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.

Enough is Enough: Use “Our” Stadiums

It seems generally accepted in the MLS community, if not the US Soccer community, that soccer specific stadiums are key to the growth of soccer in the USA.

The reasons are many, and include everything from the emotionally-relevant display of faith in the sport in this country, to the very practical ownership of parking and other associated revenue streams.

Yet, I sit here watching the second USA National Team match in only a few days taking place in an American football stadium with a temporary grass field laid on top of the normally used artificial turf.

Let’s be clear, these are not good playing surfaces.

With regard to Saturday’s game against Spain in Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA, Boston Herald and MLS writer Kyle McCarthy posted this on Twitter: As one might suspect,the ball dies once it plops down on the temporary grass surface at Gillette. Chunks coming up as well. #usmnt

Tonight’s match in Detroit under a similar surface drew similar commentary.

Sports Illustrated writer and best-selling author Grant Wahl’s views on Twitter didn’t provide a much better view of the situation in Detroit, he said: Know what the fake turf in Seattle is like when it’s wet? This temporary grass field in Detroit is the opposite.

As I just watched tonight’s Gold Cup game, Carlos Bocanegra slipped down while creating a divot in a chunking turf that nearly led to a scoring opportunity for Canada and luckily did not lead to an injury.

Ironically, one reason it might not have led to a goal is it looked like the Canadian player who went around him, Will Johnson of Real Salt Lake I believe, looked to struggle to control the ball, and was staring down at the turf seemingly suggesting it did him no favors either.

While all this is going on, Sporting KC of MLS is about to open its brand new (and quite nice looking) stadium this week, which serves as an immediate reminder that there’s another way.

As the soccer community benefits from some “big bets” that MLS owners and investors are making, isn’t it time we repay the favor? It would be as simple as a declaration that US Soccer matches and key competitions will be held Soccer Specific Stadiums with a natural grass surface.

Period.

Not having such a stadium near me, this certainly isn’t said with any personal goal in mind.   But let the Revolution deal with Gillette, US Soccer has choices.

Sure, there’s an economic argument against it, with the greater capacity still existing in the American football stadiums. Guess what, there were probably economic arguments against building the soccer specific stadiums as well. But it happened.

There are probably concerns relative to location, with some soccer specific stadiums located in areas that would often lead to away-team atmospheres against some opponents. Sure, if we play Mexico in Dallas or Los Angeles, that’s a pretty big challenge.

But first, we don’t only play Mexico (yes, there are other teams that bring this challenge as well), and second, play them in Columbus or Kansas City.   Or, let’s just beat the pants off them and win those fans over.

Without data I cannot be sure of this, but I’m going to guess that there would be US Soccer supporter and MLS season ticket advance sales that could go a long way to ensuring some semblance of a pro-USA crowd.   Or at least minimize any potential disadvantage.

Whatever the concerns, it’s time get the US Men’s National Team and key competitions on grass fields and in soccer stadiums.

US Soccer, lets pay back the investors that have bet on soccer in the USA, provide our team and the teams that come here with a reasonable playing surface, and reward fans with a wonderful atmosphere and a better looking game played on an appropriate surface.

Otherwise, let’s be honest with everyone and just admit that what matters are the gate receipts.   And if that’s all you care about, let me know when Sepp and friends revote on 2022, maybe then we can negotiate a different approach.

Until that point, let’s use “our” stadiums.

“Cero a Cinco” Caps a Long Soccer Weekend

Well, that was quite a weekend of soccer.   My eyes hurt.

“Cero a Cinco”

Surrounded as I am by a large Colombian family of in-laws, I understand and revel in the “Cinco a Cero” (5-0) hysteria that rang down as a high-note of 1994 World Cup Qualifying when Colombia downed Argentina by that score in Buenos Aires.   Any Colombian of the right age will remember that night, or at least remember the hang-over from the partying that ensued.   And why not?

I never expected that today’s Gold Cup final could be the flip side of that for the USA vs. Mexico. Since this wasn’t a World Cup Qualifier, it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight as that Colombian victory . . . but Mexico really needed a victory like this against the US to set them back on the right path.  And I’m sure they are delirious South of the Border.  (Well, or in lots of places North of the border too, like Giants Stadium which looked like an Azteca preview party today.)

On Friday, I acknowledged that we didn’t yet know enough about our USA “B” team and that “. . . it’s Sunday against Mexico for the final where we’ll really learn something.”  Well, lesson learned.

Stepping back . . . a questionable penalty tilted the field toward the US goal and then the flood gates opened. The US team on that field is further away from the best 11 we’d start than the Mexican team was from their best eleven (since it certainly contained some first team starters.) And for good stretches of the match, the US looked as dangerous as Mexico.  At 0-5 though, none of that will matter, nor should it.

There is a bigger picture here, both in terms of the Gold Cup and the US v Mexico rivalry.

Gold Cup: As I noted on Friday, the pressure in the Mexico/Costa Rica Semi-Final was much higher than what the USA faced against Honduras – a representation of the fact that the USA’s group stages overall shouldn’t have been that hard to get through. Reaching the final inflated expectations which were brought down to earth in a hurry today. When we started this competition, everyone acknowledged this was NOT the best eleven for the USA but would provide an excellent growth opportunity and learning experience for a (mostly) young US Squad. Well, this is one lesson the players on that field won’t ever forget.

