 20/20 for Kenny Cooper, whose pro-club hopping was an over-engineered attempt to make this World Cup team, which failed on a number of levels.   As he watches Edson Buddle (MLS), Herculez Gomez (Mexico) and Eddie Johnson (Greece) prove: it’s not where you play, it’s how you are playing.

Logic trumps Emotion

The exclusion of Charlie Davies will clearly be the main discussion point following this 30-man roster selection.   But clearly Bob Bradley made the decision that he won’t be ready.   That’s logic. 

My wanting Freddy to get another look?  That was more emotional.

Now that the team is beginning to take shape, let’s get back to illogical commentary about the expected results.   How we’ll beat up poor injured England.  (Illogical.)  How if we don’t get far into the tournament Bradley and Sunil Gulati are useless.  (Illogical.)

The next few months are logically going to be an emotional ride. 

Game on.

US Men v. Trinidad and Tobago: The glass is half…

It’s hard to feel bad about winning three points on the road in CONCACAF, since that seems to be a rarity nowadays.   Yet, it’s hard to feel totally good about this result either.

It is another perfect example of the half-full, half-empty conundrum.

I said after the El Salvador game that this match would tell us a lot about the team… and it did… sadly what it told us was pretty hard to interpret, as if spoken in some dialect I’ll never quite decipher.  Here’s what I did take away. . .

Glass Half Full View

  • USA won a critical three points, and while not a lock for the next round, it just got a lot more likely (big thanks to El Salvador for squeaking past Costa Rica.)
  • No yellow cards issued to the USA… considering our penchant for red-cards in recent tournaments, that’s quite an improvement.
  • Landon Donovan.   No offense to Carlos, but how is Landon not the captain of this team?
  • Howard made some big saves, Spector is coming into his own, and Holden has serious potential.
  • Relative to what was going on around him… I think the Bornstein haters should take a deep breath and pick on a few others for a while.  I’m certainly not his biggest cheerleader, and maybe Castillo or someone else might not usurp him, but he’s far from our only question mark.
  • A different ref, a different day, a different view… and that sliding hand-ball off Charlie D’s centering pass right at the start makes this a whole different game.
  • Apparently Bob Bradley can give a decent half-time talk.

Glass Half Empty View

  • The US midfield at times appeared like they had just met.  Passes too hard, passes to soft, passes to nobody in particular, passes directly to T&T… we tried it all.    Just a thought… how might Torres, Feilhaber and even Holden done in those key midfield roles at the start?
  • Hard for me to figure out Gooch… his towering headers in the second half will have some rate him highly, buty I thought he started slow and was indecisive at first (rusty, no doubt) and those towering headers (admittedly some important stops mixed in) typically went right back to T&T.    I wonder if A.C. Milan is thinking “loan candidate” yet…
  • If not for that cross-bar, what would this story line have been?
  • Dear Coach Bradley… why can’t you give your half-time pep talk 45 minutes or so earlier?
  • Clint Dempsey.  I’m a long time Dempsey fan and think he could be a real difference maker.    However, does someone know if the rest of the US team have all done something to annoy him?  He just seems like he’d rather be somewhere else for long stretches of recent games.   That’s not the Clint I remember…
  • Jump suit.   Could some US Supporters group chip in to by Bob B a sport coat?  Maybe a tie?  I realize there is no standard for coach attire, but he looks like he was running late from a workout and just said, “screw it, I’ll go the game like this.”  If he cannot get the team’s on-field play to respect the “beautiful game”… maybe his attire could at least?

While I know that a bad three points tonight was better than a well played tie or loss in our quest to be in South Africa next year, I just cannot get too excited about this one.

I found Bob Bradley’s quote that started “As the game wore on, our fitness was key . . . “ a stark reminder of how we still win – conditioning, running, fighting.    Or, positively spun, we “earn” our victories through “hard work.”

Effort, heart, determination and “finding a way to win” are all commendable traits that we can see in this team.    I just wish it came with a larger dose of smart, poised, cohesive, and yes, “attractive” soccer.

That would be something to get excited about.

Is Trecker’s Slam of US Coaching on Target?

Jamie Trecker let loose in a detailed, scathing analysis of the US National Team’s current performance level that he suggests is inadequate, and he laid the blame on US Coach Bob Bradley.    “The coaching staff has not prepared the team to compete at the highest level. If the Americans hope to perform well at the World Cup next year, U.S. Soccer needs to make a change.” 

As good as Jamie’s note is (and usually are) there are a few ideas worthy of debate.

There are points that are easy to agree with and for which Bradley must be held responsible:  the team being vulnerable early in each half (readiness), taking an unusually high amount of red cards (discipline, mental preparedness), and not appearing ready to go from the starting whistle or coming out flat. (motivation?)

There are also some roster issues that do point awkwardly at Coach Bradley like player-management in the Gold Cup … if the purpose was to see “new” players why play Jay Heaps (sorry Jay) and Brian Ching? (both known quantities in one way or another)

But the two bigger issues I have with Mr. Trecker’s analysis are… whether the problem starts with talent or tactics, and what comes next.

On the first question, Jamie himself writes: “Right now, it seems as if we have one truly special player in Donovan, surrounded by hard-working but limited guys.”    Presume for a moment we accept that assessment of the US Team’s talent… that makes it difficult to lay the blame all on Coach Bradley.  National team coaches are not youth-development coaches. They should organize, motivate, maybe find and certainly prepare talent, but not create it.   It’s not clear to me that there a ton of better players available than what we saw at the Confederations Cup.

The bigger issue with the article: if Bradley is released, then what?

I agree with Jamie’s view that we lack a cohesive “style” of play… which is why I don’t really join the camp that says “it is too late to change coaches before the World Cup.”   (As it isn’t clear what would be disrupted outside of game-day tactics.)  However, I do think it might be too late to do so without a pre-determined backup plan ready to put in place immediately.   Change can be good, but uncertainty is almost always bad.

An entire thesis could be written about what would come next for US Soccer and a few likely have been… but here’s a thought.  If we want a true “style” — and one of possession-oriented, attacking soccer I’d hope — a simple switch of coaches won’t make much of a dent in our current direction.   I’d suggest we need to find someone that has a history of building teams with such a style, guarantee them time to experiment and learn the US system (since I suspect this person is not American) and give them greater-than-normal control over the US Soccer development machine.   That greater control means they would have a say in both the development and management of quality players.

Sounds a bit like what almost happened with Jürgen Klinsmann, no?   However, I would argue he lacks a track record of building teams/programs with a discernable style.

So, I’m going to sleep at night knowing there is a covert operation underway (that I just made up.)   Ivan Gadzidis left MLS for Arsenal’s highest ranks as a US Soccer infiltrator with the goal to bring back Arsene Wenger as US coach, director of player development and soccer direction dictator for a mult-year guaranteed contract.

Why not?   It’s a theory . . .