A couple of days since the USA Soccer team exited the World Cup – beat by a better team in Belgium, but defiant and unbroken in the end. Everyone has acknowledged the brilliance of Tim Howard, the heart and drive of the field players, as well as their lack of possession and finishing. As much as the Team America was outplayed on the ball by Beligum, had Wondolowski and Dempsey scored on a couple of key chances, we could well be talking about one more game against Messi and Argentina. SI.com’s Grant Wahl summed up the match very nicely (as usual).
Meanwhile, as mass attention begins to drift away from the team, the die hard American fans have begun the debate on strategy and tactics. We made it out of the Group of Death – unexpected by most. But we did so playing typically gritty, defensive-minded and opportunistic soccer. This is not how Jurgen Klinsmann said we would play. Did we make it to the knock-out rounds because of the coaching staff’s approach and preparations, or in spite of their tactics and roster selections?
It’s a valid question, but in many respects, a moot point. US Soccer re-signed Klinsmann before the World Cup even started, so he remains in charge through the next four-year cycle unless he decides to go elsewhere. So even though gambles like the selection of John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, yes, Julian Green look pretty good; other selections look highly questionable.
The biggest problems were in the attacking portion of the field. Once Jozy Altidore went down, our only recourse was to play Dempsey up top and stack the midfield. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough (any?) difference makers in the wide midfield or attacking mid roles. It was supposed to be Dempsey and Bradley there, and this just didn’t happen.
So we’ll go ahead and point out the fact that Landon Donovan, our best wide/attacking midfielder, was left in L.A. Terrence Boyd and Eddie Johnson, the two strikers who could potentially replicate Jozy’s physical hold-up play, were left at home. These guys would have made a difference. Would it have been enough?
We have to hope that Jurgen learns from his mistakes. We have to hope that when he and his staff do their own post-World Cup scrub, they can acknowledge their errors and formulate a better strategy for the future. Der Coach says he wants to play a more attacking, pro-active, take-it-to-them style, but you have to have the guys on the field to do that.
One aspect of the Klinsmann tenure has been a willingness to jettison aging veterans to make way for the new guys (see Bocanegra, Goodson, and Donovan). In a recent interview he already acknowledged his goal of looking to younger players in upcoming friendlies and giving the veterans a break. With qualification for the 2016 Olympics on the horizon (an under-23 tourney), this seems reasonable. It also means we will likely see the 30 and over crowd phased out in the next year or two. This includes key guys like DaMarcus Beasley and Kyle Beckerman, as well as Clint Dempsey and the team’s two best players in the World Cup: Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones. Big shoes… big shoes…
But replacing the vets isn’t the only challenge, or even the biggest challenge. That would be finding enough talent and dynamism in the wide and attacking midfield roles, and developing enough goal-scorers on the forward line. Defense was a big question coming into the tourney, but those guys ended up playing very well, and with Besler, Gonzalez, Cameron, Johnson, Yedlin and Brooks, the core of that group should be around for the next cycle.
So what do we do about our attacking players? Where do we find that elusive creative mid, the poacher, the dynamic wing, the scorer? Seems like this has been the question since the USA re-emerged on the world soccer stage 20+ years ago. Well, the soccer bloggers and writers have already begun projecting forward: check out Liviu Bird and Brooke Tunstall.
There are names on those list to watch for. We’ll be following the progress of Julian Green and Terrance Boyd closely on the German front. Then there’s Gedion Zelalem – born in Germany to parents from Ethiopia, but he live in Maryland for seven years before signing with Arsenal in England. He’s only 17, has already played for the first team, and his father is pursuing U.S. citizenship. Talk about your wild card.
Closer to home, Darlington Nagbe, who plays in Portland, has been in this country since he was 11 and still somehow doesn’t have citizenship. If he was eligible, he likely would have been in Brazil. MLS also features young attackers like Luis Gil, Kellyn Rowe, and Benji Joya. It’s fun to project forward, but also somewhat futile. We just don’t know who will emerge, who will flourish, who has the goods. After all – four years ago Yedlin, Brooks, and Green were on nobody’s radar.