U.S. Men: 2/3 a Good Team

To begin with full disclosure, I didn’t see a second of the U.S. loss to Paraguay; I haven’t even seen highlights. I have, by now, read three items on the game and, by my reckoning, the several consistent themes on which they agree tell me enough of what I need to know. Before getting into this whole spiel, here are the links:

Maryland Tolik (a reader’s comment, so go to the bottom of the post)
Jen Chang (on ESPN)
Jeff Carlisle (on ESPN)

And, now, to business: I come not to praise the U.S. Men’s National Team (Yanquis), but to bury them...and I mean that in precisely the same way Marc Antony did.

We all know we lost, with much of the blame for that going to the limitations of the American forward. To quote a favorite line (Bull Durham again - sorry) forwards Taylor Twellman and Eddie Johnson sometimes give them impression that they couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a fucking boat. Against opposition higher in quality than a Norwegian B-team, our current first-choice forwards have played with the vision and sharpness of near-sighted klutzes on multiple occasions.

On defense, a former strength when coupled with a “gritty” (read “thuggishly disruptive”) central midfield, we’re still fiddling with the dial in search of the right combination. For example, the consensus view seems to hold that Bradley needs to call off his love affair with Jonathan Bornstein; Oguchi Onyewu no longer looks the savior; judging by the Kansas City’s Wizards’ defensive record, Jimmy Conrad is slipping against Major League Soccer (MLS) forwards; the reality is, recently-fielded combinations of Yanqui defenses labored to contain teams like Guatemala, Panama, and Canada - never mind Argentina.

In midfield, we have mastered work-rate and fundamental technical skills - think competent passing and trapping...you may laugh, but I remember the days when this vital piece was lacking. Once in a blue moon, Benny Feilhaber or Clint Dempsey manages the killer pass, or Justin Mapp darts through seams in the opposing defense, but with nothing like the consistency the international game demands. Moments of inspiration aside, however, we still haven’t grasped tactical fundamentals like possession play and managing the game - and that conceptual failing only returns us to relying on energy and those odd moments where our players’ feet kiss the ball just so.

But for all that, reports from the last two games generally agree that, 1) we played world-power Argentina tolerably well for 60 minutes, and, 2) we essentially went toe-to-toe with Paraguay on every level but finishing and the more refined aspects of the game. On top of that, we not only won the Gold Cup, but now enter our regional tournament - not to mention World Cup qualifying - as an automatic favorite.

If you told me that the above would pertain after France 1998 - hell, after the 1990s, period - I would have wept with joy. And how long ago is 1998? Nine years, people.

Heading into - and out of - the 2006 World Cup so much was written about the elevated expectations under which Yanqui teams now operate. There’s so much talk still about how labored our steps toward world-power status have been, along with prescriptions for what can ease that climb; crowning a rising player as The Anointed One who will provide the vital leg-up comes up all too often...with the advisability - no, the necessity - of sending said player to Europe’s proving grounds rarely far behind. The reality, though, is that it’s going to take more than one player to lift us to the top of the heap - a team of such players is needed - and no matter how many go to Europe and how soon.

The real question is why so many fans expect so much - and so soon. For every advantage we enjoy - a population of 300 million, for instance, against relevant rivals who have only 80 million - a commensurate downside exists: those 80 million live in a country where soccer is the most popular sport, whereas we have at least three sports competing for, and still winning, the scramble for athletes. The hard reality is, we’re in, at best, late adolescence as a soccer-playing country. We are developing - quickly even - but expecting any American squad to beat a big alpha-male team like Argentina at this stage in our development leaps from enthusiasm to delusion. Reasonable as it is to point out that we have beat Argentina further down that developmental curve, that confuses a great day with a great life; it’s not so different, really, from assuming that finding a $100 bill lying on the ground one morning means you’ll find one everyday.

A comment just came in (on that same post as Maryland Tolik’s) by Gareth Sleger, who hopes Bob Bradley won’t use sending a b-squad as an excuse for our Copa performance. While I think he’s correct on that, I also don’t believe we have anything to excuse. We sent the team we sent, they’ve lost, but proudly. More important, we learned a thing or two (e.g. axe Bornstein; send our forwards to the Wizard of Oz, Johnson for some courage and Twellman for that tool he hawks on TV, plus an allotment of several thousand hours to practice with it) and deepened our player pool in the process. That poor finishing looks something like the final hurdle constitutes a hell of a step up in my mind: having 1/3 the way to go beats the hell out of having more.

The key component to improving the Yanqui soccer program is, and always has been the same: time. And trends here are good: we’ve got players entering the national team pool at a younger age and further along in their personal/technical development. Again, tell me we’d be here nine years ago and I would French kiss the nearest available human being regardless of age, gender, and physical beauty (though one can hope the stars line up). Assuming the developmental infrastructure doesn’t collapse and that the numbers generally grow - as they seem to be doing - we’ll get there...even at forward.

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