Jurgen Klinsmann won me over as the coach of the US Men’s National Team. (image source: us soccer)
I havenâ€™t read one word of American media coverage about Brazil 2014 â€“ not even when I got back to the States. Though I was told that there has been questions raised about the US Men’s National Team’sÂ performance, with criticism being directed at coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
I have long been critical of Klinsmann. But he won me over in Brazil, just as some of the players I had been critical of â€“ namely Jermaine Jones and Matt Besler â€“ won me over with their performances in the tournament. True, a Round of 16 exit isnâ€™t anything to be excited about. But you also have to take into consideration the level of competition, as well as the way we played (at times, though…we reverted to old-school determination against Ghana, shined against Portugal, held on against Germany, and failed to face the challenge against Belgium). I didnâ€™t think we had a chance of getting out of that group, yet we did â€“ and almost advanced to the quarterfinals.
I still feel that Bob Bradley has accomplished the most withÂ the US Menâ€™s National Team, making it to the final of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup by sneaking out of a tough group and beating the legendary (Euro 2008/World Cup 2010) Spanish side (possibly the best to ever take the field) 2-0 before falling to Brazil in the final (we led 2-0 at the half but the Brazilians came back to win 3-2). To me, thatâ€™s a greater accomplishment than Bruce Arena leading the team to a quarterfinal exit in the 2002 World Cup, which saw us sneak out of a relatively weak group and beat Mexico in the Round of 16 before losing to Germany 1-0 (despite having more possession and three times as many shots on goal) in the quarterfinal.
Klinsmann has yet to match the success of either of those coaches. And to be fair, heâ€™s been given a lot more resources â€“ and leeway â€“ than any of themÂ ever had. Not to mentionÂ the evolution of the game here in the US, giving Klinsmann arguably the best player pool we’ve ever had. However, when we are firing on all cylinders (as rare as that may be) under his direction, we look better than we ever have.
Tim Howard was one of the best goalkeepers in the tournament, but it’s unfortunate that we needed him to demonstrate it. (image source: us soccer)
I like the approach and direction Klinsmann has beenÂ taking and am glad that he was given another cycle to further develop our program. Iâ€™d like to see greater emphasis placed on nurturing and developing domesticÂ talent as well as conducting an outreach campaign for Latino-Americans on par with what he and his staff have done in pursuing European-American prospects.
But youth development here in the United States is paramount for our future. Klinsmann has said a lot about youth soccer in this country, but it’s unclear what he’s actually done to improve it. And our youth teams continue to struggle on the world stage.
As for our national team, Iâ€™d like to make the argument that we need to work on our offense. But scoring five goals while allowing six in five games makes me think our defense is far from what it should be as well. However,Â when you consider that we held Germany to a lone goal when they have averaged 2 per game, Ghana to a lone goal when they averaged 1.3 per game, and Portugal to 2 when they averaged 2 per game, you could argue that we did well given the competition. The only time we erred on the other side of the average is when we allowed 2 goals to Belgium, who averaged only 1.2 goals per game.
That said, I do think we need to develop a better attack. And neither Jozy Altidore nor Chris Wondolowski have proven consistent enough on that front. Altidore has another cycle in him, but sadly Wondoâ€™s time has passed. And so has Clint Dempseyâ€™s. Along with Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, and Hercules Gomez, they are already on the wrong side of 30.
And I say good riddance to the Deuce.Â Iâ€™ve been quite critical of Dempsey throughoutÂ this campaign. While he has served our team well over the years, I think we deserve better. As I have said, heâ€™s not nearly active enough. His work rate sucks. He reminds me of Dimitar Berbatov, who works well as an off-the-bench poacher but not as your 90-minute leading man.
When someone delivers the ball to Dempseyâ€™s feet, and no opponents are near enough to entice a dive, he has worked wonders for us. But for the other 89 minutes of the match, heâ€™s relatively useless. Like I said, we deserve better.
