the senior USMNT at a crossroads.
The Sporting News article about Jurgen Klinsmann’s leadership style and lack of tactical acumen grabbed all the eyeballs, including mine, but it merely served to obscure — just a little bit — how much work Klinsmann, Sunil Gulati, and the USSF have to go to update the USMNT for the way football has evolved around the world.
(Some of these notes I’ll go into can also apply to the USWNT, which is already seeing the first signs of a need to reload and diversify as nations with larger football traditions begin realizing there really is prestige to be had in funding women’s football all the way up through senior levels.)
Let me be clear: Klinsmann will probably lose his job if the USA does not qualify out of the Hex, which it should — particularly given that 4th place would have to beat an Oceania team to do it, which is almost a gimme putt. While I am not of the mind that it is a good thing for a national side to miss out on the finals of a major international competition, I also find myself looking at what Klinsmann and the hierarchy of the USSF are up against (some of it being the latter’s own creation):
- an advanced turning over of some of the older stalwarts due to a lack of first-team action (Bocanegra), injury (Howard, Cherundolo), or burnout (Donovan)
- the real factor that USA players lack the tactical skill instruction at every level
- the obliteration of the built-in advantage of American athletes having the best sports science available in addition to being generally larger by tactical and individual skill advances made by other CONCACAF nations
- the reality that Mexico is likely to be the dominant CONCACAF power for at least another cycle or two, if last year’s Olympic triumph tells us anything at all
- the strides made by MLS over the last decade have been wonderful, but many of its U.S.-born star players are simply not of a high enough class to be good at international speed (see Chris Wondolowski as the best, most recent example of this), particularly at the fullback position
- Not enough players with solid records in quality foreign leagues that are playing on a regular basis. The USMNT’s best two outfield players are Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, and neither one has been an automatic starter for his club as of late (Dempsey via injury and trying to fit in at a new club, Bradley more through a coaching change at Roma)
This is a daunting list. It explains why Klinsmann has actively recruited and capped German-American players such as Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams, Terrence Boyd and Fabian Johnson and retained Jermaine Jones (even making him captain in a friendly), never mind his willingness to draw on Mexican-American dual-nationals such as Joe Corona, Michael Orozco-Fiscal, and Edgar Castillo. USA players take until their mid-to-late 20s to really strut their stuff at a high level when world-quality players do it in their late teens and early 20s.
Nativist pride only gets you so far. Every nation that wants to be good at soccer/football goes through a jingo fit or two about these things. Eventually the desire to win, and do so in a way that will help a federation keep up, wins out. (However, I wouldn’t advise any USA coach name any of the German contingent to even a vice-captaincy at this point.)
Until the USSF can find a way to circumvent the NCAA pipeline, expand access to officially run soccer facilities and camps, and expand its recruiting through MLS academies, etc., the USA will have to be creative in its recruitment of dual-nationals while advising its best players to stay abroad. This cycle will be a struggle. It will probably be better for 2018 and 2022 when more of the players go through the revising of the youth systems. It may mean that even if this USA team makes the World Cup finals, it will be done in three games.
But that is what growing pains are about. While I wonder about Klinsmann’s tactical acumen and responses, I don’t doubt his diagnosis of the problem that he espoused as an analyst for ESPN during the 2010 World Cup — that we had it backwards, the incentives and the youth development simply did not exist at the level they needed to be at merely to be competitive in the new footballing order. This is what makes his squads occasionally frustrating — he knows the problems, but doesn’t seem to have a way to resolve them at the senior level.
It’s worth questioning whether resolving some of the senior USMNT’s inherent issues can be solved by one man in one World Cup cycle, because I don’t think going back to Bruce Arena (and his unpleasant side was on display in this interview) or going to Dominic Kinnear (or any other MLS coach) is going to make it any easier at this point.