Planting the Seed of Soccer Across America: Danny Beerseed - 0 comments
Crazy like a fox.
Mexico 0, U.S. 0
"And ... Annnnd .... Annnnnd ... you put the load right on me." -- The Weight, The Band
That was kind of a dud, huh?
Did either Mexico or the U.S. muster a quality attempt for 94 minutes of drab, uninspiring soccer?
Okay, that's an even too cynical by my blackhearted standards way to look at Tuesday's game for Estadio Azteca in Mexico City in CONCACAF World Cup qualification.
Realistically, if you're a fan of the stars and stripes, 0-0 has never tasted so sweet.
The lede here is this: when the draw for the Hex came out most expected the U.S. to walk away from the first three matches with four points. All it took was the second-ever point in World Cup qualifiers at the Azteca to make that math add up, but the 2-1 loss at Honduras last month seems a distant memory.
That's what matters.
After three of 10 Hex matches the U.S. is tied in second place on four points with Costa Rica and Honduras. In first? Yep, you guessed ... Panama! Mexico -- the big bad wolf of CONCACAF -- has only mustered three draws in its first three matches, two at home.
What in the wild and wacky world of Steve Sampson is going on here?
But yeah, let's do Hex math some other time and instead praise a job well done by a makeshift American team, that featured (gasp) two MLSers -- Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez -- as rocks of Garb-raltar in the center of the U.S. defense.
Everybody else, sans maybe Maurice Edu (stepping in for Jermaine Jones in both spirit and fan ire), acquitted themselves well. Did Clint Dempsey, or any other attacker, do all that much? Not really, but that's beside the point after a match like this.
Did the U.S. get lucky that Edu running over Javier Aquino late in the second half and not getting called for a penalty? Damn straight the U.S. did. Never mind it still doesn't make up for all the woeful calls from CONCACAF's finest which have screwed the team over the years.
How did the U.S. survive Mexico getting 15 corner kicks and Javier Hernandez missing -- point blank -- late? Who cares?
The seemingly doomed U.S. qualification ship has been righted.
The mystic the Mexicans had playing at the Azteca appears a thing of the past.
Really it's hard not to look at this Mexican side and not think one thing ... it's soft. Guys like Rafa Marquez and those goons might not have the technical pedigree the current El Tri unit has, but they ground out games. You feared that team. You hated that team.
Come at me, amigo.
These guys, for all the youth tournaments they've won, almost seem too nice.
This seems to be an overarching trend for most international teams -- nobody likes playing as the favorite -- where they have to take it to the opposition for 90 minutes. Even mighty Spain, masters of death by possession where shocked by Finland 1-1 last week, although it came back Tuesday to win 1-0 at France, but the point stands.
Mexico's performance tonight was a lot like we've seen by the U.S. in recent games -- albeit against CONCACAF minnows. When the onus of the attack falls onto them, it becomes very difficult to unlock a committed, disciplined defense. The play looks listless. The fans grumble. The players huff and puff and try to do something positive, or the opposition runs out of gas.
This isn't club soccer where you're training with a team for about 40-odd weeks a year. Eventually you'll find a combination that clicks. With the international windows, you're basically throwing together a team and getting a couple days training. Frustration sets in a lot easier.
Tuesday Mexico didn't really do anything to gravely worry the U.S. and it appeared set up for the Americans to pull off a classic counter-attacking goal against the run of play and steal all three points. Andres Guardado and Gio Dos Santos were flat-out awful, which was nice since they've roasted the Americans so many times in the past. The U.S. clogged the passing lanes to prevent 1-2 combinations and flushed most of attack out wide.
Tonight you could say the pressure of playing in front of 90,000 (or whatever the actual number was) home fans was a burden, not an advantage. Every minute the clock ticked toward 90 and the score stayed 0-0 it hurt Mexico and lifted the U.S.
You know what, as one of my cranky co-workers would say, "that's your problem."
And it is: Mexico's problem.
Klinsmann and crew cross the border with four points in their pocket.
The U-S-A is feeling A-OKAY right now.
Funny what a couple days -- and a Hex-changing snowstorm -- can do.
Other Quick Thoughts:
Reference to the HBO show, "the Wire."
* Nice hour pregame show by ESPN, first class work.
* That said, it really does feel like the heat from the U.S./Mexico rivalry has come a little off the boil regardless of what happened in the 1990s and 2000s. There seems much more mutual respect and less out-and-out resentment on both sides of the border.
* Great late save by Brad Guzan -- was it his only one?
* Another strong game by DaMarcus Beasley at left back, especially by the end of it he could barely walk. Playing out of position with a yellow card for almost 80 minutes is impressive.
* Gonzalez looks the real deal in the center of the defense. (As per usual, let's not overreact and anoint someone ahead of time, but this case it seems a safe bet.)
* Grahamn Zusi -- who knew -- would make two terrific defensive plays including running back into his own penalty area to head away a dangerous cross.
* Besler, making his second cap, seemed a recipe for disaster. You thought Mexico would, "hack the bone, HACK THE BONE" but El Tri (running theme) didn't do much to pressure the defense outside the first 15-odd minutes.
* Michael Bradley produced the only real American attack, which was blocked away after a darting run into the box. Still, Bradley was never out of position providing cover to the U.S. center backs.
* Donovan, Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Johnson, etc., as they say in the NFL: Next man up.
"Momentum? Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher." -- Earl Weaver
Momentum is a nebulous term once you apply it to the world of sports, as opposed to the realm of physics where, you know, it actually means something what with co-signs, velocity, all that jazz.
Is momentum nothing more than a staple for lazy sportswriters? Is it the bane of people who attend the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and who think sports are played devoid of emotion inside a vacuum and or Excel spreadsheet? Probably.
But could it actually be something that exists during the course of a sporting event or over a period of time? Maybe.
The most fair way to look at it is that momentum exists, to a degree, yet it's not tangible. It's here today, gone tomorrow.
Sure the winning team usually has "momentum" on its side and the losing team didn't. (Admission: in my real-life job where I get paid to write about sports, I've disinterestedly asked a coach or player about, "how much having the momentum" helped them win or lose.)
Momentum seems to be something we as fans watching seem to readily identity over the course of a game or series of time, whereas the players -- managers and coaches especially -- seem to downplay, hence the Weaver quote to start this jam off.
Ever since the referee whistled full time Friday night to confirm the United State's 1-0 win Costa Rica in snowy Dick's Sporting Goods Park would indeed be official in the FIFA record books, it's been hard not to think about "Uncle Mo."
You'd think, in basic terms, the U.S. -- once again with it's "back against the wall," needing three points to kick start its 2014 World Cup Qualifying campaign -- would get a huge bump from digging down deep in the whiteout conditions of Commerce City, Colo., going into Tuesday's showdown with Mexico at the Azteca.
By the same token, the snow and wind masked any real conclusions to draw from the match. Soccer isn't meant to be played in conditions like that (a-doi!). You can point to Costa Rica playing its home games on artificial turf at the Saprissa Stadium, the elevation of Mexico City, or whichever other of CONCACAF's road pitfalls you fancy. The fact remains, whatever obstacles those homefield advantages pose, it's still the game of soccer between the white lines. What happened in Colorado Friday, was awesome to watch on television and made for some great Instagram fodder, but it wasn't soccer.
Or it wasn't soccer that we see 99.9 percent of the time.
Don't take this the wrong way.
This isn't denigrating what the U.S. players did Friday. Gutting out the win and making Clint Dempsey's goal stand up for close to 75 minutes with the No. 2 keeper and makeshift defense in miserable (unplayable) conditions is commendable. It's more that, because of the outlandish weather scenario, trying to divine anything other than the three points in the bank is foolhardy. (If you think about it perhaps it's the way all games in the Hex ought to be analyzed. Results are results. Points are points. No more. No less. Style points don't qualify you for a World Cup.)
It's also why it would be dangerous with the U.S. heading into Mexico City to think the team had turned a page. For all the goodwill winning Friday did, those positive vibes are likely limited to inside what was reportedly a fractured locker room. There's probably a bond forged by the players and a lot more smiles on the plane to Mexico City. Beyond that?
The problems the unnamed players had about Klinsmann and assistant Martin Vazquez that they're under-prepared tactically (and in over their heads) are still bubbling beneath the surface. One result -- even in Ice Station Impossible -- isn't going to paper over all the hard feeling some players have toward Klinsmann.
Sure it was a night anyone watching won't soon forget, if only for the novelty of it, but what it tells us about the U.S. team before the Mexico game is probably very little -- or very little we didn't already know considering the team's track record for positive results when everything outside appears to be crumbling.
And it must be said: Mexico isn't going to be in a very good mood Tuesday night after it blew a 2-0 lead on the road against Honduras to draw 2-2. El Tri is, believe it or not, a point behind the U.S. in the Hex standings after draws in its first two matches.
On the topic of momentum, a couple months ago it appeared as if Mexico would sweep through qualifying and position itself as a firm favorite in Brazil next summer based on its youth team successes and Gold Medal at the London Games. It hasn't exactly worked out that way for El Tri through its first two matches.
Watching Mexico play vs. Honduras it had the air of a team that expected to win, call it complacency. When things went a little awry there was a lot of wild gesturing toward the referees or players trying to do it all by themselves. Mexico is also going to be without captain "Maza" Rodriguez due to yellow card accumulation Tuesday meaning manager Chepo de la Torre likely turns to either 25-year-old Hugo Ayala or rising star Diego Reyes, who's only 20 but was part of the Gold medal-winning squad in London. Losing Maza might not be a terrible turn of events for Mexico since he was beaten by Carlo Costly on Honduras' first goal then gave up the penalty that led to the equalizer.
If this was chess, it'd be trading, say, rooks with Klinsmann opting not to use ex-captain Carlos Bocanegra for these matches.
Mexico looks vulnerable and with the U.S. winning last August in a friendly for its first victory ever at the Azteca, there's never looked like a better time to win a game that counts in the smog of Mexico City. Of course, Andres Guardado, Javier Hernandez and Gio Dos Santos will pose a much tougher test for the American defense in the beehive of the noise the Azteca figures to be compared to what Costa Rica could muster in the snow of Colorado.
Uncle Sam certainly has "Uncle M"o on its side when it heads South of the Border.
Mexico, decidedly, does not.
If you think it's going to matter when the game kicks off, well, you haven't been paying attention over the last 25 years.
* Snow or not, Klinsmann appeared to get the defense lineup correct, with Geoff Cameron at right back, Clarence Goodson and Omar Gonzalez in the middle and evergreen DaMarcus Beasley at left back. It's only two games in 2013, but perhaps the stink of playing at Stoke City is rubbing off on Cameron. The player he was during the 2012 is becoming a more distant memory. (Once again anointing an American player "the future" based on 2-3 games might not prove accurate. Who knew?)
Many have lauded Beasley's performance and it was just what you'd want from a veteran closing in on 100 caps. How he fares against the pacey, technical attack of Mexico in normal conditions is another story.
* Klinsmann played his seemingly preferred three-pronged attack against Costa Rica in Jozy Altidore, Dempsey and Herculez Gomez. U.S. Soccer listed it as a 4-2-3-1 -- again not that it mattered in the snow. Will the German coach be that aggressive on the road? He doesn't have a lot of other options.
* The U.S. plays in snow on Friday. Mexico played in 100-degree heat. Training staffs going to be working overtime in the three days between the matches. Klinsmann's caught a lot of heat for a different lineup in every match. He may need to make changes by necessity. Soccer players might have superhuman endurance but running around for two hours in the snow has to snap a lot out of you, especially at altitude.
* History won't smile too fondly on Steve Sampson, but he did manage the U.S. to it's only qualifying points at Mexico. This clip in 1997 is proof!
Why did Mexico ever go away from the Aztec imagery inside its shirt?
* Altidore looked more comfortable having balls played to him, as opposed to having to drop deep. Not a shocker. With Maza out and Mexico likely having to scramble to fill the hole next to Johnny Magallon, the AZ forward could be in line for a productive day. If anything Altidore attempted a shot from the edge of the box that set up Dempsey's goal vs. Costa Rica.
Altidore is not Mario Balotelli. You can't just throw him up top all by his lonesome and expect him to conjure up some magic. He needs link-up play and service to prove effective.
* Mexico No. 1 Guille Ochoa is listed at 6-foot-1. He looks tiny. Maybe it's an optical illusion and why the height-challenged Jorge Campos wore such garish outfits during his career. In any event, if I'm the U.S. I take as many shots as I can at the top corners and have guys crashing the six-yard box, ie. Dempsey and Bradley, looking for rebounds.
* Jermaine Jones, love him or hate him, does serve a role in the U.S. team, even if he does dumb things, like give a Costa Rican player a face wipe for no reason to set up a dangerous free kick in the second half Friday. In any event, he's out for the Mexico game, which can only be seen as a negative considering the chemistry he and Michael Bradley have established in the "double-pivot" in the center of the field. Swapping in Maurice Edu is a like-for-like change, but when is the last time we've seen him go the full 90 in an important match for the U.S.? Barring a complete midfield overhaul its Edu or Kyle Beckerman getting the start.
* Longtime friend of the blog, aimorris, will be attending the game with his brother. Give him a follow on Twitter.
Wouldn't it make perfect sense for Klinsmann to finally use the same XI in back-to-back games following the snow? Not going to happen since Jones is out with an ankle injury. With the Schalke midfielder out, a 4-4-2 in a tight diamond might make sense. It still seems more likely Klinsmann adds another midfielder to try to clog it up for Mexico, if he does that it probably has to drop Altidore. It would be quintessential Klinsmann to throw Joe Corona into the lineup out of left field.
Option 1 (4-4-2):
GK -- Guzan
DEF -- Cameron -- Goodson -- Gonzalez -- Beasley
MID -- Zusi-- Bradley -- Edu -- Dempsey
FOR -- Altidore -- Gomez
Option 1a (4-4-1-1):
GK -- Guzan
DEF -- Cameron -- Goodson -- Gonzalez -- Beasley
MID -- Zusi -- Bradley -- Edu -- Shea
SS -- Dempsey
F -- Gomez
(I'm making this guess Sunday, blindly. Figure to be way off.)
Boil away all the "do or die" statements, the exposés, the players on surf vacations, the injuries, whatever, through the first two matchdays of the Hex (six games), the U.S. and Honduras are the only teams to notch wins. The four other games finished in draws.
The U.S. isn't going to qualify with a win Tuesday -- it sure would help -- but there's a long way to go until this is over in October. Same thing with a loss or a draw, nothing is going to be decided.
Realistically we're going to know if this is going to be a rote qualification process or if we're going to be sweating it out until the end come June. In a 12-day period the U.S. plays at Jamaica and then hosts Panama and Honduras.
That's when Klinsmann will either make his bread or start really feeling the heat in the kitchen.
Planting the Seed of Soccer Across America: Danny Beerseed - 0 comments
"It's just like pulling off a Band Aid." -- Cop with a Mustache, There's Something About Mary
Everybody got their pitchforks and torches on standby?
This could get ugly ... for Jurgen Klinsmann, anyways.
Safe to say based his Klinsmann's roster selection for Friday's vital CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica it hasn't been the best week of all-time for the German. Then when you throw in some articles that have painted a picture of the German-born coach, to quote the English terraces -- YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING -- the level of rancor from the usually staid American soccer media (and fans) is growing increasingly toxic.
It's not Rafa Benetiz at Chelsea level, yet, but if the U.S. doesn't beat Costa Rica and gets embarrassed at the Azteca on Tuesday by Mexico people aren't going to be too happy, regardless of how many cool stories about Klinsmann flying helicopters are leaked by the Pravda department of the U.S. Soccer House in Chicago.
There's a lot swirling around at the moment so let's access some facts, first:
* The U.S. lost it's first of 10 "Hex" games last month at Honduras.
* Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Jose Torres, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams, Jonathan Spector (anyone else?) were all unavailable for these two matches, through injury, sickness or personal wanderlust.
* Former U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra was dropped entirely by Klinsmann, opting for a defense with a combined 12 World Cup qualifying caps.
* In 23 games in charge of the U.S. Klinsmann has never used the same starting XI in consecutive games.
Skewing all this are the lingering doubts -- despite high-profile results in friendlies -- that the U.S. hasn't taken the strides forward everyone expected when Sunil Gulati axed Bob Bradley in the summer of 2011 and hired Klinsmann.
Get to the choppa!
Let's first start with the Bocanegra issue, which was almost a Catch-22 for Klinsmann.
For one, let's pretend Bocanegra wasn't pinned to the bench for a team in the relegation zone in the Spanish second division and was playing regularly at Racing Santander. It's not like over the last year or so Bocanegra hasn't lost a step -- this is common knowledge for U.S. fans. We've all seen this. We all knew it would be beyond risky to try to coax another World Cup campaign around a 33 year old defender -- two years ago. This isn't a new revelation.
So if Klinsmann picks Bocanegra and he shows the form and declining speed we've seen and gets torched in either game, we all get pissed off. ... Why would you play Bocanegra? I can see the fork sticking out of his back from space!!! Per Mertesacker could beat him in a foot race!!!
For whatever "leadership" Bocanegra would bring to the table, let's not try to build him up into Fabio Cannavaro at the 2006 World Cup or something on that par. Bocanegra was an excellent player for nearly a decade for the U.S., but his time is up.
The real issue here is Klinsmann's done a lousy overall job -- especially in the defense -- of transitioning the squad from the team that's been almost unchanged at the core at both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups (Donovan, Dempsey, Onyewu, Bocanegra, Howard, Cherundolo) to something new. Coaxing all these international games for over a decade with almost all the same key players isn't exactly a recipe for success, is it?
Playing Devil's Advocate, suppose Gulati never hires Klinsmann. Bob Bradley likely leads the U.S. into Brazil -- with ease -- using the same core team who all know their roles. Once the team gets to Brazil, we're facing the same questions if the U.S. has made progress, if it can compete with the elite of the world, can it get past the Round of 16? It's not very exciting. There's not likely any qualifying drama, but the payoff is minimal. We're all probably be bored, too.
Part of this whole transitional mess isn't entirely Klinsmann's fault, considering Omar Gonzalez was out injured with a torn knee for nearly a year, but a lack of preparation leaves the situation where Tony Beltran, Matt Besler and Justin Morrow -- journeymen in MLS -- are the only viable alternatives in defense thanks to a plethora of injuries.