US v. Mexico: US fans have had it easy for a while. The USA has “owned” Mexico on our soil, beat them at the World Cup and overall had a pretty clear sense of superiority about them recently.  Is that real though? Are we better than Mexico? Probably need to define “better” . . . our best eleven can beat Mexico’s best eleven, we’ve proven that. But be it the National teams or club teams (as evidenced in Superliga, CONCACAF Champions League, etc.), what was proven today is that there remains a pretty serious experience gap after you dig deeper into the roster.

Again, I’ll avoid player ratings here, as there will be too many offering opinions already. I heralded Jay Heaps for his improved play after a rough start . . . if I were clairvoyant, I’d have begged him to take the accolades and run for the hills.  Missed opportunities in the final third and tackles that needed to be all or nothing but missed that mark were shared by many. Risks were inevitable after the team was a down by a couple goals  . . . but the disintegration of the back line screamed for experience. Too bad Jimmy Conrad’s bell was rung against Panama, he might have helped.

The real question is what will happen on August 12th in Mexico City. Can new found confidence push Mexico to leverage the Azteca advantage and romp once more?  Will the USA “first-eleven” feel the need for some “revancha” in Mexico and be even more motivated than they already were?

MLS Games

Funny things happen when the New England Revolotuion can get some of their better players (Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston) on the field.   They win.   I have a secret (and perhaps unreasonable) hope that this season has some potential left. Why? Based on no-data to prove this it seems to me that many teams which start out gangbusters tend to run out of luck (injuries) or otherwise lose their way by the playoffs, whereas the teams who work through early season injuries/issues are fresher and more focused come playoff time. Hmmm, perhaps all we need to do is sneak into the playoffs and keep recovering from injuries.

David Beckham played and even shook a fan’s hand, but he didn’t score.  His captain did.  Both were out done by the more than half-field goal by Claudio Lopez.

I didn’t see the Red Bulls / Colorado game, but I didn’t really have to, did I?  RBNY really is THAT bad.  Unfortunate for MLS.   Hysterical for a Revs fan.

World Football Challenge

I struggled to care about these games. How is it possible that some of the best teams in the world are visiting and I struggle to care?  Frankly, it’s sad to me that the crowds are coming out for a pre-season warm up “competition” in such numbers as to suggest they had no other soccer to watch in this country. I thought Taylor Twellman’s (whose team gets maybe a third of today’s crowd) tweet said it all “gosh I wish the stadium filled like this for OUR games be so cool.”   Yes, it would . . .

Taylor also tweeted on the joys of playing on natural grass. Which makes me wonder . . . if it is feasible to install a grass field for some of these one-off games is it really out of the question for MLS to do something for the part of their season that doesn’t conflict with the NFL?

As for the AC Milan / Inter Minal game, the idea that this game was anything like a true “derby” is laughable if I’m being generous. I’ve been to a European derby (Chelsea/Arsenal), a Brazilian Derby (Fluminense/Flamengo — OK, preseason, but still) and actually stood in the last row of Inter’s Ultras at the amazing San Siro.   The intensity of those games is hard to describe.   What happened at Gillette earlier today pre-season warm up with a little extra juice than the others we’ve seen in this tournament.  But not much more.

Friday Musings on the Gold Cup

USA.  USA.  USA.

We beat Honduras.   Again.   What have we learned about the US “B Team” – if we can call them that?   They are pretty good.   But, it’s Sunday against Mexico for the final where we’ll really learn something.  Watching  the beginning of  Mexico/Costa Rica was like re-watching USA/Honduras in fast-forward – more energy, more pace. Sunday will be intense for the new US players.  Sadly the crowd will not be pro-USA in Giants Stadium and the pressure will be on.

I’d be OK with ‘dos a cero.’   Again.  Good times.

There are already lots of player-raters out there, so I’m not sure I have too much to add, but  . . .

  • Stuart Holden has the US fan base swooning.  I think he will/should make a strong run at the first team for qualifiers.  (Have I joined the man crush?   I suppose so.)
  • I’m happy for Jay Heaps (as an unabashed Revs fan), he was beaten up over his first performance in the Gold Cup (mostly deserved) and has bounced back like the battler Revs fans know he is.
  • I never want to think Brian Ching brings much to a game.  But he does.  (Not sure if my bias is a remnant Revs-fan-fueled debates of “should be Taylor Twellman getting Ching’s chances with the Nats” days of the past.)
  • I wonder if Michael Parkhurst or his club FC Nordsjælland expected he’d see the field after getting called back in.   They are all probably just as happy he stays injury free.

Add a few countries, get a few fans . . .

What a world of difference an international competition(s) makes – attendances have been strong for both the Gold Cup and World Football Challenge.   However, do ‘we’ do all we can to use these games as a chance to build a “let’s go to the game” tradition that spills over into MLS?     Well, here’s a nice write-up from Goal.com on the atmosphere at last night’s double-header.   Lightning, rain, power outages and “extortion” (my word for $40 parking) weren’t enough to stop the fun.

Speaking of that parking cost . . .  Parking at a Chicago Fire game apparently costs $15 at Toyota Park which means the first-time Chicago-soccer attendees are incorrectly left with one more, pricey reason to not bother attending an MLS game.   Too bad . . .

I could get used to this . . .

Another competition . . . . another final.   Of course there is no comparison.  Of course the Confederations Cup was an unreal, unexpected and somewhat lucky run.   Of course the Gold Cup is stacked in our favor being played here in the good ol’ USA.   But I don’t care.   Arsenal fans used to have a shirt to the effect of “You win some, you tie some” during a crazy unbeaten streak they had a few years back.   Maybe the USA “Don’t Tread on Me” soccer theme will need the addition of “See you in the final.”

Never mind, I prefer the slogan we earned from last year’s Gold Cup.

“Champion.”