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Monday Morning Musings: State of the US Soccer Nation (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Counter-Attack)

June 27, 2011

Volumes have been already written about United States Men’s National Soccer Team in the gloaming that followed the initially rousing but ultimately disappointing 4-2 loss to Mexico in last Saturday’s Gold Cup Final.  Gnashing of teeth about Head Coach Bob Bradley’s game management, a defense that was all too accommodating to opponents’ strikes and forays, the lack of finishing ability, the hostile home field crowd filled with fans of the foreign rival, it all formed a cacophony of sour notes and discordant themes about the future of this team and the program at large.  Read enough of it, and even the most strident of “Uncle Sam’s Army” supporters could be excused for wanting a tender moment alone with a bourbon and some Coltrane.

Leading up to the match, the US was the decided underdog, having been less than sparkling in the five tournament matches prior, including their first ever loss in Gold Cup group play and  several matches that on paper, should not have been as close as they were.  Yet, the USMNT was where they were supposed to be, in the final, against Mexico, on US soil with only one loss in their last 12 matches against “El Tri” north of the border.

What started as a sliver of hope turned into soaring belief as the US found themselves up 2-0 after 23 minutes, though that was (and always was going to be) fool’s gold. Both goals were against the run of play, the US at their counterpunching best, but Mexico had opened the match like their boots were on fire. Even down 2-0, one never sensed that Mexico was gripping the game too tightly; they looked dangerous the entire game, with tactical patience and a surgical aggression that had the US backline permanently on their heels. The air of inevitability after the first Mexico goal became so thick you could cut it with a machete.  Five minutes into the second half Mexico regained the lead 3-2 and although the US manufactured some real scoring chances thereafter, they never recovered, the final insult coming in the 76th minute as the US defense’s Keystone Cops-esque display was obscured by Giovani Dos Santos’ sublime finish over five defenders and goalie Tim Howard into the opposite top corner of the net.  It was all done but the shouting then, and the technically superior Mexican side got to enjoy the spoils.

In the end, the result was expected, even if the manner in which it unfolded wasn’t.   Since then bigger questions have emerged: Where does this leave the USMNT; How should US Soccer proceed in the wake of this loss; and What can US fans realistically expect over the next three years up through the 2014 World Cup?  While losing a title match is never a good thing, the storm clouds on the horizon aren’t as dark as they appear.  Sober reflection on the verisimilitude of soccer in this country and its relative place in the world pecking order should yield the consensus that nothing is so broken that can’t be fixed.

Let’s look at the four “T”s of all national soccer programs and see where the US stands:

Talent – You can’t win anything important without it.  And frankly, the US still doesn’t have enough of it.  America produces world class soccer players – Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard are stars for high-level clubs and country – they just don’t have enough of them, not only to compete but consistently beat the world’s best.  Sure, the current depth and talent level of the national player pool is higher than 12 years ago when the US bounced out of France 1998 in last (32nd) place, and sure, there’s enough talent to qualify for Brazil 2014 out of the CONCACAF Region. US teams always have speed in attack, an abundance of athleticism, and fitness levels that rival any team in the world.  Strides have certainly been made.  Nevertheless, the failure to score more than two goals in any Gold Cup game against CONCACAF teams not named Mexico is worrisome, as the central midfield struggled to initiate attacks, and one look at the four goals the US defense allowed in roughly one-half a match’s time on Saturday should tell even the casual observer that if this is the best the US could offer right now, there is a dearth of capable defenders across the board.  US Soccer is on the right track to improve their talent, and must continue to enhance the youth development system, identify multi-national prospects that have US eligibility, and keep them in US colors. Players like Sporting KC’s Teal Bunbury (could play for Canada or US) and Nürnberg’s Timothy Chandler (Germany or US) must be properly courted instead of allowing a perception of indifference to settle like a damp fog, won over like Jermaine Jones instead of losing them like Neven Subotic who started for Serbia in South Africa 2010.  But like Rome it’s not something you can build in a day, as the current deficiencies will take more than this World Cup cycle to resolve.

Toughness – All the jokes (and truths) about flopping and prima donnas aside, toughness in soccer often parallels success.  Not just physical toughness, which has become a calling card for recent US teams, but mental toughness as well, and that is a more pressing matter.  Losing in the 2009 Confederations Cup Final to Brazil 3-2 after being up 2-0 (sounds eerily familiar), losing in the second round of South Africa 2010 to Ghana in extra-time after tying the match in regulation, and now losing the Gold Cup Final to Mexico the way they did, a troubling pattern is emerging in the games that count the most.  Yes, the Algeria and Slovenia games at last year’s World Cup showed grit and determination, however the best teams do that when asked to time and again, and the US must reverse the recent trend of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against the best if they ever intend to join them.

