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The USMNT and the curse of expectation

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Anyone who follows U.S. soccer knows that the USMNT recently began the Hexagonal round of World Cup Qualifying with a thud. The 2–1 loss to Honduras was, to be polite, uninspiring. Similar to the defeat away to Jamaica in the summer, this loss showed a U.S. team with little cohesion, low energy, and few ideas moving forward. And now, qualification begins again, with a game in Costa Rica on the 22nd, and U.S. fans are sweating.

Jurgen Klinsmann, brought in to teach the U.S. team to play with flair and confidence, has received a large share of the criticism for the loss to Honduras, as the play of the U.S. in San Pedro Sula was seen as emblematic of his failure as U.S. coach. The United States men’s soccer team has been “on the verge” of being truly competitive with the global giants of soccer for, it seems, ever. Exciting runs in the 2002 World Cup and 2009 Confederations Cup, and players like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan playing starring roles for teams at the top of the best leagues in Europe, showed that the U.S. finally had the talent, and the hiring of Klinsmann was seen as a way to push the U.S. over the hump to being more than a collection of gifted athletes. Under Klinsmann, we all hoped, the U.S. would finally become a team with style and skill.

That it hasn’t happened yet—that we now all watch qualifying with bated breath, doing the math in our heads, again and again—should perhaps not be a surprise, and yet the improvement of the U.S. over the last fifteen or twenty years is undeniable.

So what is stopping the U.S. of our dreams from becoming reality?

The small sample-size problem

Perhaps the biggest problem facing Jurgen Klinsmann, or any international manager, is the issue of small sample size. At a club team, the coach has, generally, several weeks of preseason to set his roster, and then months of training time and dozens of games across which to watch his players play and to teach them his system. During transfer windows, some players leave and others arrive, but the roster changes incrementally, and those changes are made within the larger context of a season.

That simple luxury of time—to evaluate players, to tweak playing style to a team’s strengths and weaknesses, to try things out to see what works—is unavailable to international managers. Outside of major tournaments, coaches rarely have the chance to have the same set of players together for more than days at a time, let alone months, which presents challenges. Player evaluations must be done while players play for their club teams, playing within a system different from the one they will play in with their national team. While a player may thrive under his club team’s system, he may struggle with the needs presented by his national-team coach. (This change has presented U.S. forwards, especially, with problems. See: Wondolowski, Chris; and Altidore, Jozy.)

Even if said players do indeed suit the national-team coach’s plans, few players can assimilate a coaching philosophy without significant training- and game-time. National teams simply do not train enough or play enough games to do that work of assimilation easily, resulting in highly inconsistent performances from individuals. The players who played so poorly against Honduras may play excellently against Mexico, just as last summer many of those same players put on a show against Scotland but stank it up against Jamaica. The job of the coach is to glean useful information from such up-and-down performances. Easier said than done.

The CONCACAF quandary

Another issue facing any U.S. coach is the nature of play within CONCACAF versus play without. Perhaps it is not unique to CONCACAF, but the region does present an interesting challenge in that qualifying for the World Cup out of the confederation requires playing a certain way, on certain kinds of pitches, in stadiums with huge home-field advantages. Whereas, at the World Cup itself, teams are likely to be more technically able, the surfaces will be of much higher quality, and the support in the stands will be much more mixed. The strategies and skillsets required to compete with and beat the European powers are not necessarily transferable to CONCACAF competition, and vice versa.

Granted, class is class, and a good team should have success in both places, but it seems obvious that, while Bradley Ball was well suited to getting the U.S. out of CONCACAF, it lacked something against sides that really wanted to play soccer. Klinsmann was brought in to inject that special something, and so far his teams have struggled against CONCACAF opposition.

Of course, there must be a happy medium. Skeptics would point to Mexico as a model of a ball-playing team that still has success in CONCACAF, but Mexico can struggle, too. They drew with Jamaica in the Azteca on the same day the U.S. lost to Honduras.

The talent pool

In the end, though, the largest obstacle to overcome for any U.S. team is the overall talent level of the players. While the U.S. talent level has increased dramatically, it is average player quality that still separates the U.S. from the teams it hopes to emulate. Take Germany. Considered one by one, how many U.S. players would be chosen over their German counterparts? Would you take Tim Howard or Manuel Neuer? Philipp Lahm or Fabian Johnson? Bastian Schweinsteiger or Michael Bradley? Thomas Muller or Landon Donovan? Clint Dempsey or Lukas Podolski?

I can hear some of you making arguments already, and that’s good. It’s a sign of how far the U.S. has come that such comparisons can be made in a serious way. That said, none could argue that, taken as a group, the U.S. squad is better than the German one. This isn’t to disparage the U.S. team but merely to remind us all that the U.S., for all its growth, is still an underdog when it comes to international soccer. Of course, Davids beat Goliaths all the time. That’s why we watch. Most of the time, however, David gets clubbed.

