Could it be any worse for the USMNT?

I am still jittery after the 2014 World Cup draw. After a brilliant 2013 year that wholly exceeded my expectations for the USMNT, the only thing standing between us and our best World Cup ever was the ridiculously convoluted draw.

I fought the draw and the draw won.

After each group got their top seeded team in the tournament, I immediately Tweeted something about hoping to land in Group E as Switzerland was there. Even Group H with Belgium would have been fine by me. I will not bore you with the blow-by-blow details, but we were the third team drawn into Group G, with Germany (the place from which our head coach hails) and Ghana (our eliminators during the past two World Cups). The only draw remaining was our European team.

There is a lot of tension and mental gymnastics when you sit in the next to last group. You have to watch six preceding draws from European teams. Those preceding draws can give you hope or a stomach ache. As the European teams were drawn, Portugal seemed stuck in Pot 4. When it was USMNT’s turn, we had a coin-flip chance of drawing the highest ranked team in all of Pot 4, making our group hellacious at best.

Of course we drew Portugal.

It could have been worse with our Pot 2 draw, but it could equally have been better, too. There were three teams ahead of Ghana in the world rankings (Italy, Chile, and Ivory Coast), three teams behind (Algeria, Nigeria, and Cameroon) and one virtually equal to Ghana (Ecuador). Instead of a Pot 2 laggard, we got a middle of the pot team.

Taking a closer look at our draw from my eternally-half-empty perspective and current world rankings, there was only one worse team to have drawn against from Pot 1: Spain. That group would have consisted of Chile and the Netherlands. I admit that would have, to use a technical term, sucked equally or worse. But, that group has #1 and # 9 in the world currently, whereas our group has #2 and #4 in the world. Our chances are better for upsetting the Netherlands than Portugal, mathematically speaking.

At this point, I am sure you are choking on numerical analysis and be wondering if there is any hope. There is not much, but I will leave you with these thoughts:

  • We open against a team with which we have a lot of bad World Cup history. Ghana is the last team we faced in the previous two World Cups. Both matches resulted in our World Cup elimination. The USMNT can use this to their advantage and open the tournament with three points.
  • We beat Germany in 2013. I understand the obvious fact that we did not defeat a World Cup roster of Germans, but we still took the fight to them, so there is something in which the USMNT can believe. This belief is complicated by our weak showing in Europe during the 2013 close. The USMNT will have to put those two matches well behind them.
  • We are fit and strong, and a team that historically thrives on adversity. Our travel schedule for 2014 World Cup is disproportionally difficult compared to other schedules. USMNT will travel an estimate 8,866 miles for our matches. The USMNT can turn that disadvantage into advantage if the remain mentally strong.
  • Grant Wahl on Twitter astutely pointed out that we will face Germany after they have (hopefully) already qualified for the World Cup. That could be in our favor as we might stand a chance of getting points from a resting Germany, likely when we really need them.

As for me, very soon I will request vacation for the three Group matches in June. I am not bothering to arrange beyond that, yet. We need three points against Ghana and at least one from Portugal before I request that time off from work.

If only the USMNT was a baseball team

If you had the chance to read my last post, you know that I was looking for three things from the US Men’s National Soccer Team in their most recent game against Jamaica: clean sheet, dominance, and midfield creativity. If we calculated the team’s success in terms of a baseball batting average, they did pretty well. But, this is not baseball and I think we have a long way to go before we are knocking on the door of World Cup qualifying certainty.

Let’s get the most obvious and mathematical part out of the way: the clean sheet. The USMNT played well on defense, holding Jamaica to three shots with only one on goal. Tim Howard controlled his box well during the game and turned back the only chance Jamaica had on goal. In baseball vernacular, I’d call this a single.

Judging dominance, however, is not as easy. If you watched only watched the first half, you could easily conclude that the US dominated Jamaica. The US drew wood three times in the first thirty minutes. I’ve played in no lack of games where the ball just won’t go in no matter how hard you try. Weaker teams begin to question whether they will actually ever score, whereas stronger teams are patient and confident, knowing that eventually their dominance will be rewarded. Unfortunately, the USMNT acted like the former instead of the latter.

The US went in to the locker room frustrate with nothing to show for their efforts. I have no way of knowing what Jürgen Klinsmann said, but I bet it wasn’t a hairdryer treatment (Warning: significant profanity in that second link). Whatever he said, it did not result in continued dominance by the US. Jamaica continued to look more and more threatening as the second half progressed. Around the 50th minute, I remember hoping that Klinsmann would make our first substitution around minute 60, and that it would be up top as we were growing increasingly ineffective in Jamaica’s final third.

Despite this, the US went ahead in the 55th minute after Hercules Gomez’s decent free kick about thirty five yards. Gomez struck it well and moved the ball around the wall decently, but it was nearly two yards inside the post. The Jamaica keeper, who had conducted himself reasonably to this point, got to the ball to push it around the post with two hands but, for some unexplainable reason, failed did to redirect it correctly and instead sent it into the back of his own net.

At this point in the match, I wanted the US to drastically increase pressure on Jamaica, capitalize on this small measure of momentum, and really reestablish dominance. My playing experience led me to conclude that one of two things could happen. Either Jamaica would collapse like a flan after sustaining the stress of defeating and then holding off a team more than 30 places ahead of it on FIFA’s rankings, or the US would go defensive and be very lucky to get away with a draw.