Jermaine Jones was the best field player for the United States at Brazil 2014. (image source: us soccer)
And I think, deep down, Klinsmann agrees. Before our World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica back in September, he said of Dempsey: â€śWe want to see him delivering, playing with high energy, and see him really be there for his team, fighting defensively and being himself offensively.â€ť He elaborated on this just before the tournamentÂ in the surprisingly revealing ESPN documentary, Inside: U.S. Soccerâ€™s March to Brazil, explaining that he made Dempsey captain in hopes that he would start to think beyond himself, how he connects with the other 10 players, and the need to participate at both ends of the field.
I didnâ€™t see any evidence of that in Brazil 2014, did you? In fact, you were more likely to spot defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones making runs in the box or putting pressure on our opponent’s back four than Dempsey, who strolled about idly waiting for the ball to come to him.
As for Aron Johannsson, I think the jury is still out. He shows tremendous potential, but so did Altidore when he was playing for AZ. Hopefully both of them can continue to grow and develop â€“ along with Terrence Boyd and whatever talent comes up the pipeline â€“ in time for 2018. Ideally weâ€™ll end up with a target man and pace, as Klinsmann’s approach relies on both counterattacking and crosses.
In the midfield, I have been critical of Michael Bradleyâ€™s performance during Brazil 2014. He was excellent throughout most of the campaign, easily our best player â€“ and perhaps the best-ever field player to wear the jersey.
DeAndre Yedlin continued to impress off the bench, and looks to be one of the keys for the future of the US Men’s National Team. (image source: us soccer)
But just before the tournament, his performance started to fade. His vision and precision seemed to falter. He rarely turned with the ball, even when he had ample space, and therefore denied us those wonderful through balls and dangerous runs that made him such an integral part of our success. Even his touch was off, making poor traps and bad passes.
Strangely, he started playing more like Jermaine Jones had been playing, and it was as if Jones had become more like Bradley as the tournament wore on. I can only hope that Bradley finds his way back into form, as Jones will be too old for 2018.
Unfortunately, so will Kyle Beckerman. And Stuart Holden, easilyÂ our most promising midfielder never to make it to the tournament. The good news is that Mikkel Diskerud will be in his prime, and I really like what Iâ€™ve seen from him. Hopefully he can find a more competitive club to further improve his game (both Fabian Johnson and Timothy Chandler have already made moves within Germany, and DeAndre Yedlin is rumored to be up for a spot at AS Roma).
As for that player pipeline, there are additional dual-nationality players to be recruited, particularly â€“ as I noted â€“ those of Latin-American descent. But, as I also noted, we will have to continue to improve our youth development process because we failed to make it out of our group in the 2013 FIFA U20 World Cup â€“ albeit in a group that consisted of Spain, Ghana (who finished third), and France (who won it all) â€“ scoring 3 whileÂ conceding 9. Sadder still, we failed to even qualify for the 2013 FIFA U17 World Cup, just as we failed to qualify for the 2011 FIFA U20 World Cup.
America hasÂ arrived, and established a name for itselfÂ among the Top 25 footballing nations. Now the question is: can we live up to that reputation? Everyone (well, except maybe England) is getting better. Look at Algeria and Costa Rica, for example. We’ve got our foot in the proverbial door, but it’s going to take a lot more effort to open it up.
It’s not a question of whether or not we believe we can win. That chant embodies much of what is wrong with out attitude towards improving the success of our national team. As I wrote often in Total Footblog, there are tangible steps we can and should take. We need to continue to build upon our youth development academies, lowering the age of entry and following the Ajax model. We can overcome the challenge of college soccer by partnering our academies with academic institutions, ensuring our players get an education both on and off the field (and do the same with boarding schools to cater to the younger players). And we can make our professional league more attractive and competitive by gradually phasing out the financial restrictions, eventually adopting promotion and relegation as well.
It won’t be easy. ThoughÂ getting to this point wasn’t exactly easy either. But we’re here, we have arrived, so let’s dig deep and do what needs to be done. I believe we can.