The inherent problems of US soccer
In 2010, Jurgen Klinsmann went on ESPN following the US team’s elimination at the hands of Ghana. Mike Tirico asked him a simple, yet profoundly deep, question: what is wrong with US soccer?
Klinsmann gave a two minute answer, pinpointing the very roots of American soccer as the problem. “You are the only country in the world that has the pyramid upside down,” he said. “Your goal [as a parent] is not to have your kid be a professional soccer player, but to get a scholarship to college, which is completely opposite from the rest of the world.”
A year later, US Soccer brought in Klinsmann after a crushing 4-2 loss to Mexico in the 2011 Gold Cup final. The federation gave him both the senior team job and, later, the technical director position, meaning he has complete control over the development and style of American soccer, from the ground up.
Klinsmann has made it clear that he wanted the US to play the aggressive, possession based soccer that Spain, Germany and the other top level countries employ. He wanted American teams to take the game to opponents, not to sit back and counter like the past. In fact, Sunil Gulati, the federation president, has also made it clear that Klinsmann was brought in to put that style in.
Yet rarely in the four years since Klinsmann has taken charge has that strategy been put into effect. Only against smaller sides, which seem to be an ever shrinking list, does the US dominate possession.
Instead of dominating possession and pinning teams back, the US often sits back themselves, relying on defensive solidity and, increasingly, athleticism, to keep opponents from scoring. They then use quick counters to catch teams off guard, running away with victories.
The strategy has worked. The qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup was well played, as were games against Ghana and Portugal in the World Cup, and Germany (twice), Italy and Holland outside of it.
But the point is, Klinsmann didn’t come in promising results; he promised wholesale changes in how America played the game. And it hasn’t happened.
There are several reasons. One is the length of time Jurgen’s been in charge. Four years simply is not enough time to overhaul completely a nationwide style of play. Klinsmann certainly knows that getting an aggressive, offense-first philosophy engrained in player’s heads will take time.
Another reason is just as deep, and perhaps harder to cure: American players lack creativity. Bruce Arena once famously described Clint Dempsey as a player who “tries s***.” It seems that Dempsey is the only current American player who fits that description. The US team has a stereotype, not unlike the English team, of being high on the athleticism and fitness, and low on skill and flair.
Saturday’s game against Mexico perfectly showed this. The Mexicans simply had skills the US did not, and harnessed their greater talent to pin the Americans back for large portions of the game. Ricardo Ferretti’s game plan brilliantly utilized Mexico’s creative ability to kill the American midfield’s potential to hold possession and create attacks even before they had the ball.
Jermaine Jones and Gyasi Zardes (two typically athletic but less skilled players) were forced to sit deep, leaving Michael Bradley without the wing options he need to clear space in the center and keep possession.
An even more glaring weakness in the American side is the lack of a true no 10. Klinsmann has tried, and continues to try, Bradley in the 10 spot, but for all his talents he simply does not fit well there. His skills lie deeper in midfield, where he can create from the pivot, and dish out long balls like these.
Clint Dempsey was, and sadly still is, the closest thing to the answer. His aforementioned creativity makes him the only player on the squad capable of playing in the lead creator role.
But Jurgen knows that time is running out on Dempsey; he might not even make it to Russia ’18. Somewhere, in the vast US system, Klinsmann must find a player capable of creating with ball at his feet, like Maradona, Zidane or Messi.
Benny Feilharber and Lee Nguyen have both been offered as short term fixes. Both have been capped for the national team, both under Klinsmann and previous managers. Both are thriving in MLS, Feilharber with Sporting Kansas City and Nguyen with the New England Revolution.
Both are, however, short term solutions, if they are even that. Feilharber is weak on the ball, easily being pushed out of possession. Nguyen is surprisingly lacking in experience for a 29 year old, having played in a serious level league (MLS) for just four seasons. While inexperience can be looked over in the case of Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood or Julian Green, the case with Nguyen is different.
Perhaps Feilharber and Nguyen would work, however. I think that there is a good chance they would. They still aren’t the answer. Both will be on the wrong side of 30 by the next World Cup, and while they will still be young enough to make an impact, the US needs to break the cycle of replacing old players with slightly less old players.
One answer could come from the plethora of young forwards in the American ranks. Rubio Rubin, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood or maybe even Green could be converted to the midfield. All four are under 22, giving one plenty of time to grow into a new role for the national team.
Maybe one of the young American midfields could be pushed up further. Danny Williams, who started the game against Costa Rica on Tuesday, could be trained to play further up the field, and with his athleticism would be more mobile than Bradley in that position.
Emerson Hyndman has shined for Fulham’s youth and senior teams, and picked up his first senior cap against the Czech Republic back in September 2014. Lacking William’s physicality, Hyndman instead is a tactically smart player, a benefit of having a MLS coach for a grandfather. At just 19, Hyndman could put on some weight and combine Feilharber/Nguyen’s creativity with increased physicality.
The fact that there is no established, developing no. 10 in the American system is worrying. There seem to be plenty of forwards, holding and wide midfielders, and defenders to cover the holes in the US XI.
But with a creative, ball dominant playmaker, the American side will never click like it could. Klinsmann’s priority must be to find a short and long term solution to this problem, or else the philosophy that he was hired to implement will never be achieved. And that will mean Klinsmann’s head.
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