Still, had Klinsmann started the process transitioning into a new-look squad a year ago full-bore, instead of in earnest, we might not be where we are today. It's hard to cook up a scenario, bar every U.S. defensive regular visiting the Springfield Mystery Spot at the same time, where we're in the boat we are now with Goodson being the elder defensive statesman for an American defensive unit.
I'm burned out, bros.
It's hard to entirely blame Klinsmann, too, for Donovan's existential spirit quest. Donovan might be past the age of 30, but he was still figured to be a key figure in the run toward what would be his fourth World Cup. For whatever pressures and burnout Donovan has felt (and it's understandable to a degree) he's not the all-time leading scorer for Germany or Argentina or even a place like Norway. It's doubtful in any other soccer country the international leading scorer deciding -- in his prime -- to blow off crucial qualifiers for a holiday in Cambodia would go down too smoothly. It might be taxing being "face of American soccer" for a decade, but let's be honest in the general sports consciousnesses, Donovan has gotten a huge pass. Chances are people will tune into ESPN2 on Friday and Tuesday and have no idea he won't be there, or more importantly why he isn't.
Donovan staring into the sporting abyss and deciding what looks back at him would've been an issue for Klinsmann or anyone on the U.S. touchline.
Maybe it all boils down to this: very few American fans want to think about or admit, the U.S. might be in a down cycle for players. As said before, you can't keep trotting out the same guys year after year at the international level and expect it to maintain. Think about it this way, beyond Michael Bradley which American player can you feel truly comfortable about as a key player who was new to the roster at the 2010 World Cup moving forward toward the 2014 cycle?
You can go down all the usual roads: MLS, youth development, college soccer, guys in Europe, guys not playing in the Champions League, etc., but the hard truth is the old guard of U.S. players has gotten older, more injury prone and haven't been replaced adequately.
Yes, Fabian Johnson and others have shown some promise in spots, but it's not like a brand-new, no doubt Starting XI has emerged from the American player pool. By the same token Klinsmann could have picked a team and stuck with it, supplementing here-and-there instead of the radical adjustments we've seen match-to-match, but we've watched these games. Who would you pick from the player pool, as it sits, with regularity. It's easy for the players to condemn the tactics when they don't work, but at some point the players have to take their share of the accountability for floundering for long stretches in matches, which usually result in the U.S. digging themselves a big hole.
And it's not all the manager's fault -- something anyone reading this knows I've been harping on for years -- America has't produced a decent wide player or winger in years, if ever. Brek Shea? That's a bit of a reach given his consistency Klinsman, again has compounded the issue, playing a weird system in recent matches where Dempsey and Eddie Johnson (yes, remember we've had to bring him back into the fold which isn't clearly not a sign of how desperate things are) in modified wide-forward spots.
This sort sort of bad feelings happened once before in recent memory at the 1998 World Cup when the U.S. bottomed out as Steve Sampson tried to use the bulk of players from the 1990 and 1994 squads, billowed by a few promising players like Brian McBride and some completely forgettable scrubs like Chad Deering. There was a lot else going on with the 1998 squad, namely a 3-6-1 formation and the extracurricular going on between John Harkes and Eric Wynalda.
It's not the best comparison but it's the closest I can recall when there seemed to be this much internal turmoil simmering in the USMNT camp. The upside of finishing last at France 1998 was the Federation hired Bruce Arena, who used some young blossoming talent in MLS to propel the team to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals.
We're not there, yet, but without a win vs. Costa Rica on Friday and a representative performance (even in a loss) at Mexico, the rancor among the fans -- and sadly the players themselves -- is only going to mount for Klinsmann and Gulati (a package deal at this point).
Above all, with all his tinkering, baffling tactical decisions, blind spots for Jermaine Jones, etc. Klinsmann certainly hasn't helped himself. He's been dealt a tough hand with the injuries, transitional roster, Donovan situation, etc., which most can understand, only the German seems to make matters worse either thorough his cavalier attitude, strange formations or most damning: the lingering sense that the "Emperor Has No Clothes." By now you can clearly question that Germany's success (and only a third place finish) in 2006 was a product of assistant Jogi Low and the more representative Klinsmann was his ill-fated spell in charge of Bayern Munich.
When he was hired Klinsmann tried to promise the U.S. the moon: a change in philosophy, a fun, attack-first team. Instead we've gotten a team that, for the first time in a while, looks like it's going to qualify for a World Cup by the skin of its teeth -- if that.
The worry here, too, is over the years the U.S. -- certainly under Bob Bradley -- provided it's best results when everybody had written it off. One of these days, that backs against the wall, us against the world, ethos is going to wear off. That's not to say it'll happen Friday night in Denver vs. Costa Rica, but it's hard to remember a time there were so many dark clouds and red flags handing over the heads of everyone associated with the team.
As fans, we were mostly ready for a transition back in July 2011. Except instead of tearing away the Band Aid right away, we've found ourselves in a fine mess -- much like zipping up our privates into our prom pants, like Ben Stiller in "There's Something About Mary." The U.S. roster issues and Klinsmann's decisions -- the bean and franks, if you will -- have left us all in a position fraught with peril.
We all knew this might be coming down the road. Nobody expecting getting out of this position, however, to be this painful.
* Good news: Both the Costa Rica match on Friday and the Mexico match are on channels almost all Americans already have: ESPN2! (Way it's going, let's take the positives wherever they exist.)
* The way everything's shaken out, Brad Guzan (likely) starting in goal is the least of the U.S.'s concerns. Who'd have thought that?
* Still there's there's a place for Sacha Kljestan to make an impact for the U.S., but much like a lot of guys in this lineup puzzle, there doesn't seem to be a ready-made spot for him the way Klinsmann sets things up. Either him or Zusi at the tip of a midfield trio, backed by Bradley and Jones seems like a solid idea. Somebody needs to be an offensive catalyst.
* Wrote earlier in the month about Jozy Altidore's goal-scoring form for AZ and how it may or may not apply to the U.S. So read that.
* File this away: Terrance Boyd will make an impact coming off the bench as a second-half substitute.
* Costa Rica is unbeaten in nine matches, dating back to a loss to Mexico at the Azteca in September.
* Based on his continual mental lapses for the Red Bulls, the U.S. gameplan should be to attack wherever the Ticos line Roy Miller up in their defense.
* Will Arsenal on-loan youngster Joel Campbell be in the mix for Costa Rica? Alvaro Saborio and Bryan Ruiz are both dangerous players, but aren't exactly speed-merchants. Something to keep an eye on.
* Costa Rica has a midfielder named Yeltsin Tejeda in the mix. Wonder if he enjoys Borscht?
If you can figure out Klinsmann's methodology, buy lotto tickets, too. This isn't what I'd pick, but more in line with what Klinsmann's done lately.
GK -- Guzan
DEF -- Cameron -- Edu -- Gonzalez -- Beasley
MID -- Bradley -- Jones -- Zusi
FOR -- Dempsey -- Gomez -- Johnson
For whatever doom-and-gloom scenarios that might go through people's heads over the next 90 minutes, it's hard to come up with a situation where the U.S. -- with four more home games -- can't at least coax a way to finish fourth in CONCACAF, which means a playoff with New Zealand. Remember, unless it's going poorly, few people dwell on what happens in the qualifiers.
Most Hollywood actors have their dirty little secrets on their IMDB pages. It's doubtful Tom Hanks is too proud of his starring role in the 1982 made-for-tv movie, "Mazes and Monsters." (I would be.) George Lucas has spent years basically suing everyone in the galaxy who's tried to share grainy VHS copies of the "Star Wars Holiday Special."
Hell even mega-hunk (as People magazine tells it) and current Best Actor Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper was in a SyFy original picture, "Midnight Meat Train" as recently as 2008.
These things happened. Try as you might, you can't erase the video evidence.
Why not embrace it? We all make mistakes, right? To err is human and all that jimmy jazz.
Throughout its now 18-year existence, our beloved American domestic top-flight soccer league, MLS has tried its darndest to pretend that the old NASL (North American Soccer League) never happened. Every now and then you'd hear a mention of the Tampa Bay Rowdies or Giorgio Chinaglia or the legendary "Soccer Bowls," but under the stewardship of Don Garber, the NASL and its free-spending (most likely cocaine-fueled) adventures were persona non grata inside MLS HQ.
In the words of Basil Fawlty, "Don't mention the NASL."
It's understandable. MLS and the NASL are two completely different sets of encyclopedias. Yes, they were both soccer leagues in America, but that's probably where the similarities end.
Riding the coattails of the 1994 MLS -- a league the Jim Romes of the world never expected to last -- has indeed planted roots across America and sustained. MLS has been in existence long enough that it has a history ... a history which should be embraced and celebrated.
Your Rhett Hardys, your Joe-Max Moore's, your Thomas Ravellis, your Doctor Khumalos, your Maruicio Cienfuegos... these players ought to be remembered, if not for their skills, but helping the league get off the ground. I'd go so far as to say Walter Zenga's backwards baseball cap should be bronzed outside Gillette Stadium.
MLS, maybe through no fault of its own, makes us forget these players or those gloriously cheesy games from the 1990s ever happened. Or that we once had teams called the Clash, the Wiz, the Burn and the MetroStars.
Why be embarrassed by this? The Brooklyn Dodgers were once known as the Bridegrooms, albeit in 1888, but a lot America sports teams and leagues had their warts growing up. (Ok, the MLS shootout from midfield was really dumb.)
Beyond that, any soccer fan in America -- if you've spent one second watching MLS -- has wasted time theorizing their own ways to improve it. From the pie-in-the-sky idea of promotion and relegation, to a single table, to playing games on the tradition FIFA calendar, there are never a lack of ideas to tweak the MLS format.
However here's a simple idea everybody in the MLS community can embrace.
Say it with me now:
MLS THROWBACK JERSEY NIGHT
Okay, okay, okay. This is dumb. This is pointless. Who cares?
Understandable viewpoints and it's highly unlikely such a thing could happen considering Nike made most of the original uniforms for MLS in 1996, whereas the league today is completely outfitted by Adidas. There are likely other legal entanglements, such as who owns the original logos and names. Plus people simply aren't as into the color teal as they were 15 years ago, sadly.
What would you even do with our dearly departed and mourned Tampa Bay Mutiny? (Maybe have a team play in Carlos Valderamma wigs?)
MLS can try to go about its business like the Red Bulls were never the NY/NJ Metrostars or that Sporting Kansas City didn't begin its life as the Wiz -- this probably makes sense in the big picture -- but why not do it for one special summer night, if only to boost ticket sales?
The NBA seems to do a retro/throwback thing every week, including the Miami Heat recently wearing their mid-1990s jams. (Available for a cool $89.99, mind.) Everybody seems to love when baseball teams breakout the power blue early 1980s double-knit pullovers. Even the NFL gets some mileage dusting off uniform designs from the days of leather helmets.
Yet MLS, which has tried to market itself as a savvy, hip league fails to do this? It's not like the current, cookie-cutter (read: bland) Adidas jerseys are flying off the rack's at Dick's Sporting Goods stores, are they?
Why not try this throwback idea out?
Sunil Gulati and Garber, you guys didn't get America another World Cup on our shores, this is the least you can do to make up for it.
And that's the thing, most people tend to love nostalgia. 1990s nostalgia is only now getting into high gear. Hell, last summer I did an entire series celebrating the decade of box-fades and bowl cuts. Mother-effing Kriss Kross is going to do a reunion show this summer.
The time is right.
Think about how much money could be made selling these retro shirts to hipsters or dopey high school kids in Vancouver Grizzlies snapback hats?
A veritable Todd Hoffman-approved gold mine!
You could make an entire night out of it and boost attendance in the lagging summer months without resorting to fireworks displays. It wouldn't cost that much to book the Spin Doctors to play before the game outside the gates or maybe hire one of the Quad City DJs to throw an postmatch after party. Get a couple people to ride around the concourses on rollerblades and -- BAM -- 90s Night. Hell, if you want to take it to the next level, sell Zima to all the hipsters who'll show up for $7 a bottle.
MLS Throwback Night seems like such a no-brainer, that obviously the league will never do it.
With that in mind, here's my unofficial ranking the best 1990s MLS jerseys from the original 10 clubs.
No. 10 -- Columbus Crew
Yowzers, these are some hideous soccer costumes. Not even kitschy good, just out-and-out howlers.
That said, have the Crew ever in their history worn uniforms befitting of "Ameria's Hardest Working Team"? Columbus missed the mark when it failed to embrace the famous 1994 USMNT "denim kit" idea and make it uniforms looked like overalls to keep with the Crew's hard-working image.
Mustard yellow stripes? Pass.
No. 9 -- Colorado Rapids
Here's the thing about the thing, Celo.
Good move, at least for synergy, for the Stan Kroenke-owned Rapids to adopt a burgundy and powder blue color scheme of their fellow Altitude sports brethren, the Avalanche and the Nuggets, right? Actually, no the current Rapids scheme is pretty boring, not that the old set-up was all that more impressive, although the old logo at least reminded you of white water rafting and that senior trip Bayside High took.
The Rapids old dark green jerseys were relatively sharp, the ones pictured above are just ugly and nondescript, like some random college team.
Wouldn't be surprised if the Rapids tried another re-branding in the coming years.
No. 8 -- DC United
Marco Etcheverry's mullet is better than you.
In many ways the standard-bearer for MLS especially in the formative years, the DC United uniform scheme has stayed remarkably similar, much like the constant look on Bruce Arena's face that he just smelled a really wet and smelly fart.
The three stripes on the jersey was a little more distinctive that the current solid designs DCU rocks. A little more red in the mix wouldn't hurt. You know the Screaming Eagles or Barra Brava would be all about a throwback night.
No. 7 -- New England Revolution
Rock. Flag. Eagle.
The Revs have always had super lame jerseys. I blame Robert Kraft, naturally.
At least these old ones would look good with some fresh Reebok Shaq Attaq kicks.
(Sorry nodded off, looking at that Lalas picture made me go listen to a 45-minute Trey Anastasio guitar noodle, which is crazy since Lalas is admitted hair metal fan. Hard to find more disparate bands than Ratt and Phish.)
No. 6 -- New York/New Jersey MetroStars
AJ Soprano owned this poster.
Throughout their sorry existence, the MetroStars never had what you'd call a nice uniform, eventually settling on some bootleg AC Milan red-and-black striped scenario. If this post is worth anything, it'll start a movement to bring back the MetroStars 1930s art deco Cabbie mascot. That lil' guy had some heart!
The original white-and-black Juventus-knockoff kit NY/NJ rocked would be a marked improvement to the current Red Bull-branded ones. Does the Red Bull logo need to be so gigantic on the uniforms? They're bigger than Mike Francesa's ego ... almost.
We all get it, you're trying to sell an energy drink.
No. 5 -- Tampa Bay Mutiny
That's don't make 'em like this anymoooooore.
Lime green and powder blue jersey ... Slim Jim ad on the shorts ... horizontally-striped socks ... only in MLS ... or maybe one of Tampa Bay's many fine gentleman's clubs.
One of life's mysteries: why were the San Jose Clash represented graphically by a scorpion?
Call it 1990s trying to be "extreme" run amok. Not a bad-looking kit, overall. The home shirt holds up well.
The original Clash shirt, however? Guess they took the literal meaning of the word and applied it at the Nike shirt laboratory.
I'd quit Twitter, too, if this image of me was floating around.
Fun little aside. .... My father and I watched the inaugural MLS match back in 1996 together. It was DC United at the Clash on ESPN. Eric Wynalda scored the first league goal. My dad immediately nay-sayed DC United, basically calling them shit. I never let him forget this as United went on to win the league three of its first four seasons. Fun story, right?
No. 3 -- Dallas Burn
I once played for Real Madrid, but this is cool too.
Can I interest you in a jersey with not one but TWO fire-breathing hell-horses? That's what the initial Dallas Burn shirt featured, whoa nelly!
I guess people got tired of watching a team called THE BURN in 100-degree Texas heat every summer at the Cotton Bowl, hence FC Dallas was born. I still think a horse with lightning bolts for feet is a lot cooler than a longhorn for a logo, but that's me.
Eventually, in the days before that Beckham guy arrived, the Galaxy would settled on a unique yellow-and-green look with a sharp horizontal sash.
The initial Galaxy get up, however?
Whomever cooked those bad boys up must have watched a ton of Queen Latifah videos back in the day.
No. 1 -- Kansas City Wiz
Preki or Hugh Jackman? You make the call.
What can really be said of the 1996 Kansas City Wiz jerseys that hasn't been done so already?
The crown jewel of MLS hipster jersey collections.
Guarantee if you go on eBay and spend a couple hundred bucks on one of these and worn it out in public you'd have to beat the ladies away. This is Spanish Fly in jersey form ... or the exact opposite. All your money would get you is a greasy loser like me giving you a half-sneer, half-nod of approval.
In other words, you'd be a winner and a loser.
Bonus: Alexi Lalas Picture
I did NOT steal your Ugly Kid Joe CD, Vermes so knock it off.
Sporting Kansas City, you guys like the most progressive MLS team out there. As much as we all love the new look and name, bring back the Wiz or even the Wizards for one night.
Planting the Seed of Soccer Across America: Danny Beerseed - 0 comments
USMNT: What. The. Frick?!?!
Honduras 2, U.S. 1 (FT)
As the dude in the American Outlaws t-shirt at the bar (non-official or @ussoccer-approved) where I watched Wednesday's game said as time expired in San Pedro Sula, "Well, that sucked."
Not exactly the greatest way to kick off the final round of CONCACAF 2014 World Cup Qualifying, was it?
There's a tendency to freak out and overreact after a result like this. I get that. In the grand scheme of things, losing on the road to an improved Honduras -- a team expert-at-life Nate Silver's numerology said would win -- isn't necessarily reason to panic. If the U.S. wins its home games, beats Jamaica away and gets some points vs. Costa Rica and Panama it's going to go to Brazil, regardless of the results vs. Mexico.
If the U.S. walked away from the Honduran heat with a draw, or protected Clint Dempsey's very nice goal which put them ahead in the first half, great. We would all have forgotten this match and moved on.