Klinsmann made that decision in the 67th when he made his first substitution of the game, bringing in Brek Shea for the ineffective Jose Torres. While that was a strengthening substitution, I wanted to see Terrence Boyd come on in the attack, preferably for the flagging Clint Dempsey. Instead, Klinsmann decided to maintain status quo with his substitution. It was not until the 80th minute that Jozy Altidore came on for Gomez…too little, too late.

Yes, the US got a much needed win after the debacle in Jamaica, and they did show clear dominance in the first half without result. Their second half performance, however, does not allow me to judge them fully successful on my dominance goal. If you’re a baseball fan, you’ll be able to indulge my analogy further: we made solid contact, but it was a sacrifice fly. A run scored but we get no credit for a hit.

The highest goal I set for the USMNT was midfield creativity. Klinsmann set the line-up as best as he could, given the creativity limitations of his overall roster. Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman gave way to Graham Zusi and Torres in midfield, and Steve Cherundolo gave more attacking potential at outside defender. Additionally, Danny Williams was added in midfield (with Altidore starting on the bench) and Dempsey pushed up to a full-time attacker. I don’t think Klinsmann could wring out any more creativity from his roster. In only the 6th minute, Zusi displayed good vision and passing, combining nicely with Cherundolo (a common theme for the evening) for a great scoring opportunity that went off the cross bar. Fabian Johnson made a nifty run through the middle and dished a great ball to Gomez who was incorrectly judged offside. Overall, I saw improvement in creativity, but it still is not enough in my view for the USMNT to truly impress on the international football stage. To finish my baseball comparison, I judge the USMNT’s creativity as a fielder’s choice: we got to first base on contact, but someone else was put out.

If this were a baseball batting average, the USMNT had a good showing at the plate. They made three appearances, put the ball into play three times, but only get credit for one hit. A batting average of .333 is very good for baseball…for the USMNT, though, it likely means missing the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. We have to do better. We sit tied for first with two other teams in our group of four. Our final two qualifying matches are only one month away. Klinsmann has seen enough of his players to know the best possible roster. He knows who to call (Boyd, Williams, and Johnson) and who to leave home (Altidore, Beckerman, and Torres) to finish out this first group qualifying stage strongly. I have a feeling we’re going to need everything we’ve got for our last match against Guatemala. And, if things go well, Mexico and Panama will get their opportunity to deny our presences in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. I only hope we can make it that far.

Three things for the USMNT vs Jamaica

I freely admit that I am more than a bit nervous about the US Men’s National Soccer Team’s World Cup qualifying match tonight against Jamaica. This fear pre-dates our recent away effort against Jamaica. It started when Jürgen Klinsmann named a solid roster of defenders and forwards but his decisions for midfielders left me feeling very concerned. The USMNT continues to be stymied by a shallow list of creative midfielders from which to choose. Additionally, I question Klinsmann’s consistent naming of players like Kyle Beckerman to the squad. Fortunately I will have more than Twitter to judge of our chances to qualify for the World Cup. Here are three things I am looking for tonight.

  1. Clean sheet: I’ve gone on before ad infinitum about our tactical shortcomings on defense. I’ve even gone so far as to question Tim Howard’s future with the USMNT. Tonight, we really need a clean sheet to re-establish my hope in the future. I want to be able to dismiss any misgivings I have about Howard’s inconsistency, even in cases that manifest themselves as “unluckiness.” It might be time to give another keeper a nod, but I need to see nothing in the back of our net after tonight’s match.
  2. Dominance: FIFA holds Jamaica at #60 in the world, near Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic. The USMNT is currently #33 according to FIFA. A difference as wide as that should mean the US dominates Jamaica, home or away. According to news reports and players, it was Jamaica who was dominant beyond the first 15 minutes. Tonight I am looking for the USMNT to dominate Jamaica for my confidence to be restored in the team.
  3. Midfield creativity: As Shakespeare said, “ay, there’s the rub.” Let’s be honest, we have very strong and experienced players comprising our current midfield roster, but I would never accuse any of them of being attack-minded footballers. The USMNT sorely misses players like Landon Donovan (on a good day) and Stuart Holden…heck, even Michael Bradley has better attacking sense than our entire starting midfield against Jamaica last week. Brek Shea and the lackluster Jose Torres are the closest players to what we need. We need vision…we need width…we need play making. If the USMNT falls down tonight at all, I predict it will be in its inability to create attacking opportunities out of the midfield, and on this matter I point my finger of blame directly at Klinsmann.

Never would I want to leave you on a negative note, so please know that I am still optimistic and confident about our chances tonight. Shea and Torres could step up and have a great impact on the game’s tempo, or perhaps an outside defender (Fabian Johnson or Steve Cherundolo) can create some spark as they overlap from the back. I am anxious about tonight. The conditions are ripe for a stellar performance by our team if they abhor any measure of tentativeness and allow their technical skills and fitness to shine.

USMNT in first place…that’s good, right?

Last night I found myself up late watching the United States Men’s National Soccer Football team play their second FIFA World Cup qualification match. Our opponent was Guatemala in their capital city, with a late kick-off time of 9pm in the local time zone.

