Image courtesy of www.ussoccer.com
In most of my columns in the past, I’ve stoutly supported the beauty, fluidity, complexity and genuine majesty of European soccer.
I mean, really, who can blame me—being a complete soccer fanatic, foaming at the mouth each time an enticing match is placed in front of me—for rambling on and on about the attractiveness of the beautiful game.
Rarely, though, do I rave about the excellence or even relative class of the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) or the domestic game.
Instead, I’ll indulge in complimenting other continents’ soccer prowess, if only vaguely, for their legitimate achievements. For instance, South American giants, Brazil and Argentina, have won a combined seven World Cups, accounting for nearly half of all the World Cups ever held.
Another example is Africa. Having come a long way in the last half century in terms of their ability to compete at the highest level, Ghana has reached the knockout stages of the World Cup in both 2006 and 2010. Going almost a decade back, Senegal beat defending the champs, France, and went unbeaten in the group stages in 2002 to claim an elimination round berth of their own.
Blah, blah, blah. I know this haphazard soccer history lesson probably isn’t overly interesting to most of you. What’s my point, then?
It’s simple. Teams from continents like South America or Africa have significantly lesser resources than places like Europe or North America (the U.S. in particular). Yet they consistently continue to outmatch competitors in major tournaments. Time and time again, they win, and we lose.
We know soccer isn’t America’s number one passion as is so elsewhere. Still, for those devout American soccer supporters—like myself—who wonder if the U.S. soccer hay-day will ever come to fruition, recent results solely enlarge any previously held doubts.
As the famous, and slightly obnoxious, Dr. Phil McGraw once said, “you can’t know how to fix something if you don’t accurately recognize what needs fixing in the first place.”
And when it comes to the USMNT, McGraw’s words of wisdom ring true; the current problem isn’t only “we don’t have enough quality to overcome the best teams,” but it’s “where should we centralize our restructuring approach,” and “are our current improvements taking place where upgrading is most compulsory?”
The latter two of those questions are the ones that need answering. Simply saying, “our players aren’t good enough,” doesn’t suffice. When facing a FIFA world ranking of 33rd, falling short of sides like Slovenia, Algeria and Mali, realistic and calculated reaction to what’s truly going wrong is the solitary remedy for a failing system.
So, grouping all the question marks into one blunt inquiry, where do we stand in the global soccer arena right now?
Surely some would argue that the revamping of the United States international soccer program has already commenced, and that the country is on the up with the appointment of German legend Jürgen Klinsmann as head coach as well as the incorporation of a rejuvenated core of leaders.
Among the brightest stars of the men wearing the stars and stripes are Roma’s Michael Bradley, Tottenham Hotspur’s Clint Dempsey, Everton’s Tim Howard and of course, the unmistakable Landon Donovan of the LA Galaxy. Those four players have been, are, and will be (for at least a while longer) the faces of the USMNT.
Still though, Brazil 2014 will likely be Donovan and Dempsey’s last hurrahs in terms of major international tournaments. By that time, a new dawn is expected to have risen within the squad ranks.
And when it comes to squad strength, the U.S. will continue to bear a chronic disadvantage against the giants of Europe and even South America. Soccer isn’t as important here, and it is there. It makes a noticeable difference. Bottom line.
Upsets will take place now and again, but ultimately, the U.S. needs a plan to solidify its assets and limit its most gaping weaknesses in order to reduce its vulnerability against the big dogs, and increase its win percentage against teams more within its reach.
Klinsmann’s use of the 4-1-3-2 formation in the Americans’ 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Jamaica Monday night is a good representation of a formation the U.S. could succeed with tactically; one holding midfielder to sit in front of the back line, with hard-working midfield players tracking back to defend and pushing forward on counter attacks or for set plays.
Defense is paramount for the U.S., because high-scoring frenzies and flowing, comprehensive offensive strategies will not fly against a high-octane side like Argentina or Germany. Building impenetrable walls at the back while stressing effort and urgency in offensive possession are surely trademarks of Klinsmann’s team talks before and after crucial matches.
Following its 2-1 defeat to Jamaica in qualifying a week prior, however, numerous pressing questions echoed throughout the USMNT fan base.
“Are we addressing the right things,” and “should a potent USMNT side be losing to a minnow-side like Jamaica?”
It’s a work on progress. On paper, at least, it appears as though the American soccer program is tirelessly rebuilding, a process that will oversee some high points and some pretty low ones as well. The two recent matches against Jamaica epitomize the roller-coaster ride of a developing campaign perfectly.
And again the question remains: Where do we stand now? Currently, it would seem as though the 2012-13 World Cup qualifying squad is slowly but surely improving, generally speaking. With team members fluctuating in and out and with plenty of matches in qualifying yet to come, ironing out the most notable kinks now bodes well for the future of a predominantly inexperienced mesh of players and coaches.
Still, only more time will tell whether the new changes being implemented will be lasting and legitimate ailments to a presently mediocre organization.