However, the way the U.S. played was ... well ... reason to freak out in earnest. You'd think, for whatever the numbers say, the U.S. is still better than Honduras.
Here's what I know, without slipping into hyperbole:
1. In the second half the U.S. created one solid chance to score, a shot by Dempsey deflected out for a corner.
2. Jozy Altidore, not to single him out, didn't distinguish himself given the starting spot as a lone forward by Jurgen Klinsman. (His PR firm in the U.S. media likely won't mention is name today, just a hunch)
3. Klinsmann's open, attack-minded 4-3-3 with Altidore up top and Eddie Johnson and Dempsey in support, created few chances throughout the match.
4. The greenhorn U.S. defense, including the competitive debuts for all intents and purposes for Timmy Chandler and Omar Gonzalez didn't pay off.
5. Tim Howard made a debatable decision to come off his line (due to a complete team defensive lapse, mind) and got burnt by Jerry Bentgson for the game-winner in the 79th minute.
6. Both teams played on the same grass in the same heat. Hard to use that as an excuse, though the Bundesliga winter break didn't exactly benefit the U.S. today in seamy Central America.
Here's what I don't know:
1. If Carlos Bocanegra had started, the U.S. defense would've been an air-tight, lock-down unit.
2. If Klinsmann played a more conservative gameplan, started Herculez Gomez or others, the result would have been different.
3. (And here's the scary thing) I don't, for the life of me, know if Klinsmann knows what he's doing.
That's the scary prospect here. For all that Klinsmann has talked about, changing the U.S. culture, not much is different. Sure the U.S. now has a win under its belt at the Azteca and Chandler is now cap-tied to the American cause, but beyond that?
Other coaches have gone to Central America and lost, but Klinsmann's run of excuses for the team's inability to put together a tight, tidy and complete 90 minutes of soccer has all but run out.
Ultimately the bare minimum anyone who cares about the U.S. National Team cares about is making the World Cup. It's the standard and it's pass fail. Right now, judging by the last round, too, Klinsmann is in danger of failing. There's justified lack of confidence in the team, calling into question his checkered managerial history despite what he did with Germany in 2006.
There's no need to go overboard, here, since Klinsmann is the coach for the U.S. through this cycle no matter what, considering his ties to Sunil Gulati.
Is this result the end of the world? No. Hardly.
Does it instill much reason to believe anything is going to change going forward? Nope.
Does it make the home game in Denver in March vs. Costa Rica a "must-win"? You bet.
Hard to figure any player walking off the field today will be too proud of their performance, either.
It all seemed to be setting up on a plate for a patented U.S. smash-and-grab, do nothing for the bulk of the match, only to grab a late result. Except today Howard had a shaky moment of indecision and wasn't able to bail out the lackluster defense. It's okay, I guess, Howard has bailed the U.S. defense out more times than we can all count. It underlines the slim margin the Americans play with each time out.
The U.S. wasn't good Wednesday, nor was it god-awful. It's not like Honduras played exceedingly great and ran them off the field. The heat was likely some cause of this for both sides. Given a chance to make a play late, Oscar Boniek Garcia and Bentgson did so and made the Americans pay, not unlike they've done to numerous opponents throughout the years.
Again, this isn't writing off the team. Come the end of the year, people will be looking for ways to book flights to Brazil, perhaps finding a room with Karl Pilkington's drag queen friend.
The sky isn't falling.
* Impossible to gauge this, but would the "experience" of Bocanegra made a difference on either Honduras goal? There's a chance, maybe, a player with Bocanegra's track record wouldn't switch off completely on the first Honduran goal (which lets face it was a hell of a bicycle kick by Juan Carlos Garcia). Perhaps. There's just as good a chance he'd have gotten skinned on the second goal like Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez.
* Juan Carlos Garcia, take a bow. Hell of a goal.
* Overall the U.S. defense was, if you're into the numbers thing, in the 4.0 or lower match rating . Cameron looked like a guy who's played the entire season in the midfield for Stoke City. Who's the alternative? Matt Besler? Thawing out Oguchi Onyewu? Hard to argument the high-risk, high-reward gamble Klinsmann tried with his defense didn't come up completely bust, particularly with Chandler and Fabian Johnson ineffective on the flanks.
* Not to pick on them but the Bundesliga guys (Jones, Danny Williams, Chandler, F. Johnson) didn't look sharp. Again Klinsmann rolled the dice playing all of them in an important game when their league only just resumed its play from a few weeks off. Going from the cold of Northern Europe to the tropics of Honduras is going to be a shock to the system for anyone.
* U.S. surprisingly got a break on a call, with the first would-be Honduras go-ahead goal properly waved off for offsides. Go figure.
* Few things are as inexcusable as giving up the equalizer like the U.S. did in the 40th, barely four minutes after Dempsey's strike. Hold the lead up halftime and it's a different match for the final 45. Would the U.S. have bunkered down and held it? The way the defenders played, probably not. Still, it's deflating to give up the tying goal that soon after you go ahead.
* Complaining about Jermaine Jones is like complaining about the weather at this point. Klinsmann has a blind eye for him and will keep using him, for better or for worse. He was pretty good Wednesday, with a great visionary pass to set up Dempsey's goal. Jones only made it through about 60 minutes until Maurice Edu had to come on.
* There's another time for this, yet it's a bit ridiculous fans in America could watch: England, Germany, France, Brazil and Mexico play with ease, but many had to result to McGyver-like means to watch the U.S. play.
* Ray Hudson, everyone's favorite Geordie announcer, is remarkably subdued when Lionel Messi isn't around.
This song seems oddly appropriate tonight as we sob ourselves to sleep, crying into our red scarves:
If you're like me, your sleep pattern over the last week has been flushed straight down the toilet. You're twisting. You're turning. You're having bad dreams -- nightmares in fact.
All because of one man: Roger Espinoza.
Goodness gracious, did you see the Honduran midfielder's debut for Wigan Athletic in the Barclay's Premier League vs. Stoke City last week? To call his move from Sporting Kansas City to the world's BEST league seamless would be an understatement. This was like Bruce Dickinson sliding in for Paul Di'Anno as frontman of Iron Maiden, albeit without the codpiece.
Let's put it this way, who needs RedTube.com, when you've got Espinoza's heat maps from that match.
This was a performance on par with Ferenc Puskas for Real Madrid vs. Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final, a masterclass.
Truthfully, when the U.S. National Team heads to Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula on Wednesday (3 p.m., CST, beIN Sports) for the first match of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup 2014 Qualification (aka the Hex) I'm not sure how the Americans can even dream of winning all three points. Even a draw seems far-flung, considering the U.S. couldn't do much of anything in its friendly last week with Canada, drawing 0-0 in Houston.
If U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is ever going to play his dream lineup of Tim Howard protected outfield by 10 clones of Jermaine Jones, this is the match. Bunker down. Dump and run. Pray for a point.
Honduras is that damn good.
Look, I trust anyone still reading this little old blog to pick up on the sarcasm. Pretty sure I laid it on there thicker than an bottle of Mrs. Butterworth left out in the January snow.
For whatever the reason, this" fear of our shadow" seems to be a overwhelming tone percolating around the U.S. these days. Qualification to the seventh straight World Cup is going to be nigh on impossible.
Klinsmann doesn't know what he's doing.
The U.S. doesn't have anyone -- specifically forwards -- who can score.
Realistically there are two concrete, irrefutable issues to worry about with the U.S. under Klinsmann's watchful, forward-thinking, motivational rah-rah eye.
1. The slow starts.
Why the U.S. falls behind early due to mental lapses in the defense, or only plays well when it's right up against the gun is baffling. It's a bit of a double-edged sword, too.
The same mentality that allows the team to slip up, conceding sloppy goals is, to some degree, the same one that lets to pull something from nothing, as seen in the win at Mexico, the late draw vs. Russia and throughout the previous round of qualification.
Perhaps the immediate equalizer vs. Antigua (in a 3-1 win) or allowing a goal to Guatemala in the fifth minute in a must-win match isn't huge trend, but it's definitely something and strange why it takes something bad to happen for Klinsmann's teams to get into gear -- even as he stands with a wry smile on his face on the touchline.
2. Three Defensive Midfielders Don't Work.
In 2012 Klinsmann fielded five lineups that started with some combination of Jones, Michael Bradley (not really a "defensive midfielder," in truth but you know what we mean), Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman or Danny Williams together in a midfield trio/triangle/thee headed Cerberus with a penchant for yellow cards. The U.S. went 2-2-1, including 1-1-1 in qualifiers, including the nadir of the year -- the loss at Jamaica.
Following that defeat, when every U.S. fan was in full-on panic mode, Klinsmann went back to the tried-and-true 4-4-2 formation, relying on Herculez Gomez and Clint Dempsey up top. It produced two wins.
The 4-4-2, soccer's missionary position, will never win many plaudits from Internet know-it-alls like Zonal Marking (who should probably go into coaching because he's that wise and seemingly never once been wrong when it comes to filling out his starting XI), but it seems to be effective for the U.S. Is it the rapturous, swashbuckling play of a mid-table Portuguese League team, no. I'll have to grant you that.
That's what probably needs to be drilled into people who have the masochistic tenancy to actually want to watch the U.S. throughout the next 10 months. It's not going to be fun. It's not going to be fluid. If you want that, watch Barcelona (#morethanaclub) every week and laugh along with Ray Hudson ever so retweetable commentary. Sadly, our pal Jermaine Jones is never going to tap dance atop a champagne bubble and into the stratosphere like Lionel Messi -- few are.
Realistically if you want aesthetically pleasing soccer, there's no shortage of it on American television these days unlike the late 1990s when pretty much the only exposure we had to the game were U.S. matches, international tournaments or MLS. (RIP Tampa Bay Mutiny. #neverforget) Nor are qualifiers aren't going to have the feel of Chelsea scoring eight goals in a Premier League match in September
Qualifying for the World Cup is enjoyable in the sense the games are full of meaning, but -- by golly -- has the U.S. proven it's not exactly best to pay that close attention to how the Brazilian 2014 sausage is made.
Something else to keep an eye on, is for some reason the U.S. struggles when it's supposed to win. Throw that out against the mini Caribbean nations, although Antigua and Barbuda proved not to be pushovers last round, but when the U.S. goes into a game as a favorite, with the onus on them to carry the run of play through attacking, it never seems to go off smoothly. Conversely, when America plays a team it's supposed to get creamed by, it usually surprises and does well.
Why this happens goes back to the whole idea that the U.S. is better when it can use it's athleticism to play on the counter-attack as opposed to having to play in possession since American players aren't strong with their first-touches or creative passing.
And for all the talk of how hard it is to play on the road in CONCACAF, which it surely is, how many disasters has the U.S. had in the last two decades save for trips to the Azteca? Off the top of my head, there was the game Jose Torres got undressed on the plastic pitch of the Saprissa in Costa Rica and the loss at Jamaica last October. Otherwise the U.S. usually does enough to get a draw or sometimes win, which equals a smooth qualification process.
Still, there's no reason for the U.S. to go into qualification lacking confidence. Yes, the teams in CONCACAF are improved, but the U.S. -- look up and down its roster -- is still better (not counting Mexico) and has better resources within its federation. Let's not undersell the U.S., as we seem to have. For all the caveats and asterisks that come with it, how many other teams in the final six of CONCACAF boast a player who's the top scorer (now second) in a European league like Jozy Altidore is in the Dutch Eredivisie?
Yes, the U.S. roster is unbalanced and isn't blessed with players in the Champions League, barring everybody's favorite midfield enforcer, Jones. By CONCACAF standards, it's still very good.
Qualification for the U.S. isn't going to be easy.
But it's not as impossible as some people are making it sound, either.
It just won't be all that pretty or fun to digest.
* The biggest thing to watch in this game is the likely midfield partnership between Jones and Bradley. Let's hope Bradley takes the front foot here, leading the way. It's baffling why in 2012 the U.S. seems to differ and take all it's cues from Jones -- a bit player at Schalke 04 only recently back from suspension. To Jones' credit, at least, he was the one guy seemingly willing to step up and try to carry some of the play, for better or worse.
Bradley only gets better and should be the rock the team is built on the next few seasons.
* Kind of a big deal (buried in the final line of the USSF's release on Monday about the 23-man roster) is that Bradley, Dempsey, F. Johnson, Zusi and Edu are a yellow card away from a one-match ban since CONCACAF in its infinite wisdom doesn't reset discipline from the previous rounds. So at least two massively important players (Bradley, Dempsey) are a whistle away from missing the next game, in Denver on March 22 vs. Costa Rica or the March 26th trip to the Azteca. This seems important.
* Poor Timmy Chandler, about to get cap-tied by the U.S. since he'll likely start at right back with Steve Cherundolo injured. Hard to think of anything worse that could happen to anyone in the realm of soccer, bar sharing a hotel room with Nemanja Vidic. Let's all pour out a Bitburger to mourn his career as a German international. Auf Wiedersehen.
* At the expense of writing 1,000 words about Altidore, which probably could be done with ease, few Americans are going to care he's scored 15 goals for AZ in the Dutch Eredivisie this campaign (second to Vitesse's Wilfried Bony) if he puts in another fruitless, low work-rate shift for the U.S. Altidore should start at forward, but another U.S. paradox existed in 2012 that the less pedigreed Herculez Gomez continually outshone him on the international stage.
It's worth noting at AZ this season Altidore has played exclusively as a loan center forward/striker in a classic Dutch 4-3-3, with steady service from the wingers, scoring many goals on headers. By the same token, Altidore's best days as a U.S. player probably came during his brief partnership up top with Charlie Davies.
If Altidore is as talented as we've been lead to believe by some U.S. journalists, do we really need to make excuses for which formation he plays in?
* Landon Donovan doesn't want to play soccer as his spiritual quest of surfing the coasts of all seven continents continues. He doesn't want to play? Let's move on. Donovan isn't going to play forever and if he eventually wants to get back in the fold, it can only be considered a good thing down the road. Until Donovan's "head is right," let's not worry about him. Next man up, as the saying goes.
* It's confusing Klinsmann seems so in love with Maurice Edu, who the German coach still wishes he could convert into a center back. Since he transfer to Stoke City from Rangers in late August and subsequent loan to Bursaspor in Turkey, the Maryland product has played in two games.
* Geoff Cameron, for what I've seen of Stoke City (a treat to the eyes and ears), hasn't lined up at center back, playing on the right of defense or the midfield. Even so, this doesn't seem a concern since he's played well as a defender while wearing the U.S. shirt.
* I've always enjoyed Brad Davis, if only for set piece delivery.
* Good that Sacha Kljestan is in the mix, if only for cheap jokes about him being a hipster I can make on Twitter. (He's the only laughing. His wife, wowee, zowee.) Could he form a partnership with Bradley? Would that midfield tandem work, at least at home?
* For what it's worth, Carlos Bocanegra's Racing Santander is currently in last-place in the Spanish second division. This is likely due to the club's league-low 19 goals scored and not necessarily its defense. Hard to say, as I don't watch the Segunda. Please do not throw rotten fruit at me for revealing this to a world audience. I should be more cultured than I am. Unclean. UNCLEAN!!!
* Genuinely terrific development, all Mexico 2014 Qualifiers will be on ESPN in English (although they're much more enjoyable on Univision with Pablo Ramirez) whereas most U.S. fans will have to scramble to find a way to access to road qualifiers for the Americans via the lack of cable operators carrying beIN Sport. Please DO NOT revert to accessing an illegal internet stream. You'd be better served burning down 10 acres of Brazilian rain forest if you're going to be that big of a monster.
A safe, simple 4-4-2 on the road. If Klinsmann tries to get too cute with his preference for wingers (on a team with very few at its disposal) its a recipe for peril. The 4-4-2 is about as "sexy" Jemaine Clement singing on "Business Time," but it's effective -- socks on or off.
GK -- Howard
DEF -- Chandler -- Cameron -- Bocanegra -- Johnson
MID -- Zusi -- Bradley -- Jones -- B. Davis
FOR -- Dempsey -- Altidore
A win would be great, a draw okay and a loss wouldn't be the end of the world. That's the quality, first-class analysis you come to this site to read, right?
You know, that stuff we used to read stuff on. You might remember it referred to as "papyrus." It was made out of wood pulp, or something. It's hard to really say. This "paper" was invented by the ancient Egyptians and, presumably, the manufacturing process was taught to them by the same aliens who built the pyramids. My memory of all this is a little fuzzy. Forgive me.
Anyways, ancient man used to use paper and often bound these pages into volumes called, "books." Which were read to gain knowledge and or entertain you before television was invented.
One day I stumbled across one of these "books" in my daily adventures and took it home with me. "The Rough Guide to Cult Football" it was titled. Something told me this would find a perfect home resting comfortably atop the lid on my toilet for reading material, as the fear of dropping an iPhone and or iPad into the bowl would be worse than having your pinky finger lopped off.
This book was full of fun tidbits, profiles, charts, pictures, anecdotes etc. about football, or what we uncouth Americans call, "soccer." (A sport played with your feet.) Basically fun stuff from the Time Before, aka when soccer was available on television 24/7/365 to Americans -- so roughly 2001.
Throughout this tome, there are numerous shots by the British writers at America's attempt to play the sport. In fact, here's one in list form, including a dig at ESPN analyst and ginger extraordinaire, Alexi Lalas. There are swipes, too, at the defunct NASL. If you lived in a cave and had no knowledge of the outside world (but somehow had this book) you'd get the picture Americans attempting to play the sport of soccer would be akin to chimpanzee's hammering away at a typewriter -- albeit less hilarious. (It's unlikely someone living in isolation in the woods would draw parallels to something based off a Simpsons joke, but you never know.)
Reading all this -- and knowing a little bit how the Brits think -- there's a definite fearful tone in the writing. Why would British hacks take so much pleasure in perpetuating the myth Americans don't know a thing about soccer unless, deep down, they were afraid of the Colonies one day conquering the sports like we Yanks have done nearly all other team sports, well the ones we care about anyway. Let Denmark have Team Handball.
Why don't the English crack wise about China's inability to raise its soccer profile?
