2016 has looked very different from 2015 for the USMNT thus far. 2015 was one of the worst years in recent memory for the team. About a year ago, the U.S. put together a string of uninspiring performances against weak competition in the Gold Cup before getting unceremoniously knocked out of the tourney in the semis by Jamaica. This disappointment was followed up by a loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup and dropping points to Trinidad & Tobago and Guatemala (early 2016) in preliminary 2018 World Cup qualifying. At the start of 2016, confidence in the squad was at an all-time low and the calls for a Jurgen Klinsmann sacking had become the loudest they had ever been. It began to feel like the team had regressed under Klinsmann and the positive outlook gained from the team’s 2014 World Cup performance had faded. Two years removed from the USMNT’s last major international competition, the Copa America Centenario would provide a clearer picture of where the team is now and where they are headed.
The Copa America gave us all of the Klinsmann-isms that have come to define his tenure. Here are just a few on display this tournament. Confident words at the start of the tournament that raise our expectations for the team (probably unreasonably). Selecting players who consistently disappoint instead of giving chances to more unproven, yet more talented players (i.e. taking Wondolowski over Jordan Morris and never starting promising new talents Pulisic and Nagbe). Head-scratching lineup choices such as, refusing to select players in their strongest position; for instance, playing Fabian Johnson as a left back when he was voted one of Bundesliga’s top wingers last season. To be fair to Klinsmann though, none of these quirks were that catastrophic to the U.S.’s chances at the tournament, and in fact they are the same kind of stubborn behavior one sees time and time again from the world’s best managers. Klinsmann’s strongest trait as a manager is as a man motivator, who is able imbue confidence in his players to get the best performances out of his players. He hasn’t always been able to do this, i.e. last year’s Gold Cup, but there have certainly been instances of this in the past (the 2014 World Cup Qualifying matches against Costa Rica and Mexico and 2014 World Cup matches against Ghana and Portugal just to name a few). Still, the problem with Klinsmann is that he lacks the trait that high-level managers need to boost their team’s chances, which is arguably the most important function of a manager.
Klinsmann has yet to prove that he has the tactical wisdom to stay competitive in the toughest of matches. Obviously there are deficiencies in the U.S. side, which I will talk about more later, but you never get the sense that Klinsmann knows how to mitigate the gap in talent between the USMNT and superior national teams. That lack of tactical proficiency does not hurt the U.S. in the easier matches when the opposition has lesser talent or is not set up well to capitalize on the U.S.’s weaknesses, like Costa Rica who played a high line and exposed themselves to the U.S.’s speed on counter attacks. However, when a smarter/more talented team can stifle the U.S. often by restricting midfield penetration and/or retaining possession by working the ball around to eventually break down the defense, the U.S. consistently lack ideas on how to overcome this. For example, against Argentina, who feature players that can do both roles in the midfield (defensively Javier Mascherano and offensively Ever Banega) as well as some elite level attacking talent in Messi, Higuaín, and Lavezzi who can create/score goals in any type of attacking situation (counter, possession, etc.), the U.S. were completely overwhelmed. Massive underdogs, the U.S. were severely outplayed, conceding chance after chance, while showing nothing going forward in a 4-0 defeat that could have easily been 10-0. The U.S. probably never really had a chance given the gulf in quality between the teams, but what is more concerning is the lack of a clear plan from Klinsmann on how to overcome the odds.
