I Believe That We Will Win?

The United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) kick off the hexagonal qualifying round against rival Mexico on Friday November 11th @ 7:45 EST televised on Fox Sports 1 and Univsion.  On November 15th the USMNT then travels to Costa Rica to battle 2014 World Cup Quarterfinalist Ticos.

The USMNT have qualified for every World Cup since 1990 so it’s hard to imagine the Yankees failing to make the grade ultimately.  But in what form and under whose direction come 2018 are the obvious question marks.

After previous flirtations, the US Soccer Federation (USSF) finally landed Jurgen Klinsmann as coach in 2011.  JK replaced the uninspiring Bob Bradley whose tight defensive crouch followed by the occasional counter attack or set piece success finally ran its course following a humiliating loss in the 2011 Gold Cup Final to Mexico.

JK has had moments of brilliance as manager with away wins in Azteca vs Mexico, and friendly triumphs away against Germany and the Netherlands.  The 2014 World Cup was by most measures a success surviving a group against quadrennial foil Ghana, Portugal, and eventual champion Germany.

But the knock round loss to Belgium featured 1-way traffic and a lot of Tim Howard making saves and yelling at his defenders to at least try to impede the Belgian advances. Granted, Chris Wondolowski’s miss at the death chould should have secured our passage to the quarterfinals.  The stats here don’t paint the full picture of the Belgian dominance but getting outshot 38-14 is generally a bad thing in soccer.

As a USMNT fan, it seems like we had tepid consistency with Bob Bradley that gave us a stable floor and a low ceiling.  We’d make the World Cup, meekly bow out, and be competitive in the Gold Cup.

With JK, there was the allure of bigger things and heightened expectations as he feverishly secured dual national talents much to Abby Wambach’s xenophobic chagrin.  JK has also used an ever rotating team sheet mixing and matching his lineups mad libs style.  The problem here is building a pond a mile wide and an inch deep.  Loads of different guys have been capped during JK’s tenure, but there is no consistency to the team perhaps because there is no consistency in its selection.  Frankly, that style of roster building seems reckless, as if just hoping to pick the right hot hand (or feet) at the right time.  It’s already tough for a national team that has limited practice and game time anyways.

We aren’t Germany or Spain where we can reasonably pick our lineup out of the top couple teams in our domestic league.  Where guys on Bayern and Dortmund play with/against each other during league seasons and again for the national team.  Insert same for Barcelona and Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in Spain.  The USMNT does have players succeeding in Europe (almost exclusively Germany) but right now 10 roster players are in MLS and thus playing on the avoid-conflicts-with-the-NFL-and-NBA-non-FIFA-calendar which makes fitness different for FIFA competition since those guys are on a different schedule.

The lack of consistency in the selection, formation, and style is maddening and seems contrary to the idea of building a durable program.  In sum, I think the USMNT needs to dump JK and recruit Diego Simeone from Atletico Madrid.  I’m old enough to remember the 1994 and being told “just wait until our technical ability catches up.”  Then we can win and keep possession and challenge the world.

I’m done waiting.

The standard USMNT tropes involve toughness, fitness, set pieces, tenacity, and whatever other tired positive you stretch for for someone lacking the requisite skill.  So stop trying to match pure technical skills.  We have the best athletes in the world.  Lets play 90′ of fury with our 10 best athletes and a series of relentless pressure designed to force mistakes and quick strike counters.  Maybe Shaka Smart can offer some ideas. In May, USA Today outlined how Leicester and Atletico Madrid use their pressure schemes.  That’s what I want from the USMNT.  A strategy to match our imutable asset.  Both football and baseball are seeing delcines in youth participation.  Sure rugby and lacrosse will benefit.  But so has youth soccer.  The rest of the world doesn’t lose its best athletes to competing sports to the scale the US does.  But trendlines are encouraging.  Obviously this isn’t suggesting no technical skill is required.  But it is a tactical adjustment that doesn’t mandate the same precision necessary surgically build an attack from the defensive 1/3.

It’s clear the USMNT is good enough to make the World Cup, win a Gold Cup every now and then, and compete in friendlies.  But that’s probably third tier status in global soccer.  I’d like to see an aggressive change to close the gap to the upper tiers.  And I think the best way to do that is a high press heavy pressure quick counter style.

And for goodness sake give Darlington Nagbe the ball and let good things follow.

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