Of course, finding this match to watch was no easy feat. The broadcast rights were not secured for the US market beyond pay-per-view. The U.S. Soccer organization, in the spirit of transparency, spent a less-than-trivial amount of effort clarifying why the only option for US viewers was PPV. They Tweeted this repeatedly. Here is how I read their their key point:

“U.S. Soccer and its broadcast partners had discussions with Traffic Sports to purchase the rights, but in the end we failed to successfully negotiate rebroadcast rights from Traffic Sports opted to distribute the match on pay-per-view in the United States.”

No amount of justification is going to explain away the fact that a majority of US fans lost the ability to follow their team. That is inexcusable and I hold U.S. Soccer responsible for that failure.

The match kicked-off on time, the time I normally try to start the labor known as “going to bed.” The return of Fabian Johnson was immediately apparent in the match. Youth players and coaches take note: the way Johnson asserts himself on the ball, with confidence and aggression, is the way to which every player should aspire. If you watch Johnson closely, you will notice that his head is up immediately upon gaining possession, looking for space to exploit. He had a few bad distributions, but I feel this is the kind of player Jürgen Klinsmann is seeking.

Johnson’s threatening play was responsible for starting the US’s only goal last night, and Clint Dempsey’s skill and nose for goal finished it. Johnson took the ball aggressively into space, played to Dempsey who displayed the kind of play he’s known for at Fulham last season: a deft first touch, a slippery move into a tiny amount of space, and a good strike past a sprawling keeper. Going into half-time with a one goal advantage in Guatemala City is a very solid achievement. It is not the easiest spot in the world to be the away squad. That said, I recall saying aloud that we would need a second goal to secure the win…me and my big mouth strike again.

Klinsmann made what I feel is a bad decision coming out for the second half. He decided to sit Clarence Goodson for Geoff Cameron because Goodson picked up a Caution in the first half from a sub-par, authoritarian referee. Goodson is a professional footballer, not Jermaine Jones some overly-emotional-ejection-still-in-anger-managment nutter. He can be trusted to appreciate the yellow card and make it through the game, even with a dodgy ref. While I believe Cameron is solid in the position and our best second option, Goodson’s absence was apparent throughout the second half. Gone was the extremely savvy positional value Goodson brought and, as a result, Guatemala was enjoying increased possession in the US’s half of the field.

Tim Howard had an excellent game against Guatemala, reinforcing his supremacy amongst US goalkeepers. His excellent shot-stopping and a bit of luck kept Guatemala out of the back of the US’s net. That is, until Timmy made what I consider is his first and only mistake of the evening. Guatemala’s Carlos Ruiz made quite a production out of Johnson’s defending at the top of the US’s penalty box. The referee awarded a free kick and Timmy set his wall with 8 players. Yes, you read that correctly: 80% of the US field players stood in the wall for a short-range free kick. Marco Pappa expertly placed his free kick over the immense wall and into the back of the net. I think the first time Timmy actually saw the ball was as it entered his goal box less than two yards to his left. Howard had no chance to stop it at that point, but being unable to see the kicker and the ball was his own doing.

We absolutely had our chances to score again. Landon Donovan’s only noteworthy contribution to the game was a late run up the left wing in the 67th minute. He played a nicely squared ball into the penalty box, only to result in Jozy Altidore running lackadaisically at the ball and watching Guatemala collect it. Perhaps he got a late jump on the ball, but Altidore has to do better there.

The US sits on the top of our group thanks to goal difference. Four points in two games should be good news, right? The problem I am having is the more granular view of the US’s performance. Against the 85th and 105th FIFA ranked teams, we should be sitting on six points and a goal differential close to +5. Overall, we’ve show only flashes of our capability. Klinsmann needs to get more out of his “stars,” or it is time to start looking farther afield for replacements of legacy players like Donovan, Altidore, and Carlos Bocanegra.

My hope is that the US MNT enjoys the break between now and September 11th. My hope is that Klinsmann reflects on this recent spate of games and starts thinking about putting a team together that really matches his vision for US soccer: attack and confidence. My hope is that we systematically destroy Jamaica in Ohio through attacking and inspired football.

USMNT begins the long road to Brazil 2014

World Cup 2014 qualifying started last night for the United States Men’s National Soccer Football Team. Our opponent was Antigua and Barbuda with a population of just over 88,000 and ranked 75 places below the US according to FIFA. Being true to my English heritage, I’d describe the weather as “lovely,” with the fans and players looking like distant relatives of the Manatees swimming in the nearby waters of Tampa.

I must admit that I was surprised by the line-up Jürgen Klinsmann announced…surprise was quickly followed by happiness. Klinsmann did something incredibly shrewd: he sent the best eleven players on the roster onto the pitch without much concern for “positions.” With Fabian Johnson out and his back-up Edgar Castillo sidelined, there was a question about which defender on the roster could fill in at left-back. I guessed the left-footed Carlos Bocanegra with Oguchi Onyewu starting in the middle. Klinsmann showed exactly why he’s sitting in the gaffer’s chair: he took his best naturally left-footed player and told him he was going to hold the line on the left side: Jose Torres. I cannot overstate my confidence in Klinsmann enough on this move. Torres is no Dani Alves or Ashley Cole, but he looked very solid in the position and didn’t suffer from bad decisions considering he last played in the position for the USMNT in October 2008.