When facing a team that one knows is going to dominate possession there are a few things a team can do to counter this. On the defensive side, a team needs to be compact, yielding little space and time for penetration, both from midfield passing and attacking runs in behind. Also, it is key to limit attacking opportunities before they even start by tightly marking the opposition’s passers from deep, which can restrict the time they have on the ball and yield turnovers that can turn into favorable counter attacking opportunities. From an attacking standpoint, a team must be clinical on the counter attack, utilizing speed in passing and movement to exploit an opponent when they are most vulnerable. In the Argentina match, the U.S. failed to effectively perform any of these countermeasures. The defense consistently broke down in the box leaving runners open in the box, there was no organized pressing to force turnovers, and there were frequent giveaways that prevented counter attacks and put the defense in dangerous positions. The U.S. did not appear to be drilled to do any of this and they were outplayed in all phases of the game. Responsibility for this ultimately falls on Klinsmann, as his lack of game plan was reflected by the play on the field. Time and time again, Klinsmann’s USMNT gets overrun by the superior opposition and the “hope that we get lucky” game plan consistently proves to be ineffective. When your team is overmatched from a talent perspective, the manager needs to make up for that talent gap with a smart game plan that optimizes your team’s strengths/weaknesses relative to your opponent’s. As we saw yet again at the Copa America, Klinsmann is not that type of manager.
Isolating the roster itself from Klinsmann can bring a clearer outlook on the team’s chances going forward. The current USMNT roster features and interesting mix of old and young players who play anywhere from the MLS to the EPL to the Bundesliga. There are the old stars who are leaving their prime; Tim Howard, Jermaine Jones, and Clint Dempsey. The established veterans who are locks to make the 2018 World Cup squad; Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, and Geoff Cameron. Finally there are the young stars who are still developing towards their potential and some are even able to make significant contributions to major European club teams; Deandre Yedlin, Bobby Wood, John Brooks, Gyasi Zardes, and Christian Pulisic. The U.S. have a good enough mix of up and coming stars and established veterans, that allows them to be strong in CONCACAF while developing into a team that can compete with some of the better sides in South America and Europe. Breaking down the team into the three phases of the game, defense, midfield, and attack, is good way to evaluate where USMNT’s relative strengths and weaknesses are.
The U.S defense, an area that has usually been the team’s biggest weakness, is actually starting to look like a relative strength based on the performance of the Brooks-Cameron center back partnership. Brooks and Cameron displayed their newfound chemistry this tourney conceding only one goal in wins against Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Ecuador. However, the midfield presents arguably the biggest problem area for the USMNT. Jermaine Jones can provide energy and occasional bright spots in games but is 34, Kyle Beckerman is also 34 and doesn’t really offer much in any area of the game, and Michael Bradley continues to disappoint at major tournaments. Bradley has struggled in a deeper role with the U.S. as he frequently gives the ball away in critical areas and fails to influence the game as a dominant central midfielder should. The U.S. lack midfielders who can help maintain possession and shield the defense, two traits that are fundamental to being successful in other areas of the pitch. These players might exist in the U.S. talent pool, for example NY Red Bulls’ Dax McCarty and Sporting KC’s Benny Feilhaber, but it is unclear whether these players could actually perform against higher level opposition. The USMNT attack features several intriguing options with both known quantities and youth uncertainty with room to grow. Clint Dempsey, despite his age (33) is still able to be productive when played in the right position. Gyasi Zardes, Bobby Wood, and Christian Pulisic all have shown some promise with the national team and their youth (all 24 and under) points to a bright future of goalscorers for the USMNT. Overall, the USMNT has promising young talent, particularly in attack and defense, mixed with productive veterans, but their problems in the center of the pitch will continue hold them back from truly competing on the world stage.
USMNT Going Forward
Going into a competition featuring well established global soccer powers such as, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, the U.S. would have been thrilled to finish 4th in the tournament. All in all it was a mixed bag of a tournament, with some confident, quality performances against similar if not slightly superior opposition counterbalanced by the familiar dismal displays against elite competition we have grown accustomed to. Sure we are not at a point where we can challenge the Argentina, Germany, and France-level teams of the world in major competition, which is fine. What is more concerning is that we do not seem to be making real progress to get to that stage. Obviously, there is a huge talent deficit between the USMNT and the best teams in the world, but the U.S. are starting to show signs that there is young talent (Brooks and Pulisic just to name a few) in the pipeline that can take the team to the next level. However, if the U.S. continue to make the same mistakes at the highest level, and don’t take the steps to build the team into a side that can make it difficult for any opposition, the USMNT’s potential will be limited and the team will stay in the status quo of failing to truly threaten the best teams at major tournaments.