For a period of about 20 years, from 1989 until 2009, I saw nearly every match the U.S. national soccer team played. Many of them in person. Most of the rest via television.
I knew those teams, especially those from the World Cup teams of 1990 through 2002, as well as I have ever known any sports teams.
Since leaving for Abu Dhabi, in October of 2009, I have in many ways lost touch with the Yanks. I see the scores, and I watched them in the 2010 World Cup, of course, as just another interested fan, grimly satisfied while watching the 1-1 tie with England in a hotel bar near Rome, and high-fiving other Yanks at the Thirty 1st Bar at the Holiday Inn here in Abu Dhabi when Landon Donovan’s late goal beat Algeria and allowed them to win their group. (And a day later I declared it to be the most dramatic win in U.S. soccer history.) But since then …
That was then. This is now.
Klinsmann may not be working out. At all. And what seemed to be the impossible — the US failing to qualify for the 2014 World Cup — could seem easily possible, a week from now.
I have been fretting about the U.S. qualifying campaign since that rocky last round. And then they went down to Honduras and were (apparently) thoroughly outplayed in a 2-1 defeat — the first time they had lost the opening game in the Hexagonal.
I knew what was coming up, too. Home against Costa Rica, who are always competent, and away to Mexico, at Azteca, which is almost a guaranteed defeat.
And then came this excellent, massive, exhaustive story on the current state of the U.S. team by Brian Straus of Sporting News, and it confirmed every troubled thought I had about this team, and gave us a few more to fret about.
1. Klinsmann and the U.S. national team just may not be a good fit. He is a friendly guy, by all accounts, and he looks good in a track suit, and he played at the highest level and coached Germany to third at the 2006 World Cup, and he has lived in the U.S. for more than a decade … but it is not clear at all he grasps the weird reality that is U.S. soccer.
Consider. Examine any U.S. World Cup team, from 1990 forward, and the individuals are just not very impressive. Even now. The U.S. does not have a citizen who is an elite player for any major club team. Clint Dempsey is about as good as it gets, and he plays for Tottenham … sometimes. (In fact, he is considered something of a disappointment with Spurs, who are all about Gareth Bale.) Tim Howard is considered highly by Everton, a mid-table Premier League team, Michael Bradley is a solid presence for Roma. But the rest … middling players for middling (or even relegation-threatened) teams.
Yet, the U.S. for nearly two decades has been a 50/50 proposition to make it to the final 16. (Yes, in 1994/2002/2010; no, in 1990, 1998, 2006.) That is a remarkable rate of success, and one I bet not a dozen countries in the world can match over that time span.
That success is possible only because the Yanks have, for two decades, been much better collectively than individually. They play well together, they are unselfish, they know each other and they never give up. Never. It’s as if they don’t know when they are beaten. Literally. “Hey, you guys have no chance.” “Says who?”
It has been, perhaps, the world’s most unique/unusual national team during the whole of that period, and when you go outside the country and live in a part of the planet where soccer is everywhere, you come to better understand the minimal impact American soccer players have in the world of club soccer. You could call home every American playing overseas, and the soccer world … would … not … notice.
2. The current U.S. team, one source told the Sporting News, is “overtrained and undercoached.” Three words that say so, so much. The author goes on to show how much physical work the Americans do, under Klinsmann, the constant biometrics and tests and diet advice, but also the lack of tactical planning that can be applied this week, or tomorrow, or in the second half. Klinsmann seems to believe on-the-pitch behavior should be organic and instinctive. For a German, fair enough — but the U.S. is not at that level yet in soccer. U.S. players would like to hear a plan, and benefit from it.
3. It is a team that appears to be fractured along ethnic lines. Klinsmann has brought in as many as four German-Americans, who are far more German than they are American, and they have become a clique led by the erratic Jermaine Jones.
The U.S. team over the past quarter century has always had more than a few Something-Americans, but they tended to come from several countries. The 1994 team had a German-American (Thomas Dooley), but it also had a Salvadoran-American (Hugo Perez), a Dutch-American (Earnie Stewart), two Uruguayan-Americans (Tab Ramos, Fernando Clavijo), a South African-American (Roy Wegerle) and a Greek-American (Frank Klopas).
The key there? No one group of Something-Americans who could run off and form their own team within a team. Klinsmann, however, allowed it to happen by chasing after German-raised players with whom he certainly must have been more comfortable.
But what has happened is that a chunk of the team is playing Bundesliga football, and the rest are playing the sort of hybrid British/Latin style U.S. soccer has created — direct, but more likely to play the ball on the ground.
4. It has to be a concern that Klinsmann seems supremely disinterested in what happens to Landon Donovan. Would Landon be on his “sabbatical” right now if he felt wanted by the U.S. coach? Maybe. Probably. But they will miss him again in the next week, and Klinsmann seems not to care he is missing the greatest scorer in U.S. soccer history — who is still only 31. It is like the coach is a disinterested onlooker when it comes to Landon.
5. It is not clear Klinsmann realizes how difficult it can be to play in Latin America. It is no picnic in Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama. The pitches may be a mess, and the fans will be on top of the players, and beating the Yankees will be the biggest event of the year, in most of those countries. Yet against Honduras who sent out a back four who had never before played a match together. (And in 23 matches leading the U.S., he has never played the same 11 twice. A remarkable statistic.)
I am worried. As all U.S. fans should be.
What if the U.S. loses to Costa Rica in Denver? When the defeat in Mexico follows, the U.S. will have zero points from three matches, with seven left.
The only reason not to break out into a panic is how easy it is to qualify in Concacaf. The top three finishers go straight to Brazil 2014. And even the No. 4 team is in pretty good shape because it will play the Oceania group winner (almost certainly New Zealand), in an absolutely winnable home-and-home.
But could the U.S. finish as low as fifth? Maybe behind everyone except Panama?
Could happen, absolutely, the way things are now.
I fear for these guys. Practically none of whom I know.
A case can be made that a U.S. team with zero points after three matches needs a new coach. I am very close to making that case. Bruce Arena, keep your cell phone turned on.