After the first four minutes of the game, I made the smartest decision I’ve made in weeks. ESPN commentators Glenn Davis and our very own Taylor Twellman (and I am being kind here) were absolutely atrocious. Their observations of the match were empirical and shallow. They showed no ability to interpret the match beyond the obvious. They brought absolutely no “color” to the match, which is surprising for Twellman considering his experiences. So, at fourth minute’s conclusion, I wisely hit the “mute” button on my television’s volume and enjoyed my own pithy and pragmatic comments (which my wife loves).

From the beginning of the match, we controlled the ball well but, as with Canada, we really were not too threatening. Then it happened: there was a goal in the first 15 minutes. The funny thing is that it was not our opponent scoring but the US celebrating. It came on a corner kick, with Hercules Gomez putting a strong header on frame, forcing the A&B keeper to stab it away. The equipment-challenged Bocanegra pounced on the deflection and stuffed it into the back of the net, putting the US in a comfortable and historically unfamiliar position: leading the match early. I was very pleased with this goal despite its ugliness. Goals like this demonstrate that your set-piece players are working hard and staying in the moment…less mature players would see the header and start the march back to their half after seeing the header. Not Bocanegra…well done, Captain America!

I remember thinking during the next thirty five minutes that the US players were doing a decent job controlling the ball and avoiding mistakes on defense, so I started to focus in on the runs off the ball. What I noticed is that our attackers did a good job checking back into open space and presenting themselves for the ball. However, defenders are more than willing to let this happened because they are keeping the attackers and the ball in front of them. Only when attackers or the ball gets behind defenders do you see defenses start to fall apart. Good forwards and strikers have the ability to find the seams in the defense or make timed runs behind defenders so midfielders can serve balls into those creases. The only player making those runs consistently for the US last night was Clint Dempsey. Without Stuart Holden, Landon Donovan is alone as the player who can play balls into well timed runs. Michael Bradley should be able to, but he didn’t last night. Jermaine Jones and Maruice Edu probably cannot serve serve with the grace of Donovan or Holden, and our best hopes behind them are at left back and injured.

A&B then gave up a clear penalty at the 44th minute (and got lucky earlier in the half with unnecessary contact in their box) when a streaking Donovan was brought down. Dempsey converted the penalty kick to give the US a two goal lead going into the locker room at halftime. It wasn’t an overwhelming performance, but there was a lot of football left for the US to capitalize on their advantage and generate momentum for their next match.

With just over five minute complete in the second half, Torres went into a tackle that he probably should not have. It was a good location for a midfielder to tackle, but defenders near midfield should be looking to control the attacker on their side and keep them pushed to the outside. I do not fault Torres for what happened next nor do I fault the clumsy A&B player, but Torres left the game after getting stepped on by his opponent. It was a painful thing to witness, both for Torres and the US. Torres was in obvious pain and I can tell you studs to bone hurt for a very long time. For the US, however, the pain was nearly equivalent. Now our starting left back, back-up left back, and fill-in back-up left back were out. I smelled Onyewu and I was very anxious.

Bocanegra slid over to replace Torres and yield the middle to Onyewu. I leaned forward in my comfy couch and urged the US to action…the best defense is a good offense, right? And then it happened: Onyewu was beaten to the ball and the attacker left Onyewu on his heels and scored. I know it might be sacrilegious, but I am going to say it again: Tim Howard had an opportunity to make a save but got caught leaning the wrong way. The only thing I could think about was reading an interview this week with Onyewu where the interviewer suggested he was not the fastest player in the world. Onyewu fired back that he rarely loses a straight out sprint to anyone. Well, Peter Byers of A&B must be one of those rare players that can beat Onyewu, because he made “Gooch” look stupid…twice.

At that point, this increasingly pessimistic fan of the USMNT began to worry and tire. The goal, however, cured the US of its lack of energy. They played their best attacking football we have seen since fifteen minutes in the second half against Brazil. There was creativity, aggressiveness, technical and tactical expertise, and (oh my GOD) flair!!! It was great to watch the US dominate A&B like they should have all game, and their efforts were justly rewarded with a goal by BradleyGomez. I say BradleyGomez, because I was shouting at Gomez to yield to Bradley who was more squarely on the ball but, like a true striker, Gomez refused to yield. He and Bradley took two cracks at it at the same time before it sprung around an A&B defender and Gomez put it away. I like hungry attacker and cannot fault Gomez too much for his behavior…you need it in that position.

Overall, I am concerned. We showed we have ability, but this was against a team from a country with a population smaller than Billings, Montana who rarely see less than three digits in the FIFA rankings. While I am certain we will make it out of this “group of life,” we have a very long way to go to before I feel comfortable of our chances to make Brazil in 2014.

John Paul Jones was right

Last night the US Men’s National Soccer Football Team traveled to play our friendly neighbors to the north: Canada. This is a rivalry that dates back to 1925 with the US enjoying recent dominance. This was the final of three friendlies for the US before starting 2014 World Cup qualification and it was time for the US to come together as a cohesive and strong squad against an opponent who they traditionally dominate.  Jürgen Klinsmann’s starting eleven immediately confirmed for me that he was taking the match very seriously.  I do not think there is a stronger starting eleven in the current roster.

