I am a US Soccer fan. I can be both biased and irrational and at game time I am often both.
Today, “my” US team lost to Mexico in the fabled Azteca stadium. Again. And that makes me pretty angry.
Now, a few hours later, as I step away from my biases and irrationality I can admit that this result is no surprise. The US National Team is neither as good as casual fans thought we were after the Confederations Cup results, nor as bad as the 0-5 result in the Gold Cup Final that had the diehards worrying we were.
We could argue this (isn’t that what ‘we’ do?), but to me it is clear. We’ve seen the “A” team do everything from get embarrassed in Costa Rica to shine for 135 minutes against Spain and Brazil. We’ve watched the “B” team dispatch with local rivals with grit and guile and then crumble like a house of cards with 70,000 fans leaning on it against Mexico in the Gold Cup final.
So keeping World Cup qualifying against Mexico in perspective, we split the home/away series with Mexico just the way you’d expect. Does that make me happy? No. Does it sound about representative of where we are? More or less, yes.
The US was not embarrassed and they battled admirably. Many will point to Mexico’s “luck” – a “wonder strike” from Israel Castro, a bounce that fell exactly right to Miguel Sabah – and maybe there was some of that. But while the early US goal had emotions raised, we were again unable to possess the ball and would be chasing the game at altitude, in the smog and with that, the writing was on the wall.
So we may not be either as good or bad as we sometimes obsess about, but lacking a solid possession game that allows us to manage a match will always be a ceiling above which we’ll struggle to climb. When is the last time – outside of beating up on the mighty soccer power of Grenada (who didn’t even have a fit Shalrie Joseph) – that the USA has held the ball, passed it with purpose for long stretches and imposed their will on a game? I am having trouble naming too many recent examples.
I’m not invited into the US locker room for pre-game preparations, but I can imagine Bob Bradley said something like “stay compact, move as a team, don’t chase and get caught out of position” and MY PERSONAL FAVORITE “when you get the ball, keep possession as much as possible, pick your chances and be smart to conserve some energy.” OK, I cannot guarantee those were his words, but I can guarantee the advice didn’t include “boot the ball frantically up-field, or to a Mexican, or wherever, just don’t keep it.”
So the question is: how is that where we ended up? How is it that we end up there so frequently? I wish I had an answer other than: we simply aren’t capable of playing possession soccer against better teams. Why? History of our development has always favored athleticism over skills, a history whose imprint we are still trying to shake. When the best teams hold the ball, your athleticism becomes pretty unimportant. (“Wow, look how fast he is running around over there without the ball. He must have a great 40 time and an unreal vertical leap.”)
Transitioning to a more skillful game won’t be easy, but if we are to be a true contender in world soccer we best push for it sooner rather than later. Tactics, players, development, mentality… it is all affected, and will provide reasons to blog, argue, bitch and moan about for the foreseeable future.