For many Americans, the United States Men’s National Team is their club team. It’s the soccer team they feel the most connection with, the team that they can actually attend games in person, cheer, sing songs, etc. As fun as it may be to root for Manchester United or Barcelona from afar, there’s more of a visceral connection with the USMNT for whatever reason.
Because of that, games that should have no meaning beyond experimenting with combinations and roles become more important — to the fans. All of a sudden, another forgettable loss to the Chile B team becomes “the team hasn’t won in five games and Jurgen needs a win to silence the critics.”
Right. Critics began circling around Klinsmann in early 2013, too, and later the team won 12 straight matches that summer.
Yet, despite the fan following and intense interest in every friendly, the National Team will never be a club team, where results are needed on a weekly basis. Or in the rarefied club level when winning isn’t the only expectation, but winning with panache and entertainment value, too. (As far as early-year friendlies go, the Chile and Panama matches were about as good as it gets for that.)
If only the path to winning a World Cup came through Internet thinkpieces, right? The copious amounts written about the U.S. Men’s National Team, Jurgen Klinsmann, and how to grow soccer in America on a micro and macro level in the last two decades surely should have produced one, if not two, triumphs on the world’s biggest stage by now. Every soccer fan or observer has his or her simple (or complex) solution to snap their fingers and transform the USMNT into Brazil or Spain or Germany or Italy or Argentina overnight. Maybe it’s Bill Simmons, once upon a time, wondering (again) on a podcast if America’s best athletes played soccer or the idea of switching MLS to a European-based, 11-month calendar or whatever.
Soccer in America, specifically the men’s national team, remains a uniquely complex situation — players spread out across multiple continents, working in concert with a nascent league in MLS, high school/college soccer, the sheer size of America etc. — without any real fair comparison across the globe. That’s why the Americans are no closer or further away from winning the 2018, 2022, 2026, 2030 World Cup a day after they beat Panama 2-0 in a friendly in Southern California then they were last month, when they lost 3-2 to Chile in a friendly on the road in South America.
That insignificance didn’t stop the deluge of hand-wringing over the last week following comments from Jurgen Klinsmann over the fitness level of some players during the traditional January/February National Team camp, given the MLS regular season ended for some players in October. Arguments veered in many different tangents. Some cited it as another round of Klinsmann vs. MLS. Others, such a Alexi Lalas on Fox, wondered if blaming fitness was an excuse for a coach whose run out of ideas.
At this point it’s worth remembering few elite level National Teams hold a yearly camp for a month. The club season simply wouldn’t allow for Roy Hodgson or Joachim Loew or whomever to pull their best players — or even fringe players — away for a month to train without a major tournament on the immediate horizon. If the team is convened for a month, you need to talk about something and Klinsmann certainly provided that on his own prompting.
After the Panama victory, the U.S. plays seven more scheduled friendlies in 2015, along with the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July. However, with the team together for over a month training in California and with so many of the key faces in the National Team — Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey — now employed by MLS, this winter’s camp took on a lot more significance and gave it that club team feel as well.
At the very least Klinsmann is trying some new things. True, the 3-5-2 experiment with three center backs lasted all of one game, but if you don’t use these meaningless games to tinker, what’s the point? Beyond that, having a National Team coach who isn’t afraid to challenge convention or to speak his mind isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world.
Thoroughly assessing Klinsmann’s past, present, and future remains something on the U.S. soccer agenda after every single match, but realistically his impact won’t be felt until 2018 — assuming he finishes out his second four-year term — if even then. As a coach, yes, by 2018 we’ll have seen what he did with the Americans at two World Cups, a Copa America, a couple Gold Cups and dozens of friendlies. Judging his role as technical director of U.S. Soccer? We won’t get a feel for that until years after the fact.
So, how you want to view Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer remains driven by your own personal ideals and goals. If nothing short of winning the World Cup satisfies, you might be in for a long couple years, especially after disjointed, non-binding friendlies.
Fortunately the latest, greatest sure-fire way to save U.S. Soccer and turn the USMNT into World Cup winners is only a couple thousand keystrokes away.
Other Random Thoughts:
* Michael Bradley scored on an Olympico — aka a goal directly from the corner. That’s fantastic on so many levels. The best part of the goal was Jozy Altidore’s initial attempt to claim it went off his head.
* Juan Agudelo, who had been without a club for months, signed with the New England Revolution. Hopefully he’ll re-work his way into the mix, as the U.S. striker pool remains thin.
* Gyasi Zardes is the consensus name to watch coming out of the game, mostly for his excellently-weighted ball to Clint Dempsey that put the U.S. ahead 2-0 in the first half. Zardes, if you’re unfamiliar, scored 16 times for the Galaxy en route to the MLS Cup in 2014. The 23-year-old California native benefited from playing alongside Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, so figure he’ll be a beneficiary of Steven Gerrard’s impending move to SoCal, too.
Did Zardes help prove Klinsmann’s point about match fitness to a degree with his performance on Sunday? The Galaxy’s last game came on Dec. 7 in the MLS Cup final.
* Mix Diskerud looks assured on the ball and solid in possession, a trait sorely lacking by the entire team last month in the loss to Chile.
* Tottenham-bound DeAndre Yedlin limped off in the second half. Most reports don’t make it sound serious, but the last thing a promising young player needs ahead of a big move abroad is an injury. The way Spurs are playing in the Premier League at the moment, it’s doubtful Yedlin is in line for any first-team action, but missing training at the start of a new career could be a setback.
* Given the U.S. history at left back, it was probably only a matter of time before Brek Shea received a run out there. To his credit, the Orlando City player did make a key block early in the first half when the game remained scoreless.
* The next time the U.S. plays is late March with games in Denmark and Switzerland. Expect a wholly different lineup, with minimal MLS-based call-ups. The results from those friendlies will remain mostly meaningless, same as the January and February ones.