China has a robust economy, over a billion citizens and a communist government pushing excellence in sports -- see the Beijing Olympics -- yet soccer in the country languishes in the backwaters. China has played in one World Cup -- 2002. It's current national team is comprised entirely of players from it's own domestic league, the Chinese Super League which in the last two days saw high-profile players Didier Drogba and Niclas Anelka jump ship barely a year into their contracts.
Remember Dong Faagzhuo? Allegedly this nascent Chinese superstar, signed to Manchester United last decade?
Yeah, me neither.
And yet, here we are as we hit the main course of 2014 CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. Seemingly not a day goes by where somebody hatches an idea why the United States lags behind the world soccer powers like Brazil and Spain nearly 25 years since the "modern era" since the 1990 World Cup. Monday it was ESPN's Roger Bennett writing a long story theorizing why the United States hasn't produced a star player like Lionel Messi. Read it if you haven't, if only to stir the juices in your brain.
Everybody who's ever watched an American soccer game or considers his or herself a fan has probably spent plenty of time speculating on the subject.
It's flawed youth development that only cares about trophies.
It's MLS's closed system where the clubs can't directly train their own youth academies like the rest of the world.
It's the broken college/pro idea all other American sports use.
It's because American players want to get an education.
It's because the USSF hasn't figured out how to integrate America's growing Hispanic population.
It's because not enough players are in Europe.
It's because we lost Giuseppe Rossi to Italy.
It's because MLS doesn't have promotion and relegation.
It's because there aren't enough Americans on Champions League clubs.
The USSF doesn't have enough oversight.
The USSF has too much oversight.
American kids play other sports.
The United States is too big geographically.
It's because LeBron James decided to play basketball instead of soccer.
It's because of something Bob Bradley did, so it's likely his fault.
Or it's because of the Mayans.
That about covers about all the arguments.
In short, it's probably some of these and all of these or none of these. Maybe we're all wasting too much thinking about all this, losing focus on the other details, or beyond that even enjoying the games at hand, such as Tuesday night's all-important traditional end of January friendly, this time against Canada in Houston. (9 p.m., ESPN2)
Sometimes it feels like the amount of time we (myself included) have poured into figuring out why America hasn't conquered the world of soccer, is staggering. Never-mind these facts:
1. the U.S. is almost an automatic World Cup qualifier, reaching the knockout rounds two of the last three competitions (and... The U.S. is one of only seven nations to reach the last six World Cups -- along with Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain)
2. Out of the 200-plus nations in FIFA, eight have won a World Cup. Eight, is simply astounding.
Could the U.S. be further along? Should we as fans expect a little more than a place in the Round of 16 in the World Cup? Definitely.
By the same token, can we all of a sudden transplant Barcelona's La Masia training ground, bottle up whatever magical water flows there and plop it into the fields of America and replicate the results? Obviously not. You could observe what a Barcelona does for months, or the German youth system, but applying it to America and simply snapping your fingers and expecting results is asinine.
If there is one thing I'll say is a definite factor in the hindrance of U.S. soccer development is the difference where most American parents wouldn't want their children, at say, 13 training with a pro club with maybe the outside shot of a pro contract by the time he's 18. In Europe or around the world this isn't balked at, yet for so many American parents the driving force is the almighty college scholarship, so nearly all decisions for their soccer-playing children are made with that in mind, not the greater development of the sport in the country. Call it a sense of entitlement. "My little Hunter plays U12 on Rockingham United. He's a shoo-in for a spot on Stanford's college team."
Take a big country like Brazil. There's thousands upon thousands of kids playing against each other around the clock. It produces better players and weeds out the weaker ones, much like what we have with basketball in America. If you go to a playground, maybe you'll see some talent kids playing hoops, yet only the best of the best are going to a Division I school and even less to the NBA.
In the more abstract sense, let's keep looking at basketball.
European basketball clubs and academies continually produce players, fundamentally sound players. You know all the stereotypes. Guys who can pass, shoot, make free throws, etc. Solid all-around basketball players. You can take that player, stick in at an American college and chances are he'll do fairly well even if ... HE'S SOFT! (because every single European to play basketball is softer than a wedge of brie.)
As fundamentally capable as that player is, line him up against a guy like LeBron James who is physically unlike nearly 99.99999999999999999999999999 percent of the human population and there's going to be a gap. There is something inherently special about LeBron on the basketball court, something that no matter if you took someone with a base level of skill, trained him for eight hours a day for years, he'll never be able to replicate.
Or even take a basketball player like J.J. Redick. Not an overwhelming physical player. There's no shortage of 6-foot-4 shooting guards. Redick, for whatever reason, has that knack for the 3-point shot and has carved out an NBA career from it. He's able to to that one thing on the court very, very well.
This might apply to soccer even more, but in a different way. It goes back to my long-held theory that of all the sports, soccer is art. It can be played so many different ways to create beauty. It's not purely physical. If it were, 6-foot-7 Peter Crouch would theoretically a better player than the 5-foot-7 Lionel Messi. If Everton left back Leighton Baines walked past you on the street, you'd never think he's a borderline world class player.
There probably isn't a magic formula for what makes a world-class soccer player, though some would argue that Messi has the ideal height. There are so many little different skill sets in the game, and with the proper coaching can be used and molded into a successful team. There's yet to be a team of 11 Franz Beckenbauers, who at his pomp could conceivably play anywhere on the field.
No matter where you stand on the U.S. soccer development paradigm, we can agree the America has produced a steady string of solid, physically fit, capable soccer players with high stamina. Where the U.S. lags far behind the world is finding creative, soccer-minds. There aren't many Americans who we think of as crafty and cagey. When we do have an example of a highly intelligent American player, it's Claudio Reyna. To wit, granted these are the top examples, but the U.S. hasn't produced guys like Xavi or Andrea Pirlo -- or even their non-union Mexican equivalents. (Note, that's another Simpsons reference.) Instead the definitive players of the brief Jurgen Klinsmann era are gritty grinders like Jermaine Jones.
Here's the thing, in soccer you can win with a guy like Jones.
No, seriously, stop laughing.
Goal by MLS, still counts as one on the scoreboard.
It's not easy, but international soccer isn't always about cramming the most individual talent possibly in the starting XI. It's finding a system that works and limiting mistakes. As the U.S. under Bradley (and Klinsmann) proved, sometimes all it takes is one fortunate moment over the span of 90 minutes to produce a result, ie. vs. Spain, Italy, Mexico etc.
When the U.S. takes on Canada Tuesday, or plays at Honduras in a qualifier next Wednesday, do you think when the ball touches the feet of Graham Zusi do you think he's worrying about the fact he played at Maryland or was only a second-round MLS pick? Or when Mixx Diskerud collects a pass he's remembering how he came up through the Stabaek youth system in Norway and played briefly in Belgium before he could legally buy a can of Budweiser in the United States?
We as fans worry about this stuff a lot more than the players, or even Klinsmann, although his comments to the Wall Street Journal might say otherwise. On the eve of qualification, it doesn't seem the German-born coach is too worried about pedigrees or which club pays your wages, he wants guys with hunger who are driven to consistently be the best they can be -- sounds decidedly American, doesn't it?
It speaks to that insecurity we as American soccer fans are ingrained to feel. That the rest of the world scoffs at us, while the mainstream media in our country laughs behind our backs about the sport.
In the words of the great Dr. Steve Brule, "Who cares?"
If, next week vs. Honduras, (a game that's fairly important) are we going to care if a goal is scored by Terrance Boyd who came up in the Hertha Berlin youth set-up in Germany or if it's Chris Wondolowski, who played with something called the Chico State Wildcats as a kid? Probably not.
Look, this isn't something people are going to like to hear, but we've been talking about U.S. soccer player development for years and it has moved at a glacial pace. Everyone who cares about soccer has an opinion on it, but enacting something that's comprehensive and works seems a bridge too far -- if for the immediate future. There are so many forces at play, things unique to America compared to the rest of the world trying to copy or emulate another system will take years to take root. Instead whomever is the U.S. coach or in a position or power with the USSF is going to have to accept the situation and make it work the best for him.
There isn't a magic bullet. And to think a wealthy country of 310 million people needs one to compete is a defeatism mentality, a fall-back excuse for when the United States -- at all levels, especially the youth -- comes up short. The player pool is deep enough to find 23 solid international players at any given time.
Realistically, whatever success the U.S. has on the soccer field is going to be wrought the "American Way." For better or for worse ... and whatever that ultimately means.
Look it up in a book. Maybe it'll have a definition.
So the American script under Jurgen Klinsmann survives to live another day and make the long winter before the qualifier against Honduras in February a little more palatable.
This game was the United States, as it stands currently in a nutshell.
Sloppy play in your own half to give up a goal? Check.
Minimal creativity from the midfield? Check.
Tim Howard standing on his head to make a bunch of athletic saves? Check.
Listless, nothing performance for most of the night? Check.
Finding a way to pull out a completely improbable result? Check.
The U.S. truly is infuriating.
Why the team, continually, finds a way to play its best with it's back against the wall doesn't make sense. Maybe this is being too harsh after -- twice -- coming back from down a goal to get a draw at Russia, yet this type of performance happens time and time again.
It is the best and worst quality of this team rolled into one.
They're never out of a match until the full time whistle ... but they seem to always make it too damn hard for themselves. Repeatedly.
I don't get it. Doubt anyone does.
Full credit to Michael Bradley for spearheading the comeback with an absolute beauty of a goal to make it 1-1. On the volley, off the post. Just brilliant stuff. If there's one thing almost all U.S. fans can agree on -- which is harder than it sounds -- build the squad around the Roma midfielder, then fill in the rest of the pieces.
Bradley, too, set up the eventual tying goal in stoppage time after Russia had gone ahead in the 85th thanks to a careless penalty given up by Clarence Goodson. Bradley fired the ball in, Terrance Boyd knocked it down and Mix Diskerud was in the right place to deflect his shot into the net.
Not pretty and the result flatters the overall performance, but hey, it's never good to lose to Russia if only for dated 1980s Cold War-era cinema references.
(RIP Patrick Swayze.)
* Guess we have to talk about Jozy Altidore, right? Do we have to? Can we all simply agree scoring goals in Holland and international soccer are two different Vehn diagrams? It's one thing not to score, it's another to be unable to complete a pass. Any wonder both U.S. goals were set up on knockdowns by subs Juan Agudelo and Boyd?
* The less said about Jermaine Jones, the better. Again, this is nothing personal but he must have a Svengali-like mind meld with Klinsmann for the German coach to keep playing him. And why the U.S. players all defer to him is mind boggling. And yes, he played much of the second half as a left wing.
* As bad as the giveaway was by Danny Williams to set up Russia's first goal, there's still more promise in him than Jones.
* Suffice to say, Klinsmann's love of the three-man defensive minder midfield could come back to haunt the U.S. in games that matter in 2013.
* Josh Gatt? Promising, but let's not go overboard. He's an option out wide at this point, beyond that? Solid debut for the Molde man overall.
* Howard better sleep in an oxygen tent between now and 2014 because the Americans are sunk without him. Does any other keeper make such an impact internationally, game-in, game-out as he does? Or is that a little bit of Ian Darke-level hyperbole?
* Taylor Twellman actually said, before the Diskerud goal that a 2-1 loss would be better than a 1-1 draw for the U.S. on the ESPN broadcast. Well then.
* If this all sounds overtly negative, let's end on praising Michael Bradley once again. He's really really good.
2012 was supposed to be an "off" year for the United States national team, wasn't it? That was the impression most of us were working under, right?
It wasn't a World Cup year or even a Gold Cup year. The U23s failed to qualify for the London Olympics, so we couldn't even circle that on the calendar.
On top of that, as the calendar turned to January, we still had about 13 months to wait for relevant 2014 World Cup qualifiers, too.
Funny, as we sit on the eve of the final U.S. game of the year Wednesday morning in Russia -- the 14th overall -- it's certainly been a lot more hectic and busy than anyone with a passing interest in the team could have anticipated.
Most, if not all of the unexpected busyness can be chalked up to a rocky time by Jurgen Klinsmann & Co. in the penultimate round of CONCACAF qualifying. It only lasted a couple days but the five-alarm panic between the Sept. 7 1-0 loss to Jamaica in Kingston and the 2-1 win over the Reggae Boyz four days later in Columbus was very real -- and opened up a potentially disastrous "what if" scenario for the entire men's United States soccer set up should the national team failed to even make the final round of CONCACAF qualification.
The U.S. did what it seems to do best since the turn of the century: get the job done with its back against the wall (assuming Ghana isn't involved in any capacity.)
The other side to the 2012 coin was the friendlies.
Lots and lots of friendlies.
Granted international friendlies -- soccer's cocktease --serve as primarily a money-maker and people like myself found a very difficult time looking at the scheduling this year as nothing more than a money-grab by the U.S. Soccer Federation. That said, the USSF deserves a little bit of credit for friendlies at Italy, Mexico and Russia and a high-profile game in May vs. Brazil in New Jersey is about the best you can do given the circumstances. The wins at Italy and, historically, at Mexico don't amount to a hill of beans, but it's not like they're a bad thing, either.
At this point we all realize nothing much will be discovered Wednesday in Krasnodar. It's the true definition of a one-off, with the squad given barely a day to train together. Maybe we can all dust off some tired Cold War era Soviet jokes on Twitter during the match. That's about it. Perhaps lament the "Red Dawn" remake while we're at it.
When it's over, Klinsmann will talk in the usual coachspeak about "the process" and "evaluating" players. As fans we'll latch on and cling to whomever plays well as "the future" or bemoan the fact 2012 will end and Jermaine Jones will have logged the most minutes of any player in the Stars and Stripes. If anything encapsulates the U.S. in 2012 better than that fact, let's hear it.
That's the nature of friendlies. They are what they are.
All it means is 2012 was supposed to be the calm before the storm of what should be a vital and important 2013. The events of the last 12 months set up next year as one of the more anticipated in recent memory for the U.S. Realistically the last two World Cup qualification processes felt like a fait accompli. Not even the most fatalist fan out there worried that the U.S. wouldn't punch their tickets to Germany or South Africa.
Hell, as soon as Asamoah Gyan did his best to send the U.S. packing from Rustenberg two and a half years ago, the many U.S. fans probably already started looking into booking hotels and flights to Brazil. The U.S. seemed to be at a stage where qualifying for the World Cup was expected; a lock.
Perhaps this is reading too much into the inconsistent play of the U.S. offense or the habitual lapses in the back four against inferior opposition. Maybe it's putting way too much stock in the improvements in CONCACAF. It could even be a lingering lack of faith that Klinsmann -- with the money on the line -- is going to get all his tactical and personnel decisions right.
Whatever plays out over 90 minutes Wednesday against Russia isn't changing that fact.
And however you draw it up the events of 2012 make 2013 as intriguing -- and anticipated -- a year in U.S. soccer as we've seen in a long time.
* Let us all rejoice: Jozy Altidore's two-game "demotion" is over. Is Altidore, probably the best U.S. option at forward? Yes, probably. Should he have his place in the starting XI guaranteed? Absolutely not. While his league goals for AZ against the likes of ADO Den Haag might make for nice YouTube clips, the bulk of U.S. fans aren't going to continue to tolerate listless games where the 23-year-old makes zero impact. Altidore has proven he can be a useful, effective player on the international stage, but you don't automatically get places in the starting lineup -- unless you happen to play for England.
It's surprising Altidore being excluded last month was such a big deal in the U.S. soccer-sphere. Players get dropped for internationals all the time, and Klinsmann turned out to be right via using Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon.
* The other big "news" from this friendly is German-born Timmy Chandler is back in the fold after deciding he basically didn't want to play for the U.S. anymore. Until Chandler plays in an official FIFA game and is tied to the U.S. don't read too much into anything he says.
Look at it this way. Philip Lahm, the German national team captain and starting right back is 29. When he hasn't played there, Joachim Loew has played a center back, Jerome Boateng at right back. For the Germans most recent match, uncapped 22-year-old Sebastian Jung has been called in. Remember, Chandler is still only 22.
This one won't be decided until next year with Chandler putting on a U.S. shirt and seeing the field in a qualifier. Ultimately, if Chandler doesn't want to play for the U.S., so be it. It's his choice.
* There's been a lot of talk (via interviews and articles) recently about Landon Donovan's existential "crisis," where he's wondered aloud how much more soccer he has inside him. Donovan is now 30. He's been going nonstop for almost 14 years. He's not going to play forever.
Is he simply worn out from a long season? Will a couple months off allow him to rediscover his spark?
However it pans out, Klinsmann needs to start finding Plan B and accept a world without Donovan.
It's hard not to hear Donovan addressing his future and think of Lars Ulrich from the "Some Kind of Monster" documentary, when he wondered aloud (4:40 mark of video below) if, "Jason is the future and Metallic is the past."
Is Donovan the past? As crazy as it sounds, he could be -- and that's not on his talent level, but his mentality. Ball is in his court.
* Excited that Klinsmann called in some genuine pacy wingers in the forms of Joe Gyau (20) and Josh Gatt (21). Chances are they don't play, but if we learned something in 2012, the U.S. needs to develop some different ways to unlock defenses than playing through the middle.
* Without Donovan or Clint Dempsey, figure for Michael Bradley assert his influence over this game even more. It would be nice to see him playing in a slightly advanced, more offensive role and leave the dirty work to somebody else. Either way, the more time Bradley and Danny Williams can play at the same time to develop chemistry is a good thing.
* Believe it or not, Juan Agudelo has already amassed 15 caps.
* Numbers fun: The U.S. has 20 players on its roster from 12 different leagues. Russia called in 26, with all but Denis Cheryshev (Real Madrid B) playing domestically.
* In a perfect world, Bradley and Russia manager Fabio Capello enjoy a post-match expresso with each other. Maybe talk about their favorite scarf designer.
* Remember how great Russia, in particular Andrey Arshavin were at Euro 2008? Yeah, me neither.
Lost to the sands of history, Stalin also invented "Movember."
Call is a 4-3-1-2, at least to start. Figure all six subs are used by the second half, thus changing the set-up.
GK -- Howard
DEF -- Chandler -- Bocanegra -- Cameron -- Johnson
MID -- Williams -- Bradley -- Jones
ATT MID -- Kljestan
FOR -- Altidore -- Boyd
If the U.S. ties, it ties.