That is until Fabian Johnson suffered an injury at the end of warm-up, meaning Edgar Castillo had to quickly find his boots and rush a warm-up to start for Johnson.

The initial fifteen minutes of the match looked promising as we controlled the ball and established our 4-4-2 formation. Castillo looked sufficient defending on the outside despite his size disadvantage, and showed no fear pushing forward, taking a cracker of a volley that forced one of two brilliant saves that evening by the Canadian keeper.

Something happened after the first fifteen minutes as the US fell into some sort of comfortable slumber. Threatening passing and attacking runs quickly became the exception to their play. I grew increasingly frustrated at our reliance of back-passing instead of pressing our attack. Beyond Castillo and Jermaine Jones, no player showed consistent confidence in challenging the decidedly mediocre Canadian defense (postionally, Canada was very solid; technically was a very different story). The US should have capitalized on Canada’s technical weaknesses and played at a much higher tempo, bringing the game to their opponents. Instead, we saw a meek US afraid to make mistakes that instead placed too much emphasis on ball control.

Canada was the better example of threatening last night. Their midfield and attack aggressively powered the ball through the middle third of the field again and again. If Canada would have put more chances on goal, we would be feeling the aftertaste of a bad loss last night for a very long time. Our central defense did a solid job turning back Canada’s attacks and looked good overall. Clarence Goodson filled in for our missing defensive skills very well and I think deserves to start during World Cup qualifying for the US. I also tip my cap to Steve Cherundolo who expertly handled Canada’s most threatening attacker. It was not until Cherundolo was replaced by Michael Parkhurst that Dwayne De Rosario started putting his stamp on the match. DeRo left Parkhurst in the dust and streaked to the end line and served a missed sitter to Canada’s Simeon Jackson. That was the game right there for Canada.

The US took three shots on goal in the first half requiring the Canadian goalkeeper’s attention. We did not take our fourth shot on goal until the 93rd minute which required a superhuman effort by the Canadian keeper. The US should have taken their cues from their supporters as they hilariously chanted “shoot the puck…shoot the puck” in the first half. Except for one nifty exchange in the 40th minute, we did not see any of the normal brilliance from Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Donovan’s service was subpar all game as was the rest of the US midfield. While Jose Torres displayed some deft passing, none of it was of an overtly threatening nature. Dempsey and Hercules Gomez never received good service from the midfield last night and a meager four shots on goal really is not surprising.

If you have observed Dempsey during his history at Fulham, you know he really does not possess expansive attacking skills. His brilliance is an uncanny nose for goal and an ability to find space and finish strongly (or make a strong turn for an accurate long-range shot). We saw none of that last night and I am worried we are misusing Dempsey. Then again, perhaps it is an issue of team cohesion. Dempsey was not alone in mistimed connections with other players. Jozy Altidore looked out of synch with the rest of the team, making runs in different directions from the service. It may be too early to tell for this squad, but we should be on the look-out for significantly improved cohesion as World Cup qualifying gets underway. I would have thought that three matches together would have shown some improvements instead of regression, but I am not often confused with an optimist when it comes to the US MNT.

Finally, last night you might have observed the 25 year-old Castillo with only 6 caps and wondered why he is even on the roster. He gave the ball away in some tremendously bad locations and looked rather spastic as he roamed all over the pitch.  In my opinion, however, Castillo is an example of what Klinsmann is trying to establish as the model for future football in the US: aggressive and technically skilled. Castillo had absolutely nothing to lose last night, so he was nowhere near as tentative as his other 9 field players were.  If the US does not improve and take more chances, I fear we will be looking at a repeat of our 2010 World Cup effort which saw us score only four goals and secure one measly win in the group stage. I think it is time for the US to take to heart the words of our nation’s greatest naval hero, John Paul Jones:  “Those who will not risk cannot win.

USA MNT versus Brazil: Anger or Embarrassment?

Last night was the much anticipated friendly pitting the “resurgent” USA Men’s National Soccer Football Team against the mighty Brazil. The US had won their last five international matches (to include defeating Italy in Italy) and were overall showing some decent form as evident in their most recent outing against Scotland. Brazil fielded an inexperienced yet potent team who proudly wear the five stars on their chests. This was an opportunity for the US to continue their momentum as they make their way into World Cup qualifying. Unfortunately, the US ran into too many barriers to continue their good play.

The first barrier was the “man in the middle.” In a friendly, the officiating goal is to be part of the game’s background and not a central part of the match, keep sensible order but not overtly establish authority, and never make a decision that has drastic impact on the match. Said differently: let the players play. That was obviously not Jeffrey Calderon’s vision as he harshly judged Oguchi Onyewu to have handled the ball intentionally in the tenth minute of the match. A penalty kick so early in a scoreless match can have devastating impact on the momentum. While the shot clearly struck Onyewu in the arm, he had very little choice about his arm’s location at the time of impact, and the handling was clearly not intentional. This was a bad call and a harbinger for Onyewu’s overall impact on the game.

