Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Brief, Polite Comment on Last Night's Game (and U.S. Soccer's Hostage Situation)

What I'm watching for when I watch U.S. Soccer these days.
OK, I just read a whole bunch o' crap on the United States' Men's National Team loss to Mexico last night. Had to, really, because I can’t claim to know the U.S. team like I used to: while I watch all the games that count, I haven't caught a friendly in a couple years (virtually always scheduled during, or immediately after, work; I'm not taking time off for a friendly, people), and, on top of that, I only read closely about the games I watch.

It also bears noting that I wasn't all that invested in whether or not the U.S. won – e.g. see the argument here that the Confederations Cup is more a silly cash-cow than a worthwhile tournament – and, yes, I am 100% a card-carrying member of the angry mob that hunts Jurgen Klinsmann on Twitter and in other outlets, and have leaned that way since before 2014 (when I called a truce in support of shared rooting interest – e.g. the World Cup).

So, there they are, caveats express (e.g. I see the USMNT play about half dozen times a year) and implied (I don't know much about the players coming up to press the old guys). I don't have much to say about tactics, line-up, or actual game-play because I'm not familiar enough with the team to really dig in there, or to talk in anything but a general way. That said, let's start by picking up that second parenthetical...

Pointe the Firste
I don't need to know about the players coming through the pipeline: Klinsmann's line-up last night communicated the idea that they're not ready more clearly than words could have (a line-up is worth how many words?). Faced with a must-win game, Klinsmann went as close to "full veteran" as he could while still starting 10 field players. Since the 2014 World Cup, Klinsmann has experimented relentlessly with personnel and line-ups and all the National Team got out of this never-ending train of Star Search auditions was, a) a considerable amount of un-ripened fruit, and 2) line-up and tactics that, a couple German ex-pats aside, Bob Bradley could have fielded and adopted.

This leaves open an obvious line of defense for last night and all of Klinsmann's tenure: the U.S. program struggles because its lacks viable, game-ready personnel – not just to compete on the level where U.S. Soccer and its fans feel like they should, but to play the way that Klinsmann talked about wanting the U.S. to play by the time he’s done. I'll have more on this in the second point, but first...

Too many of Klinsmann's experiments with line-up and personnel have been, in the context of my limited viewing, stupid. He has continually swapped players in and out by some calculus that only he understands (which, to be 100% clear, opacity in no way makes any given calculus wise or intelligent) and, through this permanent flux, he's never given any group of players time to learn how to work as a unit. Worse still, he has repeatedly overlooked players who make far, FAR more sense in a variety of positions – here, I'm thinking specifically of pairing Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron in central defense (totally onboard with #1 in here). The decision to finally throw them together (out of desperation) almost paid off; think of how much better it could have been had Besler and Cameron been given a chance to develop an understanding of their on-field roles.

Pointe the Seconde
The one thing I have seen throughout Klinsmann's tenure – I mean start to fucking finish – the U.S. never looks comfortable on the field. They never entirely present as knowing what they're doing, especially going forward. Just about every player on the team has had moments – why just last night featured a nice goal borne of a sweeping move between DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood – the achievements rely more on good decisions and execution by individual players than they seem systemic, conscious operation within a tactical scheme.

To pick on one oft-promised plan/theory: Klinsmann has long emphasized that the U.S. needs to play smartly and confidently out of the back. For every moment of attacking "fun" for the U.S. last night, I recall three instances of the ball circulating slowly (so, so slowly) across the U.S.'s back four. As I see it, the rot starts there and works its way upfield. The larger point to on how the U.S. plays, or fails to, was made at length by, I think, Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus. The key promise of the Klinsmann era was that he'd teach all of us dumb brutes how to impose our will on a game. If you see that working out, again, please give me your meds. Those things must feel like life in an eternal warm bath with butterflies flitting above to provide a refreshing, perfum'd breeze...ah....

That's all I've got, really, that and the points about, not so much a clotted personnel pipeline as one that has never been given a chance to develop. Klinsmann functions as if he's in two minds, like he's flummoxed by the tension between results and development. With World Cup qualifying kicking off next month, the time has well and truly to come for choosing one path or the other: does he stick with what seems like the safest players and tactics, or does he put his money down – and all of it - on building the team that will compete in the 2018 World Cup through all the qualifiers and friendlies the U.S. will face between here and there?

And that's Klinsmann's call to make, clearly, because Sunil Gulati has given him all the control and none of the accountability. So, yeah, serve it up, Jurgen. We're waiting.

That last point gets to another option: maybe it's time for Jurgen to pass the coaching reins to someone else and to reduce his job title to one, e.g. the U.S.'s technical pat myself on the back a little, I floated this idea a while ago, albeit with more an eye on boardroom politics than the progress of U.S. Soccer (well, not totally unrelated). It was back on one of those days when I was thinking about solutions instead of watching U.S. soccer just to see the accidents...kinda like how neutrals watch NASCAR.

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