Conclusion: International soccer is hard

If that’s the case, then what should we honestly expect out of our national team? Certainly, qualification out of CONCACAF for the big dance itself should be expected. The U.S. has proved itself able to do that consistently, and failure to do so would be a regression.

Beyond that?

Is it reasonable to expect 2002’s success again?

Is it reasonable to expect stylish, possession-based, attacking play?

Will Klinsmann’s tenure be a failure if he cannot deliver those things?

I don’t know. What I do know is that success at the international level is difficult. Look at France. That world soccer powerhouse has gone through six years or more of upheaval and upset, even though the country regularly produces many of the world’s best players.

I’ve said before and I firmly believe that the United States men’s national soccer team will win the World Cup in my lifetime. However, I don’t expect it to happen soon. Improvement at that level moves at a geologic rate, and the U.S. still has a pretty big gap to make up on the top teams in the world.

That said, don’t lose hope. While any individual result can go either way, and even if the U.S. somehow fails to qualify for 2014 (and nothing will save Klinsmann if that happens), all the factors that have contributed to the U.S.’s improvement—the growing and diversifying population, the rise of soccer’s popularity as a spectator sport, the improving domestic league, etc.—are still there. The U.S. will continue to improve and grow into a world soccer power. It won’t happen today, but it will happen.

So, no matter what happens in Costa Rica next week, remember: Things are looking up.


  1. What is stopping our dreams from becoming reality is reality. Hiring Klinsmann was a great sign, it showed we wanted to take that next step. But it was only that first step on a long, long, looooooong road.
    I feel like American arrogance plays a role in this, hence this “OMG Why decided to play like this, so why aren’t we winning every game by a comfortable 3 goals!?!?” It’s not that simple. Changing our style of play is a long process that won’t even truly hit until the next generation. But making that first step is the most important part.
    It’s also important to note that we reap what we sow. We are in this spot BECAUSE of OUR decisions these past 20 years. We went “Oh hey, making the World Cup is fun, so let’s play however we need to, to win qualification!” Hence the fact that, stylistically, we have stagnated and made no progress whatsoever. All these great players we have – Dempsey, Donovan, Bradley, are due to simple genetic chance and NOT a wonderful youth system.
    My biggest fear, beyond not making the WC, is turning back and abandoning this journey. That when I’m old and 55 and hunchbacked I turn on a US game and see tactics that make me have flashbacks to Bob Bradley.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I’m with you, but I don’t have quite the same fear you do, simply because I think the demographic shifts in the U.S. are so big that we will not be able to stop the improvement of the average U.S. player. Which is to say, tactics will become irrelevant (or, if not irrelevant, at least less important), because the quality of the players executing them will be so much higher.

  2. the interesting thing about this team is that, for stretches of time, they’ll look like strangers playing pick up in south philly. then, in an instant, they’ll string together a dozen cool and collected passes and put a goal up like dempsey’s in the first match that convinces you just how narrow that gap between being ranked 33rd in the world and 1st truly is.

    they are very much the philadelphia union of national teams, in a way. their collection of individual talent is undeniable, yet their cohesion is lacking at nearly every link, and their end results usually leave much to be desired, even in the case of a victory.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      That’s a good point, but I think it again points to the overall level of player quality. Really top-class players need much less time to adjust to playing with other players, especially if those other players are also top-class. That said, one of the reasons Spain has been so dominant lately is because the national team pulls players from relatively few (very, very good) club teams.

  3. Nice analysis. Funny, my soccer career kind of mirrors yours.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      It kills me almost daily to think about what my soccer career might have been like if I was as good at 18 as I am now. If only!

  4. Still concerned if Klinnsman can truly pull off qualification. Gulati was a fool not to see the warning signs.

  5. The Black Hand says:

    It’s tough to train American players, to forget everything that they have been taught in their youth, and try to play quality football. The infusion of the Euro/Americans is polarizing the different upbringings, leading to very erratic play. I think that we will qualify, though.

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  7. the us takes athleticism over skill and vision and knowledge on the field. hell messi probably would have been cut! hes too short! funny but probably true! there are great skilled smart players out there that get looked over. and until the us can recognize our own top players we will always be mediocre. or we should get the top athletes from the nfl and put them on the field. lol btw watch when diskerud has been out there how well the team plays and controls the pace of the game and then watch when hes not out there. simple thing watch how many forward passes a player completes and how many he misses.

  8. i actually went from loving how the us team was playing to hating how they play and wishing that they lose because the player selection sucks beasly and gonzales cant defend a mediocre striker besler cant keep a mark or read offensive runs and cr tore up orazco! at least in the past we could defend half decent and jones and johnson dont have a clue out there in the mf just count how many bad passes they had its rediculous out there! you could get a better team just by picking players looking at the stats in the mls. we need to have faith in our home grown skilled smart players in the us we can compete against anyone with the right players out there.

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