Mike Cardillo writes a blog. Follow him on Twitter @thatsonpoint.
Sometimes you wouldn't know it, but investing your god-given free time in following sports is supposed to be, umm, fun.
For instance, the 2012 baseball season following my Detroit Tigers was, in essence, six months of agita and misery -- until Justin Verlander's epic pitching performance in the ALDS Game 5 clincher vs. the Oakland Athletics. Hell, I actually cracked a smile during that four-hit shutout performance, realizing (as a gigantic cartoon light bulb popped up over my head), by golly this is supposed to be enjoyable.
Some of the same logic seems to apply a lot of the time to the United States National (Soccer) Team.
What in the world happened that the No. 2 team in CONCACAF -- a region where it has more resources and people than all other members -- is suddenly in life-and-death struggles against the likes of Antigua and Barbuda? Aren't these supposed to be the games the U.S. wins 6-0 and everybody has fun? Not games where it needs -- gasp -- Eddie Johnson to score a goal in the 90th minute to keep World Cup hopes alive.
Now, in full fairness, I didn't see the match last Friday, and not only because of the beIN sports carriage debacle. I had to work, yet followed (when I could) on Twitter and the reaction was the digital form of an angry mob of villagers storming the castle with pitchforks and torches. It wasn't only the random, cynical, like-minded U.S. fans I follow either, but even prominent writers -- usually against first-guess criticism -- openly questioning coach Jurgen Klinsmann's tactics and lineup selection.(*)
(*) Interesting that so many writer's knives came out with Jozy Altidore dropped from the lineup. Wonder why? Could they be more interested in maintaining a friendly working relationship with the players who'll be around beyond the current coaching staff or covering the team objectively? Just a thought.
A total fiasco was avoided thanks to Johnson and truthfully that's all that's going to matter so long as the U.S. doesn't lose to Guatemala on Tuesday night in Kansas City as it will advance to the final CONCACAF six-team hexagonal with it's three automatic World Cup berths -- and a soft landing for fourth place in a playoff against the Oceania champs.
The bigger question here, is when did simply watching the U.S. play international matches become 90 minutes of frustration? Hell, even the famous win at the Azteca in the summer was a slog until the late smash-and-grab winner. It's been some time since 11 guys put on the striped U.S. shirts and people were wowed by what they did.
Lets say right away, nobody is expecting every time the U.S. plays it channels a combination of the 1970s Ajax teams and current Barcelona teams, playing a brand of passing/pressing/total football that blows minnows out of the water, sending tactics fetishists all atwitter. It would be nice, but with the limitations inside the U.S. lineup and players spread so far across the globe, that level of cohesion isn't going to happen. In fact, that's a product of current international soccer where in most major nations (Spain a notable outlier) its top talent is scattered across numerous clubs around the globe. You could be Klinsmann, you could be Brian Clough, given a couple days of training with 23 players coming from 10 different leagues it's going to be hard to forge a united, cohesive plan. Chemistry doesn't happen with the snap of the fingers.
In the specific case of Antigua and Barbuda last week, a small, narrow, bumpy water-logged pitch probably played a factor, too, in practical terms.
There's definitely an argument to be made the smaller teams around the world, in particular CONCACAF, have improved in recent years, with nations like the U.S. Virgin Islands and it's -38 goal difference in the first group stage of 2014 World Cup qualifying are becoming rarer and rarer.
Still, whatever mitigating factors there might be, the average U.S. National Team fan still has the mindset that the U.S. should blitz a tiny Caribbean island 6-0 and cakewalk through qualification.
There's nothing wrong with that line of thinking. Given how far U.S. Soccer has progressed in recent times, qualification for every World Cup -- without sweating it out either(*) -- should be expected.
You don't want to to take it to the extreme cases where some soccer fans would rather embrace "beautiful winners" than ugly winners. We actually already see enough of that a lot where a 1-0 win is scoffed at, a la Jose Mourinho's years at Chelsea, despite all the trophies. Or look at Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in recent years with all the cries about "Fergie Time" or the officiating at Old Trafford leading to many one-goal wins by the Red Devils.
It's interesting to remember, in about a decade or so's time, the U.S. evolved from plucky, mulleted underdogs in nearly every match to the decided favorite unless it's up against the elite grouping of teams from Europe and South America. Even as late as 1998 the U.S. certainly wasn't an automatic shoo-in to qualify for France. In turn, the U.S. actual style of play still doesn't seem suited to playing the favorite, possessing the ball in the opponent's half for 90 percent of the match, for dictating the tempo and clinically, ruthlessly taking the little guys to the proverbial woodshed. The U.S. is still better using its physicality, stamina, and hustle to beat teams on the counterattack instead of the cultured passing or technical ability to break defenders down 1-v-1.
So once again, like the U.S. under Bob Bradley, we're stuck with the weird contradiction. The U.S. can get results against teams like Spain, Italy or away at Mexico (albeit a friendly) yet has a harder time than a vegan in a slaughterhouse against micro nations and CONCACAF also-rans.
Again, though, the question remains how to look at this like a fan?
Is there any fun left rooting for the U.S., at least until it gets to the World Cup, since everything else probably doesn't matter all that much. Sure the Gold Cup can produce a game with ramifications vs. Mexico and the occasional friendly -- at least on American soil -- is fun to attend in person, but at the end of the day all most fans are worried about are those three group stage World Cup matches every four years -- where the U.S. can finally prove it's worth on the biggest stage.
Is that too narrow a scope?
Ultimately international soccer is always going to be a pass/fail set up. There aren't enough matches during the course of the year for it to be anything else. It's not club soccer where you're with your team 50+ matches, where the manager can try new things and new players and get away with it. Drop three points in the league, you've got 10 months to make it up. Drop them in a four-team round robin international format, you're in massive trouble.
It doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room.
And it's why going through slogs like Friday night in Antigua almost feel more like doing your algebra homework without a calculator than a fun way to use your hard-earned leisure time.
The journey to the destination shouldn't be fraught with this much peril. There should be time to enjoy it-- Tuesday in Kansas City vs. a nice home crowd vs. Guatemala would be a nice start -- instead of worrying about the worst case, sky is falling, possibility of failing to qualify.
Suppose it really all boils down to, when the final whistle blows after 90 minutes of a U.S. match, do you care how the soccer sausage you're eating was made, or do the three points taste delicious no matter what?
Planting the Seed of Soccer Across America: Danny Beerseed - 0 comments
He's saying "foul", right?
"You don't live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati," -- Ex-Bengals coach Sam Wyche during a 1989 incident when fans were throwing stuff on the field at Riverfront Stadium.
Part of what many people would argue that makes soccer the best game on the planet is that "everybody" plays it, meaning different cultures influence the way the game is played in perceived in their own unique ways.
If you're reading this, please don't roll your eyes or say "no doi."
Thanks for telling me something I didn't already know eight years ago, Sherlock!
Yes, almost all soccer fans know this, especially in America where out melting pot culture has yielded a massive, rich, albeit unruly patois of nearly every brand of soccer known on the planet.
One, unfortunate aspect of soccer culture we've all absorbed through osmosis, is that British media crisis-mode mentality. That ability to turn the smallest kernel of news into a spinning newspaper alert, with bold headlines that scream out CONTROVERSY!!! For the longest time, until the last decade or so, it was hard to find English language soccer news anywhere aside from British newspapers and websites. In turn, that jaundiced eye toward the game has rubbed off on us, myself very much included. Very much. Underline that, in fact.
That's why, when Jurgen Klinsmann announced his 24-man roster (now somewhere in the range of 20) Monday afternoon for the must-win CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifiers this coming week against Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala, everybody associated with the #USMNT decided to pull a chicken little routine via Jozy Altidore's shock exclusion from the group despite the New Jersey native leading the Dutch Eredivisie in scoring with AZ this year.
Jozy, Jozy, Jozy.
Rabble, rabble, rabble.
It's only natural, in a sense. The National Team only plays about 20 matches in a given year, yet for many American fans it's the team they most readily identify with if they live far from a city with an MLS side or thousands of miles from their favorite European squad. While it isn't the rapid passion of various worldwide national teams, the U.S. fans have become more and more ardent (and critical) in their support, especially with such a small sample size to analyze and put under the microscope.
There are a lot of ways to go here, since this is likely all anyone is going to talk about before the games, as well as the injuries to Landon Donovan, Brek Shea, Fabian Johnson (illness) and Edgar Castillo.
It doesn't jive right, does it, that a guy could be leading a semi-major European League yet not find himself among the 24 best American soccer players on the planet? Even if following the U.S. National Team tends to be a series of conundrums and head-scratching moves this one jumps right toward the top of the list especially in light of MLS journeyman Alan Gordon and, gasp, Eddie Johnson (who ironically enough was Jozy Altidore before Wyclef Jean even knew who the former Red Bull prodigy was) called in.
If anything, if you think about it, this move by Klinsmann should be applauded. Not simply to be contrarian or against the norm, but it sends a clear message that nobody is simply entitled to a spot in the lineup, as it should be in any healthy national team set up.
Ultimately, this boils down to how much you trust Klinsmann's ability to formulate a gameplan against opposition -- both of which the U.S. has played against this year already. The German's reasons for selecting Gordon and Johnson over Altidore, as well as Terrance Boyd and Chris Wondolowski, at least on paper make some sense:
"They will probably get a lot of numbers in their box or in front of their box to play more defensive against us, so we need to have [the forwards] force things with crosses coming over the wings and be really strong in the air. That was the reason we brought in Eddie and Alan, two guys into the squad that are really good in the air and that can lay balls off."
It makes soccer sense, when you're playing a side with 10 behind the ball you need active forwards or guys not afraid to take chances or win balls in the air. In a do-or-die situation you can't really fault Klinsmann for leaving of a player, albeit a talented played like Altidore, who's loped and drifted through most of the 2012 U.S. National Team cycle.
That was hardly the biggest revelation Klinsmann made on his conference call to the media. His words as to why Sacha Kljestan -- omitted from the last few squads despite playing for a Champions League team in Anderlecht -- paint a picture of how he expects to play these next two games against inferior, defensive-minded opposition. It also is a clear indication as to why Jose Torres wasn't in the mix, either.
"He was very aggressive. He was very direct. He looked for the vertical balls to play, he didn’t play sideways the whole time and he was pushed forward in order to get shots off himself."
For better or worse, Klinsmann has assessed what he has available for this next two qualifiers and likely the entire 2014 World Cup cycle. Big revelation here: the U.S. is not Spain. Klinsmann, despite all his lofty promises last summer when he was hired, wasn't going to be able to transform the entire American soccer system in a first-touch, pass-and-move, high-pressure Barcelona Jr overight.
What Klinsmann and the U.S. have is athletes and hard workers. Grit and graft. Heart and hustle.
With superior conditioning and resources those combinations are usually good enough in CONCACAF. The World Cup is a different story for another day, as well as how remarkable similar this all seems to when Bob Bradley was the coach.
If anything we can at least see Klinsmann is learning on the job. Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala are going to pack the defensive area. It means the U.S. will have time to dilly dally on the ball, but what Klinsmann wants are direct forrays forward. Shots from distance. Crosses for somebody to get a head onto.
Is this a long-term recipe for success? Not really. For two games -- and that's all it is, two games, Altidore's international career isn't over -- it is what the U.S. needs to do to ensure it doesn't flame out in World Cup qualification. These next 180 minutes of soccer should be about one thing: pragmatism. No more, no less. The margin for error, with the U.S. tied on seven points with Guatemala and Jamaica with only two advancing to the final Hexagonal, is gone.
At this stage of his tenure with the U.S. Klinsmann hasn't done a lot to win trust in the fans. The record has been far to sketchy in games that matter despite the high-profile friendly wins against Mexico and Italy. One area you simply has to trust him in is player evaluation, in this specific case Altidore's.
As fans, all we see is the goal-scoring table where Altidore is on the top, alongside the immortal Lex Immers it must be said. Here's a question, though, when was the last time you sat down and watched an Eredivisie game? Sure they're available on ESPN's web service, but outside of a standout highlight like this from Altidore, how much do you see? I'm going to have to take Klinsmann's judgment and assume he's watching AZ games at a much better rate than we are doing. Klinsmann has to be seeing things(*), despite the goal totals, that we are not and deciding that, plus Altidore's patchy record in a U.S. shirt mean he won't be an asset these next two vital qualifiers.
(*) Call it another weird conundrum for the U.S. team. Most American soccer fans have easy access (or some access) to the EPL, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga. Few Americans play in those leagues, or if they do like Danny Williams and Fabian Johnson at Hoffenheim, they're on squads that barely get airtime in the States. So in that regard, it's hard to get a fair assessment of how U.S. internationals are doing on a week-in, week-out basis. A quick, "played 90 minutes in Brondby win at Aarhus" recap n a blog doesn't, outside itself, mean all that much, does it? There's a much bigger picture we simply don't see.
Or if that doesn't justify it, think how many players in the Eredivise -- especially in defense -- will participate in World Cup qualifying the next couple days. It's not a very high number.
This is the point where I realize I'm just as guilty as everybody else, writing about something that -- in a few months times -- will be remembered as a tempest in a tea kettle.
The bigger story, let's remember, is having to trust Klinsmann knows what he's doing in preparing for a series of must-win matches.
* The Antigua match is on beIN Sport, meaning a lot of Americans won't be able to watch the match, unless they revert to the illegal stream option. You people who do that are worse than the guys that club baby seals. Illegal sports streaming is probably the most heinous crime out there.
* Michael Bradley is healthy -- he even scored for AS Roma over the weekend. Does it mean he displaces Jermaine Jones (the U.S. leader in minutes and games in 2012) from his midfield destroyer role? Of all the players in that American midfield maelstrom, Bradley still is the most complete getting forward and tracking back on defense. Still think come 2014 he's the key man to build the squad around should everything stay on track with health and club status.
* How weird would Bradley look with hair?
* Still find it odd that the guy who's looked best American center back going forward, Geoff Cameron, is now playing defensive midfield at Stoke City. Ditto for Maurice Edu, who's been less esteemed as a defender for the U.S.
* Bradley, Jones, Edu, Williams, Cameron, Beckerman. I'd say the U.S. is well-stocked in case of a CDM-apocalypse. Maybe that's what the Mayans predicted for 2012.
* Klinsmann might over-think himself via Bradley, Jones, Zusi, Fabian Johnson and Edu all carrying yellow cards into the game. Pick one up (cough, cough Jones) and they miss the next one.
* Losing Fabian Johnson, if only for the Antigua match is rough since he's one of few actual wide players in the fold right now. Edgar Castillo missing out? It compounds an issue, but he's never stood out positively in his few chances in the U.S. shirt.
* Consider me amazed that Kansas City is all of a sudden a hotbed for soccer in America. Who else can forget the seas of red seats when the Wizards played at Arrowhead Stadium? Now, as Sporting Kansas City, it's received praise for having "European atmosphere" at Livestrong Park. If MLS can only figure out a way to spark that revival in passion in New York and New England as well as ending the failed experiment that is Chivas USA ... (Stories for another day.)
* Seemingly cut adrift, you have to give Eddie Johnson credit for working his way into the national team picture -- even if it's just a brief cameo. A lot of guys, after three years in Europe with only seven goals at four different clubs would have mailed it in on return to MLS, yet with the Sounders he's on form and playing well again -- with confidence. U.S. never has much striking depth so it's still up to Johnson to keep working and show Klinsmann he's worth keeping around the next two years.
Johnson, in the past, has never had issues scoring against the dregs and also-rans of CONCACAF, has he?
Based on the squad's lack of wide players a narrow 4-3-1-2. Believe it or not, this was written before Donovan withdrew from a knee injury. Figure Michael Parkhurst can give a solid 90 out of position at left back against Antigua, right?
There's probably a very rote way to discuss Tuesday night's 2014 CONCACAF World Cup qualifier from Columbus, Ohio, including two massive, mandatory points which must be discussed.
1. The U.S. took care of business and got three points, erasing the memory of the ugly defeat in Kingston three days ago.
1a. Jurgen Klinsmann's five lineup changes, notably taking big gambles on Graham Zusi and Jose Torres in the midfield, among the most prominent, paying dividends.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I'll try to make this a little more unique that what you can probably read in 502 other places. As you may or may not know by now I've probably watched the majority of U.S. National Team games over the years on the couch next to my dad. Needing to do laundry -- and get home-cooked meal from mom -- I went to my parents place to kill a couple of birds with one stone.
As soon as I walked in, my dad already said he was nervous about the result and proceeded to grill me on all the what-if scenarios should the U.S. fail to beat Jamaica later that night. Fun stuff.
Hours passed and the game began. Usually my dad will talk throughout, while I'll bury my head into my phone and fall into the Twitter wormhole. Tonight, dad didn't talk. He was locked in from the start, with his leg slowly, steadily starting to twitch and tap as the clock ticked toward 90 at Crew Stadium.
By the time the whistle sounded, like many others, my dad let out a massive sigh of relief.
Thank you Herculez Gomez for your free kick goal in the 55th minute that saved me a trip to the emergency walk-in clinic. (As Nate from ohyoubeauty pointed out on Twitter, we could have lived without Ian Darke's strained 'No. 9 shirt scoring on 9/11' remark.)
Perhaps in 2012 the U.S. should be beyond sweating out nervy 1-0 results vs. a team like Jamaica -- on homesoil -- yet it beats the alternative.
The most important part of Tuesday's win is it puts destiny to advance (hard to think we're thinking like this) to the final Hexagonal back in the Americans hands with a trip to Antigua and Barbuda followed by a home game with Guatemala in October. Six points very ready for the taking, with the U.S., Jamaica and Guatemala now all even on seven points with two matches to play.
Now that the dust has settled after 180 minutes of soccer against the Reggae Boyz not all that much has changed in the grand scheme of U.S. soccer.
* Klinsmann still loves his rugged midfield hardman Jermaine Jones while the public doesn't.
* We still don't quite know what the U.S. "style" of play under the German coach is going to develop into.
* Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan still haven't found a way to get on the field in a U.S. shirt at the same time.
* The U.S. hasn't morphed into Brazil 1970 or Holland 1974, either.