Tactics – Ask the average US Soccer fan how their team tried to go about winning games since 2006, what strategies Bob Bradley employed, and you would receive varied responses, including some blank stares.  For decades prior the US was a “bunker and counter” squad; that is, packing their defense tightly, maintaining positional discipline, absorbing attacking pressure from their opponents and drawing their opposition upfield, then initiating counter attacks that created numerical advantages and favored US speed.  This style was an accession to the fact there were not enough quality players to deploy possession-oriented soccer, as you see with top teams like Spain and Brazil.  Moderate success followed, as the US has participated in every World Cup since 1990 and remained competitive against most teams. Conventional wisdom advises that as the talent level rises, the US should become more enterprising, aiming to posses the ball more and engaging in a more positive approach. Under the preceding coach Bruce Arenas, US squads were more attack minded against lesser teams, but against more advanced teams still relied upon counter-attacking soccer, sometimes to tremendous effect as evidenced by their run to the Korea/Japan 2002 Quarterfinals. To be clear, this is nothing to be ashamed of despite what some fanatics say, as this approach can win titles – Italy won the Germany 2006 World Cup largely due to great defense and a deadly counter attack.  Yet under Bradley’s guidance the US team seemed to be of all minds and yet of none, inconsistent in approach, in formation, and otherwise redolent of making it up as he went.  As best as could be told, the primary formation was a variant of the standard 4-4-2, but positional roles often varied from game to game (and within games) in ways that go beyond situational tactics to wild experimentation.  Now, for the six Gold Cup games (and in some of the prior 2011 friendly matches), an identifiable formation was utilized: the 4-2-3-1, a basic overview of which can be found here, popular in much of Europe and utilized to great effect by Spain as the reigning European (2008) and World (2010) Champions.  This formation not only catered to the personnel of the Gold Cup squad, it provides tactical flexibility going forward, allowing the US to control possession when it’s beneficial, as well as pack the defense in and create counter-attacking opportunities. Furthermore, adopting this style provides clarity of purpose and continuity for players who will be considered for World Cup qualifying matches and the eventual 2014 World Cup squad (knock on wood), something that was absent in the previous cycle.

Training – As in the coaching, as in the Spanish word for coach, entrenador, as in Bob Bradley.  He’s done enough to keep his job.  Bradley dealt well with roster limitations imposed by injury (Stuart Holden and Benny Feilhaber before the tourney; Jozy Altidore and Steve Cherundolo during it), and club-over-country considerations (Chandler would have been a nice option along the back line Saturday, and US Soccer could have pressed harder for Mixx Diskerud if they wanted) as well as the flaws of the talents available. He made adjustments in both the quarterfinal against Jamaica and semifinal against Panama that paid winning dividends. His gamble on bringing in Freddy Adu from the hinterlands of Turkish club soccer was rewarded.  After four years of what to many observers appeared to be tactical confusion, Bradley looks to have settled on a coherent strategic philosophy.  Even if all the right players required to employ that philosophy are not at his disposal, Bradley is going about winning games the right way.  To reference an old saying, Bradley could only make so much chicken salad this month.

Coming full circle to Saturday night, while the US loss may have been partially enabled by a failure to adjust strategy in-game after going up 2-0 – it’s arguable that the US should have bunkered more to protect the lead instead of actually possessing the ball and going forward more as they did, leaving them vulnerable to Mexico’s counters as they became – the overall tactical approach was sound, and if anything, the team not availing itself of the formational flexibility after going up 2-0 expedited their downfall.  Maybe that falls on Bradley, but it likely wouldn’t have mattered given the defensive personnel at his disposal.

Taken altogether, the four “T”s point to a US soccer program that is neither ahead of nor behind schedule, and while that may frustrate many followers, the fifth “T” – Time – waits for no one.  This isn’t about “accepting the US’s place in the soccer world” or some condescending rubbish like that.  Rather, it’s the realization that much more work has to be done, from continuing domestic growth of the sport, to cultivating talent home and abroad, to adhering to a consistent philosophy and ultimately to developing the resilience and confidence to find ways back into matches when things go wrong against elite competition.

Prospects may not markedly improve in the short term, or enough to challenge for the Brazil World Cup title in three years, but the long term forecast is still bullish. The fact that the US U-17 squad has qualified for every U-17 World Cup ever held, and has advanced to the knockout stage of the ongoing U-17 World Cup in Mexico bodes well, as does the steady improvement of the domestic MLS.  As impatient as Americans are when it comes to wanting domination in every sport, US Soccer is a work in progress, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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From → Soccer, Sports

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