Qualifying Perspective: USA vs. Antigua and Barbuda

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m having trouble finding the right mood after the USA’s 3-1 victory over Antigua and Barbuda. And, I sense I’m not alone.

A two goal victory gives the USA three points in our first qualifying game, I should be ecstatic, no? Then why aren’t I?

For me (and maybe for everyone), however, my discontent did not start with that result. US fans have ridden a roller-coaster of emotions recently following a tremendous victory (5-1 vs. Scotland), a frustrating loss (1-4 vs. Brazil) and a baffling scoreless draw (vs. Canada.)

And, as if those results weren’t enough to stir the restless fan, some out there had extra angst invoked by coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s post-game commentary after the Brazil loss. I am very much in the angst camp on this one.

I won’t delve too deeply into those comments here, since Paul Gardner has it exactly right and well covered in Soccer America, here. However, the idea that a US coach could utter nonsense about hurting the other team publicly, after a “FRIENDLY” and about the not-surprisingly-superior five-time World Champion Brazil without any significant backlash saddens me.

Yes, the USA might need to become (more) difficult to beat and play physically, but if you cannot get the attention of your team in the locker room, don’t leverage ridiculous comments in the press to try to get it done. From our most experienced coach, a most amateurish move.

With that off my chest, I’ll try to reestablish some perspective. In prior World Cup qualifying cycles, I’ve used a glass half full/empty analogy, and this seems like a fitting time to revisit it.

Glass Half Empty View

  • The USA looked listless in stretches of a game against a team of USL Pro players with a couple English league additions from a nation of ~90,000 people. Frankly, any MLS team (well, maybe not Toronto F.C.) would be expected to play better than the US Men’s National team did for large stretches against Antigua and Barbuda.
  • Klinsmann might have an interesting history and great accent, but is certainly not infallible. It’s fair to suggest that no team would carry three left-backs into camp, so he was dealt a tough hand of cards with the injuries to Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo, but the team’s motivation, organization and lineups are all worthy of scrutiny. Torres to left back was a gamble, but an understandable one. Others may have moved Bocanegra out left and trusted the other center backs on the roster against what were manageable forwards by International standards. Klinsmann didn’t. More baffling though is the mid-game insertion of Oguchi Onyewu, a player all US fans would love to have back at his best, but acknowledge that he is now where near that level. Why not use other center backs that haven’t shown such glaring errors recently? (Note to Geoff Cameron and Michael Parkhurst: if there’s anyway to hide MLS in your resume it might be a good idea for this coach.)
  • We have a coach with international pedigree, players that are playing at extremely high levels around the world and all the training and preparation a nation could ask for, yet we cannot solve a simple issue: so frequently playing to the level of our opponents. Maybe it’s time for some voodoo?
  • The injury to Jose Torres might rob of us a good possession-enhancing option for the critical game in Guatemala.  Time will tell what severity he’s dealing with.

Glass Half Full Perspective

  • The USA won its first World Cup qualifier despite horrendously rainy conditions and an opponent who was resolute in defense.  The objective was to win and get the three points, and that is what was done.
  • Jermaine Jones didn’t maim anyone.
  • Herculez Gomez saw his continued hard work and club-success pay off with the US Men’s National team and has clearly added much needed pressure to Jozy Altidore and other forward options to say at their sharpest. The battle for that second (if we play with two) forward position next to Clint Dempsey is clearly on.
  • Mexico, which it pains me to admit is the class of CONCACAF right now, showed they too are imperfect by “only” beating Guyana 3-1 in Mexico.

The challenge today is that the US fan base expects more than results.  There is an understanding that CONCACAF opponents and situations are challenging, but that is no longer enough to excuse lackluster performances.  What the US fans have delivered over the last 180 minutes was certainly lackluster.

Tuesday night in Guatemala will be a difficult game in a difficult venue, so US fans might cut the team some slack.  But with the fan base continuing to hear that the team is a work in progress, learning a new system, with a new first-eleven and new coach, it needs to see just that.  Progress.

After that progress is achieved, please show us something that won’t necessitate most post-game headlines include the idea of “winning ugly.”

We’ve had quite enough of that.

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US National Team Changes Point Toward A Revolution

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.

Why?

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?

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 . . .