If there's any one takeaway, it's that Geoff Cameron's emergence in a central defensive role eases some consternation of having to rely on 30-somethings like Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu in Brazil two years from now. That's a definite plus. Small sample size, yes, but an encouraging one nonetheless.
With any luck Klinsmann realized that that a midfield comprised of three hard-tacklers with limited passing vision isn't going to take the U.S. to the next level. It might be nice to get some hard tackles vs. Brazil in a friendly, but with a packed in opposing defense -- not so much.
What struck me as odd about the two Jamaica games, despite a total of four goals being scored, is how few chances either side produced.(*) That's going to happen when three of the four goals are from free kicks. Friday, in the U.S. loss, it had two shots on goal, whereas Jamaica had four. Tuesday each side had one apiece.
(*) We tend to never think about it as fans, but the condition of the pitch makes such a difference in how a game is played. The immaculate surface in Columbus certainly aided the U.S. possession game in the first half.
That's a little misleading since the U.S. caught Liverpool-syndrome in the first half, hitting the post numerous times as well as being denied by keeper Dwayne Miller on some excellent saves. Credit, though, to Danny Williams (at home in a defensive/shield role) and Zusi for taking some shots from distance.
Through it all, yes, the U.S. probably should have been ahead comfortably at the half, but that's soccer. How many times have the Americans been kept in games but for the one-man heroics of Tim Howard in goal? Even with it still 0-0 it was an encouraging half with Torres and Zusi looking assured on the ball, plus Gomez -- on top of his later goal -- was much more active coming back to get involved in the attack, same with Clint Dempsey although his misguided backheels at the center line weren't necessarily the best idea of the night. (His GIF-face notwitstanding, it was not Dempsey's best showing -- seemed out-of-sync. Strange he played the full 90, too.)
This will sound odd, but Jones -- despite his unloved status -- was effective Tuesday, even as he was clearly targeted again by the Jamaicans. His game is a lot like Michael Bradley, running box-to-box and playing a high-incident, blood-and-guts style. On a weekly basis at Schalke this is very useful, a little less in the international game. He might be a "defensive" minded player, or at least that's what we think of him, but he's not quite that holding guy who starts attacks or relieves pressure. Realistically the best we've seen from Jones is when he makes runs forward into the box, not breaking up attacks or shielding the defense.
Put it this way, we think of every European player as the almost magical combination of first touch goodness and tactical nous. While the technique of the average Euro player is probably better than elsewhere, players like Jones show there is more than one side to the beautiful game.
But back to the game itself, as we've seen on a nearly weekly basis with Arsene Wenger's Arsenal, it's no fun to play when the opponent sticks 10 guys behind the ball. The U.S. didn't dip their heads or get frustrated and the Gomez goal came at the right time before the Americans lost direction and started throwing the kitchen sink at the Jamaicans, hoping to get lucky. (See Mexico's offensive vs. the U.S. at the Azteca last month.)
The final 20 minutes were nervy.
The idea of "defensive" guys like Maurice Edu coming on seems good on paper, but lest we forget possession is a weapon and an effective way to play defense -- look at Spain. Dropping both Zusi and Torres left the U.S. midfield much less composed. Jones-Edu-Williams together, yes, can break up plays but the game didn't exactly call for that. Then again, killing off a game is never the U.S. forte -- look at the loss to Guatemala in June where an 83rd minute goal turned a 1-0 win into a 1-1 draw that basically put the U.S. in this do-or-die game Tuesday night as much as the loss to Jamaica did.
This is nitpicking, yet it seemed like Klinsmann was tinkering with something that was working.
The U.S. can take a bow, if it wants, for doing the business required. The great, loud and supportive fans in Columbus did deserve that, at least.
Otherwise, there's still a lot of work for Klinsmann left to do. Realistically, bar the fluke goal in the first minute for Dempsey Friday, the U.S. created only a handful of scoring chances in the run of play vs. Jamaica.
Michael Bradley and Donovan returning, if healthy, next month should help sort a lot of this out, especially if Klinsmann decides to keep the effective 4-1-3-2 formation from Tuesday and slot Bradley and Donovan into these roles rather than reverting to the 4-3-3 Klinsmann likes to use despite the fact the U.S. isn't blessed with very many wide forward options. Donovan for either Zusi or Torres and Bradley for Jones, on paper, would seem like a no-brainer.
Hell if we want to unravel the orange peel even further, the U.S. -- bar a total collapse -- is going to make it to Brazil in 2014, but we're still almost at square one about what it's going to do once it gets there.
In any event, it was a nice night for Gomez, who deserves a moment to shine.
He's never going to play in the UEFA Champions League or set the world alight, but he fits that classic American mold that's won a lot of matches over the years -- he works his ass off and tries his best. Gomez was one of the guys who, after the loss to Jamaica was frank about the team's play and said it needed to improve.
Tuesday night in Columbus the U.S. did just that ... barely.
Sometimes barely is more than enough, in the end.
As the saying goes, "three points are three points."
"Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into." -- Oliver Hardy
The dust has settled, somewhat, from the U.S.'s "shock" defeat in Kingston to Jamaica on Friday night in the second round of CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifying. Every round of qualifying for the United States is filled with some temporary peril, even if it only lasts a few days -- or hours.
You'd have to go back to 1989 for the last time the United States faced a true do-or-die scenario, when it needed Paul Caliguiri's famous goal in Trinidad to punch a ticket to Italia 1990 -- ushering in the new era of American soccer we're all a part of now.
For whatever the reason -- mostly due to the flat performance vs. the Reggae Boyz -- it seems like this is a genuine, bona fide, six-car crisis for coach Jurgen Klinsmann ahead of Tuesday night's game in Columbus. (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and Galavision)
In simplest terms, a loss (or draw) to Jamaica isn't good, but it's not the end of the world either. It leaves you playing the what-if game with the remaining four matches in October at home vs. Guatemala and at Antigua and Barbuda. Factor in the potential of goal differential rearing its head and it's could create a massive headache where the U.S. might have to go to the Caribbean minnow needing to win by a bunch of goals. (A U.S. win vs. Jamaica and a Guatemala win against Antigua makes it a three-way tie at seven points, have fun sorting out those permutations.)
This just feels a little different than the typical U.S. qualifying crisis.
Throw out the 1994 World Cup, which the U.S. qualified as hosts and the remaining four have all had their hiccups, so maybe let's place the Jamaica loss in some perspective before we all grab pitch forks and torches to burn off Kyle Beckerman's dreadlocks.
Coach: Steve Sampson Group Round: 4-1-1, first place including a loss at Costa Rica (you'll note a trend). U.S. finished with 13 points, one clear of Costa Rica, five of Guatemala. Hexagonal: 4-1-5 (W/L/D), second place to Mexico, including a draw at the Azteca and a loss at Costa Rica at the Saprissa Stadium. U.S. was three points clear of third-place Jamaica, five of fourth-place Costa Rica, which didn't qualify.
Coach: Bruce Arena Group Round: 3-1-2, first place one point ahead of Costa Rica and Guatemala, including a loss at Costa Rica. Hexagonal: 5-3-2, third place (tied with second-place Mexico on GD), three points clear of Honduras.
Coach: Bruce Arena Group Round: 3-0-3 ... smooth sailing with the win at home, draw on road philosophy Hexagonal: 7-2-1, losses at Costa Rica and Mexico, but U.S. won group and qualified first with a win over Mexico in Columbus.
Coach: Bob Bradley Group Round: 5-1-0, first place with a loss at Trinidad. Hexagonal: 6-2-2, first place with losses ... wait for it ... at Mexico and Costa Rica.
Summation? CONCACAF qualification has been pretty easy for the United States, bar some trouble in 2002 in a similar transitional cycle when Bruce Arena brought in a bunch of MLS guys who'd turn out to be Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Mathis, etc. The process in 2006 and 2010 was a cinch, as the U.S. finally flexed it's muscles to become the No. 1 power in the region.
If Klinsmann can coax the U.S. to six points -- at home in welcoming places named Columbus and Kansas City -- all the teeth gnashing over the lost night in Kingston will be forgotten -- perhaps not the dreadful, lack of direction play, but the result will wash away to the sands of history.
More than that, it seems a little anecdotal without a ton of hard evidence but if 2012 is to be counted the tide seems to have risen across CONCACAF past the usual powers of the United States, Mexico and Costa Rica (a distant third). Antigua and Barbuda, an automatic 3-point ATM, hasn't been atrocious despite losing three matches it's goal difference is a respectable -4. Elsewhere Jamaica is clearly improved, Canada (finally) pointed in the right direction and Panama a darkhorse to qualify. Realistically, nothing against Guatemala, but we've seen enough of the Carlos Ruiz-helmed team in recent years, some fresh blood in the CONCACAF mix can only be considered a good thing.
For context, in this current round of qualifying of the 12 active teams only mighty Mexico is 3-0-0 and whereas only lowly Cuba is 0-3-0. Costa Rica is in the same boat as the U.S., sitting at 1-1-1 and the Ticos play at the Azteca Tuesday and at third-place El Salvador in their following match.
Perspective and context are nice things to have, yet it doesn't help when Klinsmann tells the media on Monday in the lede of the Associated Press game preview that, "No, we won't lose ... Don't worry." That's backing himself into a corner and setting up for an epic second-guess and actual, tangible pressure on the U.S. coach, not only from losers like me with a blog and free time on my hands. Maybe he was just having a laugh to relieve pressure, but should the U.S. fall apart at Crew Stadium, that quote will be hard to live down.
And it's not going to be easy in Columbus, a locale that's always boded well for the Americans.
For one, Jamaica should expect to have some hangover from taking bows -- and the national party -- from beating the Americans on Friday. Replicating that performance three days later, on the road, seems unlikely.
Just as unlikely, how does Klinsmann patch it up?
Everyone who's ever watched soccer quickly pointed out to the fact Edu/Beckerman/Jones together in a midfield doesn't work. You don't have to be Zonal Marking to pick up on that. No distribution, no service, no game plan, no bit of anything positive -- bar reckless tackles -- from three of your four midfielders isn't a strategy that will work. Call it the Animal House: "fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life," argument.
Given the limitations of the roster Klinsmann assembled for these two games, what other options does he have? Throw Brek Shea out there on the left wing and hope he lumps in some crosses Jozy Altidore -- who is taking the 'Where's Waldo' aspect of the U.S. striped jerseys a little too literally -- to run onto? Hope Clint Dempsey is superhuman and physically fit for another 90 minutes, finding time to pull a rabbit out of his bag of tricks, again? A goal from a tall defender on a set piece?
Unless you place a lot of faith in Jose Torres becoming a metronomic-passing, North American equivalent of Xavi overnight, Klismann's only real course of action is hoping that the sting of the loss from Friday, coupled with a few more days of training, makes the midfielders he called in better. In a must-win is Klinsmann willing to risk a Joe Corona or a Graham Zusi in a crucial creative role? Those are his only other options.
It seems a doom-and-gloom scenario, but if watching the U.S. play soccer over the last two decades there's one thing we've seemed to learn: when you expect the least, the team seems to find a way to play its best.
GK -- Howard
DEF -- Cherundolo -- Bocanegra -- Cameron -- Johnson
"That's all well and good for sheep, but what are we to do?" -- Rod (maybe Todd) Flanders, "Homer Loves Flanders"
A nice title for a preview of Friday's CONCACAF World Cup qualifier between the United States and Jamaica would have been, "Hooray, Soccer ... that actually counts" which probably would have been too long, so I'll use the Red Stripe joke here and get it out of the way so we can get to the pertinent business, ditto for the mandatory "Cool Runnings" reference this post is required by law to use.
However you'd like to slice it, it's been a different sort of summer for the United Statez(*). Jurgen Klinsmann tried to bill the May/June five-game series, which included three friendlies and two actual qualifiers as a mini-tournament. We all know it really wasn't. Plus it ended on a sour note via a 1-1 draw in a rather forgettable game in Guatemala that the U.S. probably should have taken three points from if not for a dodgy call and subsequent excellent free kick by Marco Pappa.
(*) Oops got carried away by thinking about the Reggae Boyz and their trend-setting plural usage of the letter z. Probably all the Code Red Mountain Dew I've been drinking while writing.
Then, a few weeks ago, the U.S. made history by notching its first win in Mexico City at the Estadio Azteca in a friendly all but washing the sour taste away from the Guatemala disappointment. This being international soccer, there's no time for the team to take any further bow for that historic result, note result -- not performance. As terrific as that win is, was, and ever will be ... it means zip come back-to-back qualifiers against an (allegedly) improving Jamaica squad.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, the U.S. built a lot of character and team spirit in that victory in Mexico. Whatever new age platitudes toward team-building Klinsmann wants to spin is fine, yet ultimately you're only as good as your last result.
And in a weird bit of coincidental symmetry, the U.S. has never won a qualifier in Kingston, so perhaps buoyed by the post-victory oxygen masks in Mexico City the U.S. can make lightning strike twice in a row.
Odds are, the U.S. takes care of its business vs. Jamaica but this is the one chance the team does have toward stubbing its toe. This round of qualification -- unlike the final CONCACAF Hex -- doesn't leave any room for error since only the top two out of four advance. The U.S. is still atop the group, tied on four points with Jamaica. The top two advance and with the other two remaining fixtures a trip to Antigua and Barbuda and a home game against Guatemala in October in Kansas City -- it's not a 100 percent lock, but pretty darned close -- assuming the job gets done against Jamaica.
It's a longshot of longshots, but no sense leaving it up to chance.
The Reggae Boyz aren't quite World Cup caliber as they were a decade or so ago and the country lacks a standout guy, either homegrown or plucked from the lower-leagues of England. You could make an argument that MLS stalwart Dane Richards is the best of the bunch and although he's full of pace and has a nice goal-scoring ability from the midfielder, there's not a real solid reason the U.S. at this junction should be losing to Luton Shelton, Darren Mattocks, etc.
Still, unlike most CONCACAF teams Jamaica have size, speed and strength, so if the U.S. comes out and lays and egg as they've been wont to do every other match under Klinsmann these could be tricky games. That doubles without Landon Donovan, who's been ineffective in 2012 anyways and an out-of-form Clint Dempsey. The last meeting between the two sides -- the quarterfinals of the 2011 Gold Cup -- Jamaica played the U.S. tough, losing 2-0 at RFK on a second half-own goal and a late strike by Clint Dempsey. If memory serves the Reggae Boyz played very well in the first half and hit a post.
The U.S., does at the moment though, have two players scoring regularly in their domestic leagues worth exploiting -- Jozy Altidore and Terrance Boyd. You can argue that defense in the Dutch Eredivise is about as strong as Hollywood's collective contribution to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign (timely political reference!) or that the Austrian Bundesliga is a irrelevant backwater, but goals are goals and the U.S. for whatever the reason continually struggles to get consistent output from its strikers.
Without any clear-cut wide-forwards or wingers warranting automatic places in the starting XI, could Klinsmann embrace the missionary position of 4-4-2 and let the two promising players develop a chemistry that could blossom over the entire qualifying cycle? Altidore's been at his best in a U.S. shirt with a running partner and the big, physical and technically pretty okay Boyd could be that guy.
Looking at the rest of the roster, the U.S. doesn't have a clear-cut central midfield provider, unless you're still waiting on Jose Torres to be him, though Klinsmann seems to prefer to string him out wide despite his crippling lack of pace -- but oh that first touch! Instead we've left with the German Panzer midfielders of Jermaine Jones and Danny Williams, or Kyle Beckerman if you prefer since Michael Bradley, too, is out with injury. Geoff Cameron, too, might warrant a midfield spot based on his brief tenure at Stoke City.
The lack of any offensive cohesion, sans the late goal, was glossed over by the result vs. Mexico, so let's hope Klinsmann doesn't try to shoe-horn players into spots they can't play. Put Dempsey and Brek Shea on the flanks, hope for some overlaps by Steve Cherundolo and Fabian Johnson and away we go.
Or the U.S. can score on set pieces with their lumbering center backs.
Take care of business against Jamaica and then the team can take their much deserved bows for beating the hate El Tri on enemy soil October at Livestrong Park.
How quickly we've all become spoiled, as soccer fans in America. Nowadays we collectively take as a major affront when a game be it in Boston, Barcelona or Bora Bora isn't readily available on our television sets. Remember, we're still hardly a decade away when the bulk of soccer was limited to its sporadic ESPN broadcasts -- almost exclusively World Cup related -- or Spanish language channels. As I've written in the past any U.S. soccer fan who came up through the 90s can easily recite their favorite Spanglish pronunciations of American player games when a game was only broadcast on Univision a la "Mike BOORNS."
Friday night, the U.S. qualifier presents a conundrum.
ESPN didn't purchase the away game rights from the individual CONCACAF Federations (and would rather show a random mid-level NCAA football game anyway), leaving the game to be picked up by the nascent soccer broadcasting power in the United States, beIN Sports, which -- at the moment -- isn't readily available across cable providers.
Unless you have DirecTV or DISH you're pretty much out of luck to watch the game on your television. There will be other ways to view the action from Kingston however (wink wink).
Naturally the #usmnt Twitter-verse is probably going to go nuts that they're unable to watch Ray Hudson(*) shrieking at every Brek Shea touch. It's unfathomable, right, in 2012 not to be able to watch a soccer game on television.
(*) Apparently Hudson isn't even calling the match, meaning it's everybody's favorite Marcelo Balboa trying his best to string together sentences. Maybe it's not such a bad thing this game isn't readily available for consumption.
As long as beIN continues its aggressive push to gain cable carriers, chances are this will be a one-time occurrence and a minor annoyance (and better than the Pay-Per-View disasters of late). All things considered, we can all live without one game being on our television sets. If anything, blame the greedy federations around the Caribbean (or the third-party rights holder, Traffic Sports) trying to extract as much money as they can from American broadcasters.
Should be fun to see the reaction from bartenders and bar managers across the country when people show up at their establishments on Friday asking to put on "beIN Sport 1." Blank stares might be the least of it.
It used to be a lot worse, let's not forget this fact or the soccer cornucopia American viewers get to consume every week. Then again, the point of Twitter is to complain about "first world problems", so who am I to judge?
