10 Ways U.S. Men's Soccer Can Improve from Their Recent Slide
After a recent run of games that included a definite high (the 5-1 thrashing of Scotland) and a low (a 4-1 destruction by Brazil), Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. staff can now reflect on how the U.S. Men's National Team can improve.
How they go about doing this is not overly obvious. Given that the team in camp was the best America could assemble (other than long-term injuries like Stuart Holden's), it would be easy to say that this is the apex for American soccer at the moment.
Yet improvement is an absolute necessity if the U.S. is to compete with local rivals like Mexico.
As much as Landon Donovan and company have dominated Mexico in virtually all venues except the Azteca Stadium in the last decade, things appear to be getting tougher.
Obviously, the disappointment at last summer's Gold Cup was full proof, but also, the same Brazil team which had little trouble with Klinsmann's team were thrashed by Mexico, 2-0.
With players like Javier Hernandez only entering their primes, it's a scary proposition for fans of the Red, White and Blue.
So how can the U.S. improve? Let's examine some key points.
Avoiding Ridiculous Injuries
I know it sounds lame, but the best way to improve is to have your best players on the field. (And that quote probably earns me the John Madden Captain Obvious award, but it's true.)
And with that in mind, getting someone like Stuart Holden healthy (and keeping him there) is critical.
Most USA fans have totally forgotten how the national team even looks with Holden. He's probably the best American central midfielder when he's totally in shape (or in the top two).
Granted, there's really nothing at all that can be done to improve this, except to do what the doctors say and hope it works out, but it is nonetheless a way to improve if we're being completely honest.
After all, what good is a destroyer midfielder like Jermaine Jones against Guatemala (who the U.S. tied 1-1 in a recent qualifier) if the opposition sit 11 men behind the ball?
They need passers, and that's something Holden can do very well.
The United States Men's National Team should not, under any circumstances, be giving up goals to Antigua and Barbuda. A nation of over 300 million should dominate a nation of less than 100,000.
And that sounds (and probably is) arrogant, but it's true.
So despite a recent 3-1 win against our Caribbean counterparts, the goal that was given up was disturbing.
The way it happened was also disturbing, because it revealed a fundamental issue with the American defense.
Lumbering USA defender Oguchi Onyewu was beaten one-on-one. It was almost too easy.
This is an issue that the U.S. must fix. Facing teams like Mexico and Jamaica (as well as other CONCACAF opposition) will force one-on-one defending.
The U.S. needs a younger, more agile group of defenders who can blunt the dribblers. This was also part of the problem against Brazil.
One very un-American thing to do in soccer is maintain possession. This is because almost all of us are taught, at a very young age, that passing backwards is bad.
And obviously this is an incorrect philosophy, because sometimes maintaining possession is more important than simply trying to go forward all of the time.
While the soccer IQs of most U.S. players is a bit higher than ours was at young ages, they still seem to have an issue holding the ball in possession at different points.
Improving in this area might be one of the most important of any aspects.
Playing against better opponents requires a certain patience, knowing when and when not to rush (and when to sit back and save energy).
Varying the build-up play is important, otherwise the team becomes very predictably and spends most of the game perpetually chasing and tiring themselves out.
At one point in the Euros, German forward Mario Gomez had three shots and three goals.
Admittedly, that's an insane ratio, even for a team as efficient as Germany.
Still, it reveals the kind of refined finishing that is seen by the best teams at the highest level.
This is an area where the U.S. can probably always improve, but that doesn't mean it's not worth listing here.
That was an item for discussion in the Brazil game, where the U.S. had a number of chances that went unfulfilled (chances that might have made it more of a contest).
Playing as a Unit
One trait of the Klinsmann era has been the adoption of a 4-3-3 lineup (or 4-2-3-1, whatever you want to call it).
Either way, it's different from many of the 4-4-2s that the U.S. sees on a regular basis.
In this way, it's generally a good thing, as it means the U.S. can outnumber its opposition in the midfield and dominate possession.
However, one weakness that I noticed is the problem of being outnumbered on the flanks while the USA defends.
If the winger doesn't track back, it generally means the full-back has to pick up two markers (a forward and an outside midfielder).
It's telling of a bigger problem: that the U.S. needs to play as a unit all of the time, not merely some of it.
Defending in numbers and pressing the opposition requires the effort of all 11 players.
When the USA is playing its best, it's because the team is playing as one.
Something that Klinsmann has been trying to improve is a problem that I've noticed for years with the U.S. team.
It's apparent when the defense simply clears it to the a lone forward 50 yards downfield and then expects him to hold the ball for 10 seconds while everyone catches up.
It's a combination of issues (keeping better possession, more patience, etc).
The underlying issue, though, is that the team spacing needs to improve. It's no good playing three up top in a 4-3-3 if the three forwards are all 20 yards apart constantly.
Offensively, they need to be more fluid (and thus, closer together) so that they can support each other better.
And as a whole, the team needs to do a better job of staying compact (this also links with the concept of playing as a unit). Then it won't seem so far-fetched for Michael Bradley to link up with whoever is playing as a lone striker.
Mentality, Especially During Away Games
Obviously Jurgen Klinsmann's recent comments that the U.S. needs to "nastier" seems to indicate he has spotted this, but all the same, the U.S. team needs a certain mentality to dominate.
And no, this does not mean they need to put on their game faces.
It simply means an acknowledgement that, especially during road games, the U.S. team is going to get messed with.
Whether it's coincidental radio station promos happening right outside the American's hotel, or objects being thrown at U.S. players on the field, one thing is clear: The U.S. needs a steely mentality to get CONCACAF in a vice-grip.
It does not mean that they need to make ridiculous tackles and chalk up yellow or red cards. It just means they need to be thick-skinned and able to be at their best even under extreme circumstances (which is also great training for the absurd atmosphere of a World Cup.)
Good teams (like Brazil) are often made to look even better when their opponent makes silly errors that result in turnovers in their own half.
This is a classic American mistake when the team isn't playing well.
Heck, even when they are playing well, they're still prone to the occasional lapse in judgement which any opposition can take advantage of.
Avoiding turnovers seems like a no-brainer, but it's very practical, particularly when facing an uphill battle against high-class opponents.
Savoring the Set Piece
One strength that the U.S. team can almost always count on is that, man for man, they're generally more physical than their opponent.
Therefore, utilizing this strength (literally) should be a prerequisite for success.
A particular area where this can be done is on set pieces.
The U.S. gave up a goal on a corner to Brazil and, while the Brazilians are certainly a better team, they should not be better on corner kicks.
The skill gap is irrelevant in these situations. There's no reason for the U.S. not be organized and, when the time comes, overpower their opponents.
Set pieces should be savored by the American team, not dreaded.
As Jurgen Klinsmann preaches his installation of a more fluid style of play involving passing and moving, it becomes just a vital that the team practice this style when they're not with the national team.
When players go back to their club teams, it's critical for the continued growth of the national team that they not simply relapse into old habits.
This will be difficult, as it requires that entire soccer cultures adapt to having Klinsmann personnel around, and it may take time.
Yet the more players who get to go abroad, or simply play in different leagues during their careers, the more they will arrive at the conclusion that the charismatic German has: "Kick and chase" is not the method for the future.
So consistency in continuing what they pick up with the national team is arguably the biggest long-term improvement that the U.S. can make.
Time will tell if this is happening.
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