Our own central defense was a second barrier to good play. Pairing Carlos Bocanegra with Onyewu was a bad decision by Jürgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann should know that Onyewu is a technically sound player (great in the air and tackling) with a consistent track record of poor tactical decisions. Bocanegra is nearly identical to Onyewu with regards to technical and tactical skills. Pairing two tactical imbeciles against one of the best teams in the world is a terrible decision by Klinsmann. The recent success enjoyed by the US central defense resulted from putting someone with some tactical sense alongside Bocanegra. The central defense breakdowns are too numerous to list, but Leandro Damiao 18th minute chance and all three of Brazil’s goals from the field are clear examples. Additionally, the central defenders are responsible for marking on set pieces. While not directly at fault for Neymar’s goal off a corner kick, there was a clear breakdown in marking that gave Brazil a 2-0 advantage. If you look closely at the replay, you’ll see Onyewu marking no one and Jones struggling to catch Neymar. Finally, central defenders are the core of a team’s confidence as manifested on the field. I could not help but get itchy every time Onyewu was caught in tight possession. His inability to consistently distribute and “un-sureness” on the ball significantly erode any confidence the US tried to portray. I think it is time for Klinsmann to wake up and get a stronger central defense pair, and do so immediately. Goodson and Cameron are available…time for them to step up and serve their national team.

And then, just before halftime, a glimmer of hope. Michael Bradley played a Xavi-esque ball into a strongly overlapping Fabian Johnson who crossed the ball brilliantly from the end line to Hercules Gomez, who finished spectacularly after making a very smart run. If I could fit more superlatives into that ghastly sentence, I would because the goal was an example of what we need to expect from our US MNT. It isn’t something we should expect to happen only occasionally. I wish the game would have ended right there because we’d achieved my goals for the US: holding Brazil to two goals and scoring at least once. Klinsmann summed it up perfectly in an impromptu side-line interview: we’re in good shape as long as we don’t give up a goal in the first 10 minutes of the second half.

We lasted less than seven minutes and again it was our tactically deficient central defense. An over-paid, over-hyped, whining, and dirty windbag named Marcelo carried the ball unchallenged through our midfield and then held his run to receive a return pass from Neymar at the endline. Both of our central defenders were caught running with the ball instead of one of them being smart enough to mark Marcelo on the penalty spot. Marcelo finished proficiently and thereby extinguished any hope of the US retaining their dignity. Again, in the 66th minute, the central defense broke down completely resulting in Pato mysteriously clattering a sitter off the post. Both central defenders admired Pato from at least two yards away.

And then something strange happened for about fifteen minutes beginning with the 70th: the US starting to pressure and control the game, dominating the inexperienced and perhaps tiring Brazilian squad. Right around the 76th minute, Clint Dempsey played an excellent ball over the defenders to a streaking Gomez who controlled the ball well and blasted a sure goal at Brazilian keeper Rafael. Unfortunately, Rafael is superhuman and made an absolutely spectacular save. The shot, however, rebounded directly to Terrence Boyd making a smart follow-up on Gomez’s shot and again Rafael came up huge and unbelievably turned the US away again. Rafael was again superb in the 85 minute as he deflected a certain goal from Bradley who headed a set-piece cross with strength. Brazil is a country typically not known for goalkeeping, but very quietly in the past ten years they have fielded two of the strongest keepers in the world I think (Julio Cesar was the other keeper if you’re interested). As a symbol of the end to our strongest fifteen minutes in the match without a result, Onyewu bashed a header off the bar on a well-taken corner from Landon Donovan.

There remains one last barrier for us to discuss that borders on the heretical for a US supporter to suggest. No, it is not our strongly held belief that there is nothing worse than diving in the game. It is our irrational attachment to US MNT legends and their legacies. Specifically, I am referring to Timmy. There is no doubt that Tim Howard is one of the greatest goalkeepers to ever grace the field for the US MNT (perhaps one of the greatest in the world). He is a stalwart in the net and exudes exactly what you want from a keeper in terms of confidence and authority. I am concerned, however, that his technical skills are slipping, especially when compared to his peers (or, more relevantly, his opponent keeper). There is no doubt that he stopped a certain goal from Leandro Damiao in the 18th minute, but there wasn’t much beyond that and, to be honest, he had a genuine chance to stop Pato’s well-struck goal in the 87th minute that sailed under Howard. It’s not that he played poorly; he just didn’t show the brilliance we expect and need. If you want to continue to rain down blame for goals (like I do), I again lay this final embarrassing goal on Onyewu. He lazily cleared the back line, keeping Pato potentially onside instead of making him obviously offside to the linesman. Klinsmann stuck too long Onyewu and should have subbed him at halftime or the 60th minute.

I did see some good things in our match against Brazil: Gomez’s effort and nose for goal, Bradley’s calm in possession, Johnson’s aggressiveness and skill. Those good things, however, did not make up for the anger I felt at the match conclusion. It was absolutely embarrassing to end the way it did, and there is no excuse whatsoever for that result. Klinsmann needs to do better and he must begin by overhauling his defense. If not, we risk making the same mistakes on defense and missing out on the next World Cup. It is time to pick ourselves up from that embarrassment and punish Canada this Sunday. Perhaps we can recoup some of our dignity after their treatment of us as we failed to qualify for this year’s Olympics.