* Curious to see Geoff Cameron's future internationally. He clearly impressed in defense against Mexico, right before a move to Stoke City. With the Potters his role seems more in the midfield since he's probably not going to displace Ryan Shawcross or Robert Huth in central defense any time soon. As the continuing Maurice Edu (also now at Stoke) experiment has shown this isn't the easy trick to master. For every Danielle de Rossi slotting in a back spot with ease, there's a Javier Mascherano doing so with hit-or-miss success.
* Subplot alert: This match will settle once and for all, which is better: MLS or Bundesliga.
* Over/under is 4 1/2 on how many times it will be pondered on air what if Usain Bolt played soccer? Bill Simmons approves this line of thinking. Ugh.
* It's no secret I've never been the world's biggest Jonathan Spector fan, mainly because he always looks like he never liked playing soccer, that it was something his parents dragged him too when he was little and he happened to be good at it. That said, credit to him for sticking it out with Birmingham City in the English League Championship (second division) and carving out a place for himself. Still only 26 his versatility across all defensive positions could still prove useful for Klinsmann.
* Potential dilemma in October. If the U.S. takes care of business vs. Jamaica and all but locks up a place in the final Hex, does Landon Donovan have to play his way back into the starting XI? Klinsmann, who's always been a Donovan supporter going back to their joint ill-fated spells at Bayern Munich, would be wise coming up with alternatives -- now rather than later -- for another way to play if Donovan's play becomes more sporadic ahead of 2014. Granted, the fading superstar (and all-time leading goalscorer) losing his place in the national team is tricky scenario to navigate for any coach or nation. Something to tuck away for the future.
* Blind speculation here on my part, but it seems increasingly as if Timmy Chandler wants nothing to do for playing for the U.S. Come closer to 2014 his tune might change, but Klinsmann likely won't forget these snubs.
* No idea why Klinsmann opted to bring in four keepers on this roster: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson and 33-year-old Nick Rimando. He still hasn't scored internationally, but wouldn't an in-form Chris Wondolowski make a little more sense here? Or any eligible out-field American player?
* Why moving to Europe isn't always all wine and roses: Tim Ream. The once-and-future stalwart for the U.S. defense moved to Bolton in January, saw the Trotters get relegated and now is evidently floundering in the Championship, coupled with unimpressive play in a U.S. shirt. Seems like he's way down on the depth chart in the defense.
* Wither Stuart Holden ... forever?
* Shame Josh Gatt had to withdraw from the team with injury since he's a pure winger that would ideally fit into Klinsmann's system.
Chances are Klinsmann goes more of a 4-3-3ish lineup, using Dempsey and Torres in wide positions. Still think this diamond-type 4-4-2 uses the U.S. personnel the best.
GK -- Howard
DEF -- Cherundolo -- Cameron -- Bocanegra -- Johnson
MID -- Dempsey -- Jones -- Torres -- Shea
FOR -- Boyd -- Altidore
When the qualifying schedule came out this little home-and-home with Jamaica seemed like it could be tricky, but nothing all that much to worry about.
Chances are the U.S. comes away with six points, at worst four, but the fact it's never beaten Jamaica in Kingston in a competitive match, the lack of Donovan, the question marks over Dempsey, the lack of a offensive-minded midfielder ... adding it all up it might not be all that simple
Shame a majority of the U.S. soccer fanbase is going to be left searching for a way to watch it.
Can you take me high enough? To fly me over, yesterday." -- Damn Yankees, "High Enough."
So much of what we do when we sit back and discuss the U.S. national team operates in the margins, the gray areas, the big picture and the abstract. There's always something, a yeah but ...
We're always looking for the right context, to make declarative statements and swooping judgments because a soccer game can't just simply be a soccer game, it has to be a 90 minute referendum about the state of the sport in America.
Wednesday night's landmark 1-0 victory by the U.S. on the dreaded Mexican soil of the Azteca Stadium was, rarely, not one of those times. There's really no debate in the issue; a 1-23-1 lifetime record in Mexico is whole heaping lot better than 0-23-1. (Oh where have you gone Steve Sampson?)
More importantly it puts to rest the talk about the United States being unable to win in Mexico. For years as a kid, growing up a UConn basketball fan, the media and pundits would mention -- constantly -- how Jim Calhoun was the best coach to never take a team to a Final Four. Finally that changed in 1999 and the Huskies have won three NCAA titles since and, yes, had some rules violations along that way, too.
The point is, it's always good in a sporting context to get the proverbial 'monkey off your back.'
There's no way this win, set up by a late goal in the 80th minute by Michael Orozco Fiscal (huh?) and some impressive saves that only Tim Howard can produce is going to usher in a new wave of American success South of the Border. Odds still remain that the U.S. soccer team is going to have about as much luck in Mexico as a protagonist in a Larry McMurtry novel does down there.
Yet, the stigma is over.
Mexico is still going to be as hard as hell to beat down on the road, especially in a game that matters, but the air of invincibility has been forever taken away from El Tri.
A thought struck me in the hours following the game and the oft-circulated Instagram photos posted by Maurice Edu. What stands out, beyond the obvious jubilation of the players is Jermaine Jones hooked up to an oxygen tank, like some 350 pound NFL lineman during a preseason game.
Is it possible, as people like Landon Donovan have talked about for years, the true weapon Mexico has at the Azteca is the altitude and opponents needing to adjust to it? That said, in a friendly with it's lax substitution rules, Jurgen Klinsmann was able to make more changes than he would in an actual game, so odds are the winning goal wouldn't feature three players fresh and rested off the bench.
Wednesday the famed stadium, barely 40 percent full (if that) didn't seem all that hostile. Sure there was the typical booing of the U.S. National Anthem and all that jazz, but an empty stadium and a seemingly disinterested Mexico team didn't make for the most intimidating atmosphere in the entire world.
Obviously, too, somebody in the Mexican Federation screwed the pooch royally. In a match that should have been a victory lap for the U-23 El Tri team that won an Olympic gold medal, it became major egg on the Mexicans face ... and they probably didn't even make all that much money either via the lack of ticket sales. The irony here is Mexico, if it was looking for a payday, should have scheduled a game against Bosnia or Ecuador or somebody like that at Jerry Jones' stadium in Dallas, which would have drawn a huge crowd. (Editor's Note: Steve Davis of "Pro Soccer Talk" reported that this match was apart of a "home-and-home" deal between U.S. Soccer and the FMF signed before Klinsmann was named coach).
You know what, though, that's Mexico's problem.
If you want to argue this changes the dynamics of CONCACAF and means more than the U.S. ending their woeful track record on Mexican soil, be my guest. Remember international soccer is prone to sweeping judgments off one or two games. Consider barely 24 hours ago everyone was riding Mexico's jock as a favorite at the 2014 World Cup. A lot can happen, just as outside of the bubble of never winning in Mexico, the win Wednesday by the U.S. doesn't do a ton other than lift the confidence of the players involved.
For one, rare night in U.S. Soccer the result is all that matters.
And there's no arguing that as history has changed as a result.
* Just to get on board with everyone else, Geoff Cameron was excellent in a central defensive roll. Hope he's able to keep it up and get playing time at Stoke City. If he does, the U.S.'s concern about calcifying legs of Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu are a little bit less pressing.
* Suppose this is more of a coincidence than an irony, but winning goal by the U.S. was set up by two marvelous pieces of skill by Brek Shea and a cheeky backheel by Terrance Boyd, then finished by Ozorco Fiscal. It provided a bit of redemption for Shea and Boyd, both parts of Caleb Porter's failed Olympic team earlier this year. It's not the gold medal like Mexico won, but it's a nice consolation.
And if we think back four years, it was Orozco Fiscal who picked a third-minute red card vs. Nigeria in the Americans final group stage game in Beijing, which ultimately cost them a chance to advance in the 2008 Olympics.
* There's not a lot more to be said about Howard. Yes, he does yell at his defenders and get beat on some longer goals with poor positioning, yet the ridiculous reaction saves he made late to deny Chicharito (who also missed a sitter) make him the United States' most valuable player, game-in, game-out.
* Not sure why Klinsmann brought in Landon Donovan when he seemed both physically and mentally unavailable during his half of play. There were those retirement rumors kicking around about him this week. He wouldn't be the first soccer player to call it a career in his early 30s because of burnout.
* The less said of the lineup Klinsmann fielded, the better. The Jermaine 'Yellow Card' Jones, Kyle Beckerman and Danny Williams midfield trio might be able to win a Fabulous Freebirds style three-man tag team match, but, you know, soccer includes midfield distribution not simply crunching tackles. The U.S. got a historic result in smash-and-grab fashion so we'll overlook this, but this midfield was dross.
* Another game and another game waiting for Jose Francisco Torres to show something -- anything -- of why some people are so gaga over him.
* This match -- and the result -- again highlighted a key difference between club and international soccer. With enough moxie and resolve you can succeed like the U.S. has -- do nothing most of the match -- but steal results with goals on set pieces or against the run of play. This works in one-off matches, less in the grind of weekly league soccer.
It's also why the U.S., until it's overall technical ability improves in the midfield, is going to remain maddeningly inconsistent. A team strong enough to win at Italy and in Mexico in 2012, yet unable to get a 1-0 led against Guatemala to hold up in a World Cup qualifier. It's why it's anyone's guess which U.S. team shows up in Kingston next month to play Jamaica in a qualifier.
* In a nice bit of simulcasting the U.S. scored its goal right about the time my Wednesday night trivia team, the n.W.o., retained it's championship belt via a final-round tiebreaker. Nice work by my friends Mike, Shannon, Nichole and my brother Pete.
* Anyone that knows me or reads me knows I'm a massive cynic -- some would go as far to say smug, condescending asshole.
"One dog's dead one's on the phone Just leave a lung or leave it alone It's that same on song againI hate it cause it's true" -- Queens of the Stone Age, "Mexicola"
Welp, might as well close of shop.
Time to sell the deed on the U.S. Soccer House in Chicago for some property on Baltic Avenue.
Time for Nike to send all its surplus jerseys to the nearest "Where's Waldo" reenactment society.
Time for the U.S. to stop playing soccer in its entirety and have the youth of America focus on important stuff ... like MMA fighting and fragging noobs on "Modern Warfare."
Yep, in the wake of Mexico -- the haaaaaaaated El Tri -- winning the Gold Medal at the London Olympics, the sky is all but assuredly falling on the U.S. national team. The sun is setting over the stars and stripes. Abandon all ye hope.
This is grim. Real grim.
Before delving in the crux of today's rambling essay, a sincere tip of the cap to the youngsters of El Tri for their performance in London. Olympic soccer is a bit of an outlier -- call it the marsupials of international soccer genus -- hard to put a ton of stock into it.
Hell, without consulting Wikipedia, which country won goal in Beijing? Or Athens? A neutered U-23 tournament is nice, but hardly a barometer of any sweeping, declarative judgments especially when you have nations like Belarus and Gabon in the mix and powers like Germany and Argentina missing out. That said, Mexico did beat Brazil, which happened to feature the world's second most expensive defender -- Thiago Silva as its captain -- as well as the anointed one himself: Neymar. So that's a nice win, especially since the entirety of Mexico's starting XI in Saturday's final in Wembley played domestically, as marquee overage player Gio Dos Santos (and U.S. killer) sat out with an injury.
As John C. Reilly's character from "Cedar Rapids" would say: not, too, shabby.
Throw in Mexico's recent success at the U20 World Cup and other recent underage tournaments, as well as the 4-2 win in last year's Gold Cup final that ultimately cost Bob Bradley his job and it's a good time to fan of El Tri on either side of the border.
Granted, it's not like Mexico has ever proven in it's history to be a world-beater once it gets out of the shallow end of the pool that is CONCACAF(*) (or in major tournaments not played on Mexican soil), so again, winning the Olympics doesn't amount to much more than bragging rights in the grand scheme.
(*) Pardon me if I couldn't get wrapped up in a CONCACAF victory lap at the Olympics considering a) the rampant corruption and mismanagement of the federation and b) it's utterly incompetent pool of officials.
How this all applies to the current status of the U.S. National Team vis-a-vis Wednesday night's usual "friendly" at the Azteca -- where ESPN will be sure to mention the U.S. has never won about 400 times during its broadcast -- is kind of an open-ended question.
For one, let's remember in the biggest U.S./Mexico game in history -- the 2002 World Cup Round of 16 -- the United States won 2-0. The win kicked off about a decade of dominance in the rivalry for the Gringos. It didn't spell the end for Mexico or the amount to much more than (another) false spring for the Americans.
Like anything, this rivalry ebbs and lows.
It wasn't too long ago -- 2009 to be exact -- when Javier Aguirre was kicking Panamanian players, as he did during the 2009 Gold Cup and Mexico looked like an utter mess. Hell, in a minor miracle, Sunil Gulati never tried to shove the bespectacled face of Sven Goran-Eriksson down American fans throats, right, as Mexico did briefly.
And until Mexico comes up to a place like Salt Lake, Columbus or Kansas City and walks away with three points in a World Cup qualifier, it's not really time to out-and-out panic about the U.S. being phased out like CD players in cars.
Realistically, the time to start worrying is when the U.S. slips closer to the level of teams like Honduras, Costa Rica, etc., on a constant level than in tournaments across all age levels. That's an issue, or if, in a worst case scenario, Klinsmann isn't able to properly reinforce the old hands of the U.S. team with some new blood and it fails to qualify for Brazil 2014 -- seemingly not as a longshot as it once seemed.
Still, anyone who cares deeply about the U.S. team, it's a bitter pill to watch Mexico parade around Wembley Stadium with a gold medal around its neck, while Caleb Porter's American team couldn't even qualify. Maybe that, though, underlines what will always be the main difference on either side of the Rio Grande in this rivalry. When the U.S. team was knocked out by Honduras in an epic final minute collapse, who even noticed? Who even cared? By the time the Olympics rolled around, most Americans probably were surprised the U.S. team wasn't there. In Mexico, let's assume that failure to qualify for a tournament -- even the Olympics -- wouldn't go down as a smooth as an ice cold Tecate on a hot summer day. Heads would roll around the offices of the FMF.
While the Olympics, or other youth tournaments are all well-and-nice, but they fall below the World Cup, the Copa America, the Confederations Cup or even the Gold Cup. Still, the young Mexican players -- who won't feature in Wednesday's friendly -- all got a taste of winning, whereas the U.S. players got a big ball of nothing. Ultimately, that's what's going to count from this process more than anything. Mexico have the winners label, the U.S. have the losers and it's going to take some time to shake it.
More worrying that that, as Jurgen Klinsmann(*) tries to lock up and poach players like Joe Corona who have Mexican ties and tap into that ever elusive Hispanic American market and transform the U.S. national team, more prominent wins by Mexico could end up having the "Giuseppe Rossi" effect. The Mexico gold-medal team featured Sacramento, Calif., born Miguel Angel Ponce. You'd have to think young players with both American and Mexican ties would have to think long and hard about which CONCACAF power provides them with a better chance to place a winner's medal in their trophy case.
(*) Beyond locking up some German-Americans to play for the U.S. -- not even Timmy Chandler, officially, either -- it doesn't feel like Klinsmann has done anything revolutionary with the U.S. in his first year on the job. Rome wasn't built in a day and it's a little early to call what he and Gulati said upon his hiring last August a "bill of goods," but beyond taking the names of the jerseys and tweaking the numbering system what has the German exactly done noticeably different than Bradley? Just saying.
In truth, if you're trying to devise a perfect system to improve and perfect youth soccer development in American --- as Klinsmann said a year ago when he became coach -- you might as well devote your time to building a perpetual motion machine or figuring out cold fusion. Good luck as it seems nearly that Herculean a task,, though not impossible like turning lead into gold.
If there's one tangible, concrete conclusion to be drawn from Mexico's recent ascendance, it's the Mexican League is head and shoulders above MLS, but we probably already knew that, didn't we? Just look at all the CONCACAF tournaments and MLS's perennial shortcomings.
The one big knock on the Mexican league is its about as insular as it gets out there. Outside Mexico -- and America via television -- nobody in the soccer world much cares about it. Yet many of its teams have deep pockets, enough to bring in quality foreign players while nurturing its homegrown players. There's enough respect for it, too, that it can send clubs to the Copa Libertadores, something MLS can only pine for.
Put it this way, a young talented player might see what Chicharito is doing at Manchester United -- sort of the exception to the rule of Mexican players in Europe at the moment since El Tri players track record isn't all that impressive soup-to-nuts -- and want to try his hand across the Atlantic, but the staying in Mexico is a viable option. It's not looked down upon, whereas it seems all the identified American prospects seem hellbent on playing in Europe since MLS seems like a step down from that mythical "atmosphere" in Europe. (MLS isn't the Premier League, nor will it be, but it's still should be looked at as a better place to play than the relative backwaters of Scandinavia, oh but wait, there's that whole salary cap thing and players wanting to make a decent living -- a story for another day.)
However you slice it, Mexico's Olympic win over the weekend did add a little juice to a rather meaningless friendly, despite it's high-altitude setting among the Mexico City smog.
* We all accused Bob Bradley of having "Bob's Guys." Klinsmann certainly has his, and it's two decided cliques he's relied on: the Mexican League guys, for whatever reason, Michael Orozco Fiscal and the Bundesliga contingent led by Jermaine Jones.
* Why FIFA decides it needs a friendly plum dab in the middle of August right as every European league starts is typical FIFA baloney. It's why we end up with this hybrid lineup which lacks Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, among others prominent U.S. names.
* If only Chris Wondolowski could dye his hair a lighter shade toward blond. Then, if I was still drinking, I could maybe talk myself into thinking he can be the next coming of Brian McBride. That's actually meant to be a compliment to Wondolowski.
* It definitely makes sense for Klinsmann to reward in-form guys from MLS with national team call-ups, like Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and Steven Beitashour, yet all three are 25 years old. Not exactly young in soccer terms, but two years from a World Cup it makes sense to turn over every leaf. However, unless you're Grant Wahl, it's hard to make a compelling argument for 30-year-old Alan Gordon being in the mix, but again, good for him to get a chance to play for the U.S., I guess.
* If you know what to make about the last 12 months of Brek Shea's life, let me know. He was, at times, a sure-fire European prospect, then a MLS marketing mainstay and then a guy dropped from the lineup by FC Dallas. Is it all because Klinsmann used him so much in meaningless games in 2010? His potential and physical tools seem there, but is his head?
