U.S. Men's Soccer: 3 Short-Term Goals Team Needs to Display vs. Mexico
If there is one message that came out of the hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann it's this:
"America, you will finally have your attack-minded soccer."
And as the sports programming cut to the next thirty-second story, that was it.
ESPN analysts Alexi Lalas may have summed up the questions fans had after the comment with one of his more astute comments as he said that he'd like specifics.
Wednesday's friendly against Mexico will be the first concrete example of what attack-minded American soccer might be. A no matter the outcome, there will be reactions, positive and negative, surrounding the international friendly.
But realistically, what significant gains can be made in such short amount of time?
Probably little, which has been expressed by a number of writers at a number of sports outlets.
Then of course they've gone on to list all the caveats surrounding Klinsmann's hiring, all in an attempt to temper America's euphoria over landing such a star-studded coach.
Here are a couple of reasons for skepticism:
Klinsmann doesn't even have a permanent coaching staff.
The transitional state of the U.S. national team and the age of its players.
Or, keep in mind, Klinsmann has signed a contract for four years, not the eight-to-twelve year minimum needed to change an entire federation's mentality (see Uruguay or Germany for examples of time lines and implementation of nationwide changes in training).
That nothing in the style of play has been spelled out, except for in some document written and made available to "properly trained" American youth coaches by Claudio Reyna. Oh, and Klinsmann wasn't involved with the creation of that document.
Then there's the criticisms cast against Klinsmann and his managing of Bayern Munich, claims that Joachim Loew, not Klinsmann, was the mastermind behind Germany's success.
As well as the fact that the United States and its soccer infrastructure (or lack thereof) have little in common with Germany's. It's easier to adjust or add to a style of play rather than "create" one, especially from the top down.
Despite the belief that runs between the lines of many of these articles, said or implied, that American soccer fans are ignorant (I'm speaking of soccer followers, not the casual observer), fans understand there's a reason for excitement.
In an recent interview for Goal.com found here, Tim Ream may have summed up exactly why fans have a more positive outlook with Klinsmann in charge:
“For me it’s exciting to hear that he wants to control games,” said Ream. “It’s more fun for the players to control the game and the ball, be all over teams and execute counterattacks instead of waiting to react. No one likes to defend for 90 minutes.”
Ream should have probably been more specific. American athletes wish to more of an influence on the direction of a game.
He gets closer to the mark when he follows up the comment with, “We [players] like to dictate the flow of games and I think bringing that attitude to the team is definitely a step in the right direction.”
It would be hard to argue against Ream's philosophy. His reckless tackle against Panama certainly dictated the direction of that game, just not in the direction he desired. Still, I'm sure Ream would defend his decision, or any decision to act in that game was better than letting Panama take the game to the U.S.
The alternative was exactly what the U.S. had under Bob Bradley.
This is the underlying issue the casual observer may have missed in the changing of the American soccer guard.
There were reasons enough for firing Bradley (my list of the ten most obvious reasons can be found here) as well as keeping him on.
Bradley did a decent job; he stabilized the program when it could have digressed into something resembling its early years, during the eighties and nineties.
The major sports news outlets took this approach when covering Bradley's firing. It got so bad that the underlying message behind this atrocious article was, "Bradley is a good guy, so he was a good coach for the U.S."
But what they didn't cover was what Ream addressed, what fans were feeling about a Bradley team, and American soccer analysts should have captured. It was why so many supporters were upset even under an arguably decent coach.
Little in the way the team played felt American.
I'm really surprised so few analysts caught on to the underlying conversation, but thanks to Klinsmann, this is the discussion we're having. And, perhaps, the one the rest of the world is having.
Here are some of those questions:
What are American fans looking for in their team's play? How do we want to play as a nation, be it in an international match or on recreational soccer fields throughout the United States?
Who exactly is the "we" in the United States? How do "we" express that in the way we play the world's game?
Why do a bunch of people at U.S. Soccer—some who haven't even played the game—get to decide how an entire nation should play? Shouldn't it be something that originates from the local level, not the other way around? Throughout soccer history its been a little bit of both.
Collectively, "we" will decide America's preferred style of play, the federation, the MLS, Gulati, Klinsmann, youth coaches, the rich and the poor. And that will, of course, take some time. It may take more time than Klinsmann has with the team, and "we" may not like what we get and want to head in a different direction.
One way of looking at Bradley's time in charge of the U.S. is exactly that.