Fear and Loathing in Brazil (for US MNT)

We are two years away from the next FIFA World Cup. The United States Men’s National (soccer football) Team begins their World Cup campaign with a few friendlies before qualification starts. Coach Jürgen Klinsmann has called a solid roster of players as we look forward to 2014.

Our first friendly was against the 48th ranked team in the world: Scotland. Scotland has a long and historic experience with football, playing in the first international match ever against England about 140 years ago. While Scotland has not enjoyed much success in the international football arena, they get a decent amount of respect as a solid footballing nation. I personally have much love for Scotland as I lived there during a very exciting time for Scottish football. They qualified for the 1978 World Cup hosted by Argentina with Kenny Dalgish and Archie Gemmill on the squad. It was only goal differential that kept them from progressing out of the group stages that year.

The US, however, did not give a damn about the Tartan Army’s storied football history as they dismantled Scotland, 5-1. Despite the score, I was left with a strong feeling of wonder about the result. Why was the score so one-sided? Was it our stifling defense? Our dynamic attack? Our dominant midfield?

I think our overwhelming victory was due to our ability to finally finish our chances and Scotland’s lack of attack. Scotland played a very compact and defensive game that showed weakness when attacked up the sides. Also, they were unable to consistently possess the ball in the United States’ half.

Also, when I earlier said “finish our chances,” I really meant “Landon Donovan finished our chances.” It was as if Landon had a live feed of the commentators’ lamentations about his lack of passion and he just wanted to prove them wrong. In my book, Donovan is a legend. He is the most capped active US player and the greatest goal scorer in US Men’s history. Against Scotland, he was consistently in the right place with the right touch, and finished three excellent goals. He added threat to the outsides and created excellent scoring opportunities with his adroit passing. He played like a US international should play.

Unfortunately, it is unreasonable to expect a single player to carry an entire team. Ask yourself this: who looked good for the US beyond Landon? If you watched the match and are having a difficult time coming up with a name (or think “Fabian Johnson sure was threatening on the outside” or “Boyd was really aggressive”), my follow-up question to you is why you are not also worried. All will not be magically better when the hottest US player returns to the squad (Clint Dempsey, an obvious candidate for a Champion’s League squad /rolleyes).

I did see some good things against Scotland. We attacked up the lines instead of forcing it down the middle to our striker. This is a direct result of Klinsmann spreading out the formation using a 4-3-3. Players like Johnson and Steve Cherundolo looked good outside, as did our central players when overlapping into those spaces. Attacking down the flanks is likely the best way to break down a compact defense…it is very confusing to defenders.

I also like that we really didn’t hear much about our defense. Except for the early own-goal gaffe, the defense was solid, with good holding-midfield support. Of course this is Scotland we’re talking about, not Brazil…

…who just so happen to be our next opponent. I am still stinging from our embarrassing disqualification from the Olympics. For me to improve my outlook for the US Men’s National team, I need to see a solid showing against Brazil. We need to defend well, holding Brazil to less than two goals and we need to attack together with a few good scoring chances (non-set-pieces) and at least one goal. If we can do just that, I think it might be OK to start thinking about booking some vacation days to watch the US in 2014.

Is this the USMNT future?

With the Olympics rapidly approaching, I have been thinking a lot about the future of football in the United States. The Olympics is a solid indicator for the future potential of a national football program as almost every player must be under-23 to be on the roster.

Change takes time. You did not hear that first here. Jürgen Klinsmann’s appointment as the US Men’s National Team head coach almost eight months ago really is not that long in a national program context. I think short-term course corrections are possible, but long-term impact takes on the order of four years to take hold. Surely Klinsmann’s talent as a coach in putting the right players in situations that could yield success cannot be questioned after defeating four-time World Cup winners Italy in Italy. But I don’t think he can be held too responsible for the current performance on his team or even the U23 team. But the wily German is responsible for coaching appointments, and he astutely ensured that the coach of the 2010 NCAA Division I Soccer champions was appointed as the U23 head coach. Coach Caleb Porter enabled an immediate connection of an immense wealth of player knowledge in the US to the U23 team for nearly free.

On the same day Klinsmann steered the senior squad to victory over a young but still strong Italy squad (in Italy no less), Porter’s squad made the Mexico U23 team look like a middle school team. In my mind, there is no stronger rivalry for the US than Mexico. I personally take great satisfaction and disappointment for every win and loss. The U23 team’s handling of Mexico was a great showing, but there was a more important conclusion in my opinion. What I saw was potential.

If you take the top Division I coach and put him in charge of players who mostly came through US college soccer, you’d expect to see that style football. But, what I saw was very different. I saw an emphasis on possession and poise and technical ability, instead of an emphasis on strength and fitness (not saying those weren’t there…it just wasn’t the emphasis). What I saw was attacking and aggressive football. Joe Gyau dazzled and Freddy Adu displayed some of the finest technical skills I’ve ever seen on a US player. What I saw was exciting.