* Geoff Cameron hasn't been over with Stoke City very long, but if he's learned some of the dark arts from Ryan Shawcross, Rory Delap, Robert Huth, et al, using them against Mexico would be a quick way to endear himself to American fans.
* Four, five years after the fact and we still don't know what to make of Jose Francisco Torres and his fabled first touch. It's almost to the point he's got his true believers, like a baseball player beloved by the SABR community, yet in real application on the diamond he comes up short in the eyes of managers and player personnel men. For all the good buzz Torres has generated, when -- albeit in limited chances -- has he ever produced in the U.S. shirt? And doesn't it seem like Klinsmann using him as a wide player in a 4-3-3 is setting him up to fail via his lack of pace?
* The story might be boring and maybe there's not a lot there, but I'd like to have read something good about Carlos Bocanegra and Maurice Edu's spell as Rangers collapsed down the financial wormhole. Granted the club will likely sell him off, but never good when the U.S. national team captain is playing in the Scottish Third Division.
* As usual, with American forwards we love to hype everybody up. The latest in that line is now Terrance Boyd. Not sure how much was made about this, but going from Borussia Dortmund, albeit the club's reserve team to Rapid Vienna in the Austrian Bundesliga seems like a step down. That said, he's 21 and playing -- and scoring. Guess we'll wait and see. He's got the physical tools to dominant CONCACAF, it seems.
* Just writing all this, how confusing must it be to monitor and track every player with American soccer ties. Calling it a hodgepodge might be an insult to both hodges and podges.
Realistically, beyond Tim Howard and Klinsmann's adoptive son, Jones, starting the U.S. XI is as good a guess as anyone's, especially with reports Edu is being tried out as a center back yet again. Seems likely Fabian Johnson gets the nod at right back, too.
In the words of everybody's favorite turn-of-the-century, nü-metal band, Staind ... "It's been awhile."
Without melodramatics, it's been a long time since your humble narrator sat behind a computer screen and put some thought into the comings-and-goings of the U.S. National Team. Three matches in the past week and an upcoming pair of CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifiers will do that.
In a sense, the three friendlies pitting the U.S. against Scotland, Brazil and Canada in the span of nine days framed coach Jurgen Klinsmann as a would-be Goldilocks. The first game was too cold, the second game was too hat and the final match was just right. Add up all three matches and it's a fair indication of where the U.S. stands at the moment -- win vs. a hapless Scotland team; tough loss to a supremely skilled Brazil team and finally a flat performance on the road vs. Canada, which could've been a loss if not for a bad call by the linesman.
If you want to be cynical, since Klinsmann billed these five matches as a mini-tournament. Well ... four points from three group stage matches doesn't exactly cut it, does it?
Peel away a layer from the onion, however, and it's hard to get all that worked up about a couple of friendly results in May and June two years away from the World Cup. That's maybe the best and worst thing about the U.S. team these days: nothing it does, bar a failure to qualify, isn't going to amount to much until those three group games in Brazil.
Call is soccer's version of pass/fail.
Ultimately isn't that what all U.S. fans are going to judge the team by, the World Cup? We've seen the team dominate CONCACAF, until Mexico's recent resurgence, anyway. That's pretty much all the rank-and-file of the fanbase cares about, getting out of the Group Stage at a World Cup and winning a game or two in the knockouts, which isn't an unreasonable goal.
Beating Italy in Italy in a friendly -- nice result -- but in the end should the U.S. be beyond hanging its hat on hollow results like that?
Let's be frank, too, the U.S. can stomp Antigua and Barbuda 17-0 in Tampa Friday night and it's going to mean nothing short of three points towards gaining the final round of qualifying.
The road to Brazil, from CONCACAF, isn't a lot of fun, especially now the U.S. is all but expected to win every match, save for those against Mexico, and on the road in some of the trickier Central American locales. It's a grind. It's a process. ... It is what it is.
Get locked in. Try to get excited.
And above all, don't panic.
Unless the U.S. drops a point to Antigua and Barbuda. Then the Mayans might've been right about 2012.
Takeaways from the Friendlies:
* Michael Bradley is a midfield boss: This might have been written off the 2010 World Cup, but a two-way midfielder with a non-stop engine, rocket shot from outside the box and a maturing brain ... ? There are worse anchors to build a team around. If Klinsmann knows anything, he'll form the rest of the team around Bradley in the center of the field be it a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 formation. At 24, Bradley is one of the few proven players who've featured over a long spell in the U.S. shirt who are hitting their prime heading into the next World Cup.
As much as we talk about Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey -- and they'll still be quite useful in 2012, if not still the best American players -- the team should be built around the bald head of Bradley from here on out.
* The mystery back: It's not Fabian Johnson's fault, but as fans of the U.S. team we tend to love to jump on the hype backwagon over American players who flash even a brief glimpse of talent. In his games against Scotland and Brazil, Johnson looked like a real deal. You know the names I'm talking about. (cough, cough, Eddie Johnson.)
Let's not go overboard on Johnson, who likely won't play on Friday. (Nor will Edgar Castillo.)
For one, all the U.S. probably needs to get out of its left back position is a player who won't be an out-and-out defensive disaster or prone to mistakes, like our old pal Jonathan Bornstein. Is that setting the bar too low? Maybe, but as much as we fetish-ize the left back position as a black hole for the U.S., it's not the most important position in the world.
That said, a player like Johnson with pace who can offer overlapping runs and deliver a nice cross from time-to-time is only a bonus, especially if Klinsmann sticks to the 4-3-3.
* A lost chance: Off the friendlies there was a lot of rumblings about getting some younger players into the mix by Klinsmann. Names like Josh Gatt, Joe Gyau, etc. Problem is, those guys are still relatively green. It would've been a different story had the U.S. not failed to qualified for the 2012 London Olympics and the U-23 players could've had a taste of the international stage. I'm not in the camp these guys need to be rushed in, if anything a couple younger legs can be integrated on the fly depending on positional need and form as we get closer to the World Cup. With the first stage of qualifying for the U.S. particularly unforgiving, can't risk putting in guys on the fly who can't hack it when there isn't a safety net.
* An answer up top (maybe): Never thought I'd ever write this, but I actually kind of like Herculez Gomez up top as a striking option for the U.S. Long term option, no. Viable choice for the next two? Yes.
Although Gomez almost quit playing soccer about a decade ago and was nothing more than a journeyman in his time in MLS, there's something to be said for the grinder who's had to earn everything he's gotten. We as American fans might ignore it, but the Mexican League is a pretty good standard of soccer and Gomez has been excellent South of the Border.
Gomez isn't, and I hate the term immensely, a "sexy" choice and if it was Bob Bradley relying on him, we'd probably all mock it. Yet as a lone predatory option in a 4-3-3 he's not the worst option. He's got a nice eye for goal and excellent position inside the penalty area.
Better than Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore? No. Again he's an option. Better yet an option that isn't like some other American striking flavors of the month. He's not there simply for speed or strength, rather his ability as a pure soccer player.
* D'oh Defense: The biggest issue when we thought Bob Bradley was going to coach the U.S. through another World Cup cycle was finding a way to "quit" the central defensive partnership of Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra and set them adrift onto an iceberg.
This is a thorny issue since neither looked very competent against Brazil, but Brazil is, you know, kinda a good team.
Making it even more difficult to discern is that against most CONCACAF teams the U.S. isn't exactly going to get a fair physical test. The U.S. defenders have a head taller than their typical opponent, yet usually give up a step or two.
Realistically, nobody in the pool is pushing either of these two -- or Clarence Goodson as the third member of this version of soccer's non-fabulous Freebirds. That's why it was a shame Tim Ream's gradual insertion into the mix was a debacle, doubled by his relegation with Bolton in the Premier League.
Roll the dice. Take a shot and hold your breath whenever the U.S. has to take on a high-caliber opponent with the defense as it stands.
* Shoehorning: There are a lot of prominent American soccer journalists who want to make Jose Torres into this key player in the U.S. puzzle. For me? Just don't see it.
If Klinsmann is trying play a 4-3-3 with wing play, Torres doesn't have the pace for an attacking wide role. In the central midfield, he's not quite the defensive presence you'd like, although he brings something different than the high-flying, studs-up play of Jermaine Jones.
Torres certainly isn't a bad player, with a nice touch and ability to string together sideways passes, but trying to shoehorn into a spot in the starting XI seems like something Klinsmann shouldn't fixate upon. Nothing personal with Torres.
Lineup vs. Antigua and Barbuda Guess:
Thinking a attack-minded 4-3-3. The U.S. doesn't have complimentary, classic wingers, but they can make do on homesoil against a true world minnow.
DEF: Cherundolo -- Goodson -- Onyewu -- Bocanegra
MID -- Jones -- Bradley -- Edu
FOR -- Dempsey -- Gomez -- Donovan
Me, personally, I'm going to give Klinsmann a lot of rope.
There's going to be a lot of tinkering and lineup tweaking. It might not yield too many results for 2014, but if it plants the seeds for long-term future success for the U.S. I'll swallow my criticisms and give it a fair shake.
The question to ask: what do we want from the U.S., big picture, to dominant friendlies, stroll through qualifying ... and end up as an also-ran at the World Cup?
Or do we want a viable team who, beyond its blood-and-guts, never-say-die attitude, has the soccer brain and tactical acumen to make some noise at the World Cup?
"I'm just a troll who's intentions aren't good, oh lord please let me be misunderstood." -- Anonymous
Where are we as soccer fans in America?
Certainly past infancy and the terrible twos. Perhaps we're now in the petulant teen mode.
(I must file a strongly-worded letter to the
maker of this graphic, post haste!)
We want everything -- immediately. Right now! Every game, every second, every play should be a World Cup final multiplied by the Champions League wrapped in the 5-foot-7 frame of Lionel Messi with a cooing Ray Hudson shrieking in the background about champagne bubbles.
Right or wrong behavior or mentality, that's sometimes how it seems. Yes, sure, it's progress from the "modern" era of U.S. soccer that began with the 1990 World Cup, but maybe it's a little unrealistic.
One place where we can all, as American soccer fans, agree is that we probably need to grow up -- or at least grow a thicker skin -- when the old, dying wave of media members with an ingrained hatred of the Beautiful Game open up their yaps or get behind their keyboards and spew garbage, as Joe Queenan, a "humorist" did in the Wall Street Journal, trying to frame the U.S. U-23 team's failure to qualify for the London Olympics as proof nobody in America cares about the sport.
At the same time last week, apparently, UFC president Dana White called soccer boring in advance of promoting a fight at a soccer stadium in Brazil, leading to some banter back and forth on Twitter.
My question: why give these trolls any credence?
The Queenan story in the WSJ was so fraught with factual errors it was actually hilarious and, come on, does anyone truly care if the UFC president does or doesn't like something? Does it cause you to lose sleep at night?
Same thing goes for the King of American "soccer haters," Jim Rome. His schtick is about as fresh as rollerblades, stuck somewhere in 1993 where calling your listeners "clones" was considered edgy.
Truly, why engage people who are have nothing left to cling onto other than the fact, as has been proven for years, that America soccer fans have the softest skin in the world? (I, like all of us, is guilty of this, admittedly.)
Look, in a way, trolling especially via Twitter and other Internet means fascinates me. Gun to may head, the ultimate troll account, @Fansince09 might be the most hilariously brilliant use of the medium out there. If you don't get the joke, I feel bad for you.
As it is, when you go onto an online forum whining -- yes whining -- about the mean things a Queenan writes or a Rome says, you're playing into their hands when realistically these idiots are no better than a pranking troll like Fansince09, albeit much less offensive or hilarious. For decades there was no lazier sports' columnist trope than writing how soccer was for commies or would never be accepted in America, and watch the teary-eyed fans lash back and retort.
More than anything, as soccer and soccer fans mature in America, shouldn't we be past worrying about who does or doesn't like the sport? Sure, the anchors of "SportsCenter" still can't pronounce half the names correctly when they read a highlight -- but soccer plays are a almost a daily fixture in their "Top 10" plays.
Over the weekend when New York Cosmos legend Giorgio Chinaglia died it garnered more attention than was expected, all with the proper amount of reverence -- especially for a player who was most famous for playing in a league that became extinct nearly 30 years ago.
And let's face it too, when the NASL died in the early 1980s soccer did nearly fade away from the American sports landscape. Nowadays you almost can't go a day without a major soccer event on television. Just look at this week, starting with the weekend's European action, the Monday Manchester United/Blackburn game, the (UEFA) Champions League and CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday and Wednesday, MLS and Europa League on Thursday ... there's never a dull moment.
That's not even to mention the new generation of kids on playgrounds kicking a ball around or sitting in their bedrooms trash-talking me when they beat me at FIFA, who've grown up not knowing a world where soccer wasn't part of the mainstream American sports culture.
So yeah, if you want to fall into the fading, desperate trap in the last wheezing breaths of the soccer-haters, be my guest. Yet when people leap to the defense of the sport they themselves end up coming off as preachy, evangelists. It's a free country. People can like or dislike sports as they please. Personally, I loathe professional golf and tennis. I understand why people are interested in it -- maybe not rooting for an individual golfer who probably wouldn't piss on them if they were on fire -- but it doesn't bother me one way or another. Yet no matter how much purple prose is waxed poetic about Roger Federer, I'm just not going to care. In one ear, out the other.
Granted, soccer fans have had thin skins for years of being told that their sport sucks, is for fancy European divers and will never be popular in America. At the same time, trying to convince someone why they MUST like something gets tiresome after a while (EDITOR'S NOTE... No... never.).
In the world we live in circa 2012, shouldn't we all better than that? There's enough high-level soccer easily accessed that a person can decide on their own whether or not they like it. (ANOTHER EDITOR'S NOTE: Free beer does help, though)
Shouldn't we all have grown up, if only a little?
And isn't one of the biggest leaps from teenager to adult learning to be comfortable in your own skin and not worrying about what everybody else thinks?
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Was that Italy wearing ... white ... at home? The Azzurri?
Why was the U.S. looking, as my Internet amigo Erik pointed out, looking like they were doing their best scrappy college point guard impression with white undershirts under their navy kits? (Or as others pointed out, the Nazi kits in the 'Escape to Victory' movie, aside from the socks.)
And what the heck was Mike Piazza doing in the stands, sans mustache!
A strange day -- without Mario Balotelli in the mix, no less -- turned into a historic day for the U.S. notching its first victory over Italy in a history spanning back to 1934 thanks to, who else? Clint Dempsey.
Hard, as usual with friendlies, to get a true gauge on just exactly what this result means. Italy seemed to play the game at a snail's pace, context to let Andrea Pirlo try to thread in a pass here-or-there. It wasn't until the Azzurri went down 1-0 that they seemed to ratchet up the attack, which to that point could be summed up with Alessandro Matri being flagged offside.
The U.S. did, however, look organized and composed. More importantly, up a goal they didn't lose their cool and ground out a 1-0 result. Again, grinding out results against Antigua and Barbuda isn't exactly the goal at this point, but it's what the U.S. has facing it in the immediate future of marathon CONCACAF qualification.
The pragmatic (buzzword) 4-4-2-ish the the U.S. played against Italy might be boring and soccer's missionary position, but it seems to suit the team in the long term. You could even make the argument with fewer teams in Europe (or elsewhere) it might behoove the U.S. to stick with this, over the more in vogue 4-2-3-1 formations since teams aren't used to facing it any more.
Still, whichever way you want to look at it, Italy is still Italy and a team that didn't give up a goal at home in Euro 2012 qualification. Even for a friendly it's not worth diminishing the result. It's probably not worth trumpeting either from on high either.
That said, chances are we probably saw the high-water mark for the U.S. in 2012 and for the brief Jurgen Klinsmann era as a whole.
* Biggest talking point is going to be Michael Bradley and his commanding, box-to-box, performance. Not sure how much of this is because he's playing for Chievo Verona or since Jermaine Jones -- who gobbles up the ball a lot when he plays for the U.S. -- was out injured, but the No. 6 shirt was excellent throughout. Maurice Edu didn't do a ton, but he was a nice complement to Bradley otherwise.
* Jozy Altidore was the bad Jozy Altidore in the first half, meaning tumbling over at a sneeze from the Italian defenders. The second half he held his ground, won Fabian Johnson's cross and laid it off to Dempsey for the game-winner. He's still the best option the U.S. has at forward, but it wasn't a coincidence he looked more active when Dempsey pulled up closer to goal.
* We're all running out of words for Dempsey. Please stay healthy, Deuce.
* Nobody reading this cares too much about Italy, but the U.S. certainly did the Azzurri and Cesare Prandelli a favor today because there's no way he heads to the Euro without Balotelli or with the pint-sized Sebastian Giovinco has his No. 1 option. The way Italy played Wednesday went right into the U.S.'s hands. It almost felt a lot like the U.S. game in the Confederations Cup against Spain where they scored a goal and hung on, blocking a bunch of shots in the process, namely Jonathan Spector. Nothing exactly revolutionary via Klinsmann.
* Hard to muster up too much vitriole, despite the past, with Italy considering the Azzurri played with almost zero emotion until it was almost over.
* If there's going to be an issue for Klinsmann down the road in two years, but going to have to wait and see if old hands Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra as still capable of starting at the international level.
* Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler (perhaps Eric Lichaj, too) could be a fun little battle at the black hole that is traditionally left back for the U.S.
* On a great night otherwise, Sacha Kljestan probably didn't win any brownie points in the eyes of Klinsmann in a brief 20 minute cameo.
* Is it wrong to think, with the bulk with a starting XI comprised solely of players playing professionally in Europe, that the intimidation factor for American players isn't what it once was.
And by same token, in a weird way it's probably tougher on these pros to go to a place like Guatemala in the sweltering heat of summer than a nice, quaint European ground against a disinterested Italian crowd?
* Took a swipe at Taylor Twellman yesterday, but credit is due for his solid performance on the mic for ESPN, as he didn't talk over the game.
* How about that Clint Dempsey, huh? Should we mention him again?
Nice, no, great result. Overall a fairly forgettable match, as far as the actual game went, but it was a solid, professional and performance ... one that was revenge for Brian McBride's forehead.
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