American soccer went down a road those in charge—the players and the fans—weren't comfortable with. So we changed course. These are the growing pains of a young soccer country.
So what should we look for in the short-term since it's harder to judge what will happen long-term?
Ream's comments and the style of play for the team under Bradley may give us a small list:
1. Be assertive, even if you lose.
Americans are a brash people. For better or worse, we have opinions and we want to be heard. How can American players go into a game where they must sit back and let the other team put their imprint on the game?
How frustrating must it be for an American player to sit back and let a team or a player come at them again and again? For example, the organized, passive, bend-don't-break, defense Bradley employed against better teams like Spain, Argentina and Brazil
Sometimes it got results, but what can be taken from such a game? How can that be applied to lesser teams? How draining does such a game feel? And is it a victory when a team defends all barrages and feels like it "survived" rather than won?
And what happens once the team breaks (i.e., goes down a goal)? How difficult is it to change mentalities?
This happened again and again under Bradley.
As Ream mentioned, American players will probably be more comfortable attempting to influence the direction of a game, even if they fail.
It's easier to be involved, to feel as if a player is controlling his destiny, and at the end of the game, the coach, players, and fans can feel like the team gave everything in an attempt to win rather than in hopes of not losing.
This is a slight difference, but one American fans understand no matter what the sport.
2. Be passionate
While Bradley's organized, disciplined, defensive approach was probably the right choice in the beginning, after a few years of implementation, the bend-don't-break mentality seemed to undermine the team.
All it took was one sweep of the camera over the team during the national anthem to see how tight most of the players looked. It was as if the team was collectively going over a checklist in their heads: Don't get out of position, make sure to come back on defense, keep track of your defensive mark, etc.
The cerebral, intense, team cohesion/defensive approach took something out of the players and their play.
Outside of Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard (when he's yelling at his defense or complaining about the language of the trophy celebration), few national team players wear their emotions openly.
Americans are one of the more emotionally open cultures (think of the Japanese for a comparison and notice their style of play). Shouldn't our play embody the essence of that emotion?
Jermaine Jones (the irony in his German-American heritage isn't lost on me) is an example of emotion that can go too far. Petulant fouls can hurt the team. Michael Bradley could also get too emotional, but I've had a couple conversations lately where someone claimed his game has been hurt as he tries to be too "in control."
All one needs to do is look to American sports commercials. Most contain a screaming athlete at some point.
American soccer needs its screaming, passionate sports clip, too.
It's a delicate balance, passion versus control, but even Wayne Rooney can manage it (and I think a number of American sports fans identify with him; he embodies blue-collar, focused passion).
3. Enjoy the game
When was the last time the U.S. looked like it was having fun? 2002?
This last goal is directly connected to No. 2, and probably No. 1 as both imply the team would be more comfortable playing a certain way, and if they play that way, then they'll probably have more fun.
Maybe it's the Latin influences on American culture. Maybe it's because soccer is considered "the beautiful game." Or maybe it's because we consider sports "games" at all, but there needs to be joy in American soccer.
Even at the youth level, there's not enough of it, and it's hurting soccer's progress in this country. Our national team players need to be the role models for this style of play.
Whatever the case may be, we watched sports to escape, to watch those more talented than ourselves do the miraculous and unimaginable.
Americans don't want their teams to just win, we want moments. We want to say we were there or when it's happening on the other side of the world, say we saw it happen live on television. We want it to be etched in our memory forever.
That doesn't happen only when the team gets its result, especially in soccer. We want to see moments of brilliance, individual or team-wise. And that usually happens when players are enjoying themselves.
Again, we see evidence of joy in all the other sports advertised in the United States. Yes, there are commercials and replays of hard work, but there is also joy in hitting a home run, striking out a player, scoring a touchdown, dunking a basketball or dribbling by an opponent. And, of course, lifting a trophy.
All of these short-term goals are abstract.
For a number of reasons they need to be. We don't have all the answers to the questions mentioned earlier, so it may not be possible to be more specific.
Also, as mentioned earlier, it takes time. More time than one camp, one qualifying campaign, or even one World Cup cycle to implement.
But after the disappointment of the Gold Cup, of realizing this team wasn't going to get better by 2014, that there was little enjoyment in the way the team had played, talking, even in abstract terms, of American soccer, and of change, is a bright spot for this program.
Hopefully, that's what we'll be on display against Mexico.
But for the Mexico game and for the qualifying soccer, I can guarantee an assertive, passionate, fun-loving United States team has a pretty good chance of being embraced by its American fans.
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