The United States Men’s National Team beat the pants off of Guatemala 4-0 tonight, avoiding the disaster scenario and setting themselves up to advance to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. But while the victory was comprehensive, there were plenty of worrying signs for the USMNT’s future.
Traditionally, the USMNT has had a strong and fast squad, but lacked the ball skills of nearly every one of their opponents. Jurgen Klinsmann was brought on board with a mandate to change this, to get the USMNT to play the attractive possession-based soccer currently in vogue, and to reform the development system to emphasize ball skills and practice, not size and competitions.
During Klinsmann’s five years in charge, the USMNT has played an improved possession-based game against lesser opponents, while reverting to a 1980's England-style hoof-and-hope game against superior teams. Perhaps paradoxically, they’ve achieved some great results in friendlies against top-tier European competition, while struggling against in-theory lesser Central American and Caribbean opponents.
Lately, the knock on Klinsmann is his lineup choices, with critics compiling lists of all the times he has played somebody out of position. This jives with the stories of Klinsmann’s previous coaching stops. With the German National Team, assistant Jogi Löw handled the tactics, and after Klinsmann was fired from Bayern Munich, his tactical acumen was savaged:
Plenty of others, though, were plain daft. Dabbling with a 3-5-2 system, picking an assistant manager without Bundesliga experience, yoga classes for the players, Landon Donovan … “His concept convinced us – on paper,” said Hoeness pointedly. Minutes before kick-off players still did not know whether they were supposed to play a pressing game. After very vocal off- and on-the-record criticism of tactics that were seen as too attacking by key squad members, Klinsmann relented in February. The numbers improved slightly but his credibility was damaged irreparably.
Klinsmann was hired for both of those positions on his strength as a visionary, and it might make more sense for him to be Technical Director of U.S. Soccer, with somebody else in charge of coaching the USMNT and devising tactics to win a raucous Central American qualifier. But pinning the the USMNT’s recent woes on Klinsmann—or defending his tenure—misses the larger point, which was on full display for the victory over Guatemala: the USMNT doesn’t have much talent.
That’s not something you’d normally say after a 4-0 victory, but let’s take a closer look at those four goals:
- 1-0: After a ball is hoofed forward and Gyasi Zardes collides into two Guatemalan defenders, the ball bounces helpfully off of Zardes’s back in front of Clint Dempsey
- 2-0: Guatemala submits the most shambolic imitation of set piece defending you will ever see
- 3-0: Zardes’s first touch is so terribly leaden that it is actually amazing, winning his second 100 percent unintentional assist of the night
- 4-0: Dempsey lollygags and completely blows a one-on-one with the keeper, only to accidentally dribble the ball into Jozy Altidore’s shot
Or howabout Dempsey failing to find a shot or pass after being played in following a nice Zardes run, or Bobby Wood handling a good pass, seeing it go uncalled, and still not even getting a shot or pass off six-yards from goal. The United States scored a bushel of goals and had even more chances, but rarely did those chances emanate from quality soccer, but rather from being the first to capitalize on blown chances.
Two years into the qualifying cycle, the USMNT would ideally be gelling around the stalwarts who will be leading the 2018 World Cup squad. And maybe they are, but if so those stalwarts will be the same stalwarts from the 2014 World Cup, players on the wrong side of their prime like Dempsey, Graham Zusi, Geoff Cameron, and Kyle Beckerman.
Facing a must-win game, playing the veterans was absolutely the right decision. But the reason it was the right decision is because the USMNT is dreadfully bare of 22-to-28 year old talent. I mean, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Sixteen, Edgar Castillo started a must-win game for the United States Men’s National Team. There was no striker available better than Bobby Wood. Kyle Beckerman was mostly seen chasing after much faster players.
When Klinsmann was brought aboard in 2011, I was one of those who bought into his pie-in-the-sky talk of a soccer revolution, which in retrospect was quite silly. The USMNT is as it has always been, regionally good but bereft of anything even imitating world class talent, relying upon a bunch of mediocre and unprepared players. Klinsmann has failed to change the status quo to match his rhetoric, but the fault there lies in the expectations he set, not the job he has done.