Two years removed, and despite the score line, much improved from the 2-0 Brazil win at the New Meadowlands, U.S. soccer begins another World Cup cycle under the guise of a new coach who's raised collective expectations to lofty heights.
Brazil provided a stern test, and a much needed reality check, for Team USA's progress in the Jürgen Klinsmann era. The 4-1 result in favor of the five-time world champions would suggest a lopsided affair. While characterizing the game as such would be an injustice to the way the U.S. played it does accurately reflect the gap the Americans still must close to the top sides in the world.
Mano Menezes fielded a squad of primarily under-23 players, many who will go to this summer's Olympic football tournament to claim Brazil’s first Olympic gold in the event. Possible starters in Brazil's 2014 World Cup squad, however, did feature, notably the wonder kid Neymar, Thiago Silva, Marcelo and Hulk.
Klinsmann, on the other hand, is preparing the U.S. squad for World Cup qualifying matches, opening play with Antigua & Barbuda June 8th before facing Guatemala four days later. This, the second of three friendly matches, was another opportunity for Klinsmann to field a different lineup, assess his players and measure them against one of the world's best.
It was a solid overall effort, particularly the second half which featured a number of goal-scoring chances for the U.S. However, the unsettling characteristic of the 2010 World Cup reappeared. It must be recognized that defensive issues are now a persistent weakness in the U.S. side.
The U.S. was simply outmatched by Neymar, who was spread out to the left of Brazil's attack, too much to handle for Steve Cherundolo and then second half substitute Michael Parkhurst. Bocanegra and Onyewu were, if not lost, then left chasing in the central defense against Leandro Daimão and Oscar.
In possession, the U.S. defenders struggled to string passes together and build offense from the back line, clearly flustered by the high pressure Brazil were applying in the first half. Michael Bradley, their best play-making midfielder, was forced deep into the defensive third to collect balls and support his teammates.
The U.S. is yet to prove they can withstand the test of technically gifted, strong forwards with pace. Whether it was in the Bob Bradley era against England, Slovenia, Ghana and Mexico or against Brazil under Klinsmann, when the Americans face quality sides they've been exposed (often early) in the defensive third of the pitch.
Besides Fabian Johnson, who put in a stellar performance against Brazil and has emerged as a truly gifted left-back, questions must be asked about the future make up of the USMNT’s back line. Cherundolo (33), Onyewu (30) and Bocanegra (33) are decidedly on the downside of a decade of international service.
Parkhurst, Edgar Castillo and Geoff Cameron are the only defenders under 30 years of age included on the current 23-man roster. They have 22 international caps between them. Of the other recent call-ups, Jonathan Spector, Heath Pearce and Jonathan Bornstein are the only ones with more than 10 caps to their credit.
A competitive dilemma
The U.S. plays in CONCACAF, the confederation representing North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Selecting a squad to beat the likes of Antigua & Barbuda, Guatemala and Jamaica, respectively placed 100th, 83rd and 51st in the FIFA world rankings, is something of structural impediment to preparing a team for World Cup-caliber competition.
Regional qualifying as well as the bi-annual continental tournament, the Gold Cup, is, barring Mexico, devoid of world-class teams. This is no more apparent than at the World Cup. Since the global tournament expanded to the current 32-team setup in 1998, CONCACAF teams outside of the U.S. and Mexico (namely Jamaica, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago and Honduras) have combined for two wins in 15 matches.
So while the team has always sought strong competition in international friendlies, including a recent run in Europe included Belgium, France, Slovenia and Italy, the majority of the team's competitive fixtures are against far inferior competition.
European and even Asian qualifying campaigns are substantially more rigorous. These teams face harder roads and are therefore better prepared for the World Cup. That was certainly part of the logic behind Australia’s move from the Oceania Football Confederation to Asia's in 2005.
Making a similar move to CONMEBOL, the South American football body would be a highly unlikely step for U.S. soccer, but they should consider evolving the overall standard of their match schedule. One idea floated with frequency is for the U.S. to play in the Copa America, South America’s prestigious continental tournament.
The format is such that South America’s federation has invited two teams from outside the continent since 1993 to make three groups composed of four teams.
CONMEBOL habitually extended one of those invitations to the U.S. but the Yanks have only participated once (in 2007) in the last six editions and only three times overall.
If U.S., CONCACAF and CONMEBOL officials together created a Copa America that included all of the regions' participants, it would benefit not only the U.S.’s development on the international stage but everyone else’s as well.
It could be as simple as adding the six highest ranked CONCACAF teams to the Copa America mix. The result would be a four-group, 16-team tournament in the vein of the European, African and Asian varieties of this competition.
The largest obstacle standing in the way of such a proposal (and the reason the U.S. refused previous offers to participate in the Copa) is the Major League Soccer season, which remains out of sync with the international football calendar.
The Klinsmann effect
Nearly a year into his tenure, Klinsmann’s approach, evident even in the Wednesday night loss, has manifested in tangible ways.
There’s a noticeable emphasis on creating offensive opportunities via quick, flowing movement and short passes. Wednesday night's goal came of Bradley’s vision, Johnson’s ingenuity in rushing into the space behind the Brazilian right back and Herculez Gomez’s incessant drive to the goalmouth.
Away from the pitch the palpable sense of excitement around the team has carried over from the last World Cup. Over 44,000, a record in the state of Florida, witnessed the 5-1 win over Scotland. More than 66,000 were on hand in D.C. The big screen at Marlins Park showed the U.S. goal in the middle of the baseball game I was at the other night.
Apart from the cultural impact his appointment may have on the future of the sport in this country, Klinsmann’s ability to derive the best out of this crop of established and developing stars will ultimately be his lasting legacy.