Excitement was quite the opposite of what I saw in the U23 team against Cuba last night. I admit that my bad attitude might be in-part due to my only option was a Spanish-language station, but you should certainly not be impressed by the score line. Cuba was greatly overmatched, exacerbated by going a man down in the 20th minute to a straight red card (not to mention mentally gimped by wearing mismatching jerseys with sleeve patches that were dangling in the breeze before halftime). We had some strong moments where we displayed the potential I saw in the Mexico game. OVerall, we were lazy and complacent. We repeatedly played unchallenged balls out of play, gave the ball up in our own half more than we should have, and our front line really didn’t deserve six goals. Performances like that might get a good result against a shorthanded and weaker squad, but it will not yield good results against Italy, France, Brazil, and other countries known for strong youth development

I know that a hat trick is a very noteworthy achievement, especially one in an international match that matters, but in my entire life I have never seen an uglier one than Joe Corona’s. His first goal was fair, third was deflected slightly, and his second goal was off his shin. I give him credit for consistently getting into threatening space and having a well-developed nose for the goal, but these three goals were against Cuba. I’ll take Adu’s scorcher from 21 yards or Juan Aguedelo’s blistered header any day…those goals would go in against Italy and France and Brazil.

By the way, Freddy Adu continues to impress me, even after the Cuba match. He is ridiculously talented for an American…if only he were five inches taller people would take him more seriously (even though he is an inch taller than these clowns: Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta).

Does America have enough patience for Jürgen Klinsmann?

I don’t think I am overstating when I suggest that humanity’s collective attention span is in serious retrograde. The amount of stimulus and information to which a human is subjected is drastically larger than it was 21 years ago. It was only that long ago when the US Men’s National Soccer Team started regularly qualifying for the World Cup. “Back then” there was no Web browser, no iPod, and no smart phone…heck, a mobile phone was larger and heavier than the Scooby Doo lunch box I took to grade school. The advent of the “information age” gave me serious pause as I watched yet another lackluster performance by our US Men’s National Soccer Team. It caused me to wonder if America has enough patience for our new coach, Jürgen Klinsmann.

I admire Klinsmann greatly for his football acumen and on-field performances, both as a player and a coach. His statements about his vision and our program truly excite me. I believe that he is exactly what America needs. Like most coaches, he faces a very difficult battle to drag America out of footballing obscurity. It should be no surprise to you that I strongly contend that we must entirely tear down football in America and build it back-up from a new foundation. Achieving something as large as this cannot be done overnight and I fear that America’s default expectation that “we want it, and we want it now” will lead to Klinsmann’s sacking. That would be a tremendous shame.

What kind of battle does Klinsmann face? Let’s examine our latest effort against France last Friday. Starting from the back, you see the battles immediately. The defense was surely solid defensively, but solid defensive skills are not enough to compete at the highest level. We suffered from horrible distribution from the back line in transition to the attack. Both Steve Cherundolo and Timothy Chandler consistently played balls up the line either out or with too much pace for the receiver to handle. In classic American style, defensive panic resulted in balls played over the top which we rarely won. France’s pace in the attack was very difficult for us to match. When you’re constantly playing off your back foot, you will eventually make a mistake that will lead to an easy scoring opportunity. If not for the brilliance of Tim Howard, we could easily have lost that game by at least 2 – 0.

In the midfield, I have mostly only one point to make: enough of Beckerman already!!! (Jürgen: you’ve given this guy more than a fair chance to make an impact in the game.) Beckerman is a great example of our endemic lack of technical skills. He consistently gives the ball up in possession, starts absolutely nothing on the attack, and struggles to maintain control of the ball in all but the easiest situations (but he sure is a solid and aggressive tackler, isn’t he?) (Jürgen: I’ve never been a Michael Bradley fan, but Bradley has out-performed Sasquatch…put him back in already!)

On the attack, I love the physicality and confidence with which Jozy Altidore is playing. If he had better service from the back and better support in the attack, we might actually have goal scoring opportunities in the future. We must attack with gusto. Right now, our best effort is Altidore making a crafty turn for a deflected shot. I want to see outside mids and backs blowing down the field and serving sitters to a striker polishing his nails on the penalty spot.

Oh, and please don’t waste my time with the trite sentiment that “if we could ever get Landon on the field with Clint, we’d do well.” Hello?!?! They both played in the last two World Cups together, right? The one where we embarrassingly didn’t make it out of groups and the other where we couldn’t beat a country just slightly larger than Minnesota to get beyond the Round of 16, yes? So, exactly what are we waiting for?

Already the “experts” are talking about Klinsmann not delivering on his promise of progress. It is true that a 1-4-1 record is dismal, especially considering some of the opponents. Ambitious changes like Klinsmann has articulated will take nearly ten years to be fully realized; begin now without our youth program, boys aged 8 to 10 years old, then add 10 and you’ve got your team.

And that’s exactly my concern: I’m not sure America has the patience to see such a strategic change to our footballing systems through to the end. It is going to get worse before it gets better…the real question is if Klinsmann can keep his job while our current batch of U10 boys teams can come fully through the new systems and bring home the World Cup someday (hopefully in my lifetime). In the meantime, Klinsmann might be better off flogging the old American style with the same player base until the youth programs start churning out the players we need to compete at the highest level (such as against France or Spain).

Do I have a message of hope? Absolutely! Current players Daniel Williams and Brek Shea and Edson Buddle and Maurice Edu give me hope. These are players who break the traditional mold of American footballers: creative, fearless, and technically skilled. Go get smart players like Tim Ream in the back who defend well and distribute better and I believe we’ll be on the right path to achieving Klinsmann’s vision very soon.

%d bloggers like this: