Russia may be thousands of miles away, but on Tuesday night, the U.S. national team was mere inches from getting there. Watch the replays, if you can stomach them. It’s technically true. Clint Dempsey hit the right post with a long-range bouncer in the second half down in Trinidad. If his shot goes in, the USA almost certainly escapes with a 2–2 draw and is on its way to the World Cup. The margins on Omar Gonzalez’s early own goal were even finer. The beleaguered center back couldn’t hit that slice again if given 100 chances.
And then there was the phantom goal scored by Panama in Tuesday’s 2–1 defeat of Costa Rica. Had the Guatemalan officials realized the ball never crossed the line, the USA at least would be on its way to a playoff against Australia — a few thousand miles in the opposite direction but still, mere inches away.
This is Sunil Gulati’s position — though Straus goes on to say considerably more, and much of it very good. Gulati just wants to talk about the unlucky inches. But here’s the important thing: if the Dempsey shot had gone in, or the Panama “goal” had been rightly waved off, then the USMNT would be headed to the World Cup despite either (a) having scraped a pathetic and frankly lucky draw against the worst side in CONCACAF, on the very last day of qualifying or (b) having failed to scrape said draw and finishing the whole Hexagonal tournament with a mere three wins.
Another way to put this point: That the inches went the way they did forces us to confront the true state of the USMNT, and the national men’s soccer establishment more generally. Had the luck gone our way, people would be saying “Well, that was ugly, but we’re going to Russia!” And that would merely have postponed a day of reckoning that this country’s soccer program desperately needs.
So in a way, I’m glad that things worked out the way they did. Also, next year I won’t have to cringe while watching Tim Howard commit a massive howler that sends us crashing out of the opening round.
A quick thought, though one that many people have had: Can you imagine what American soccer would look like if the country’s best athletes chose soccer as their first sport? I’m imagining a world in which LeBron is a brick wall of a goalkeeper, Gronk the most terrifying centerback in the world, Chris Paul a wily deep-lying playmaker, Odell Beckham Jr. on the wing, Kyrie Irving threatening defenders with his pace and power…. But that way madness lies. Best to turn my thoughts elsewhere.
There’s a lot of this happening today:
I said last night on Twitter that the U.S. side in Trinidad last night had neither technique nor imagination not determination. And then I commented to my son, who was sharing the misery with me, that while Bob Bradley’s sides also lacked technique and imagination they at least worked their asses off, and had an international reputation for not knowing when they were beaten. The sheer listlessness of last night’s performance, as the players trotted randomly around the pitch without purpose or urgency, was shocking to behold. They could at least have tried!
But on reflection it occurs to me that the listlessness of last night was to a considerable extent the effect of deficiencies in technique and imagination. In an open game the USMNT can sometimes look excellent, as they did against Panama last week, but when a team — any team, no matter how limited in talent — sits very deep against them, they have no idea what to do. They pass the ball around the perimeter until they give it away, thereby opening themselves to counters, or else they loft speculative balls into the box for easy clearances or catches. And thus, gradually, the energy of the side dissipates. Most of the game last night the U.S. players couldn’t be bothered even to try to get the ball back when T&T had it. They were zombified.
I think the single biggest problem here is Michael Bradley, whose decline has been noticeable for some time — but now it’s precipitous. That widely-admired determination of U.S. sides a few years ago was driven largely by Bradley’s amazing motor and relentless box-to-box play, but he has become heavy-legged and slow in defense, and the inaccuracy of his passes and set-piece deliveries does real damage to the team’s offense. It’s time to move on from Bradley — and Dempsey, and Cameron, and anyone else who’s not young enough to bring dynamism to the side. Because if the USMNT doesn’t have dynamism it doesn’t have anything.
Still, even with young and energetic players, this team is not going to succeed against well-organized defenses until it produces a whole generation of players who have at least a goodly portion of the skill and shrewdness that Christian Pulisic does. And who knows when that will happen, if ever? So I think fans of American soccer need to accept that for the foreseeable future what we’ve been seeing is what we’re going to get: a side that will always be teetering on the brink of qualification for international tournaments, just squeezing in or just being squeezed out. Anything more than that is simply not in the cards.
“Is Tony Pulis available?”
“Is Mark Hughes available?”
“Is Harry Redknapp available?”
“Is Big Sam available?”
(makes a phone call) “No.”
“Is Alan Par — um, is Roy Hodgson available?”
“Well … yes.”
“Roy it is!”
I would like to go on record with the following statement:
If, under the official FIFA Laws of the Game, it is deemed not a sending-off offense to run at full speed toward an opponent, lift one’s leg 5.5 feet in the air, and plant one’s studs into the face of said opponent while making no contact whatsoever with the ball, then the official FIFA Laws of the Game should be amended so that it is henceforth a sending-off offense to run at full speed toward an opponent, lift one’s leg 5.5 feet in the air, and plant one’s studs into the face of said opponent while making no contact whatsoever with the ball.
Cameron was a goat at the World Cup, then he was an option at multiple positions, then clearly the USA’s best center back, and then back on the bench after the Costa Rica loss. John Brooks was imperious — perhaps the best prospect at the position in national team history — until he was exposed last November. But then his stock climbed again. And then he got hurt again. Gonzalez was good at the World Cup, then inconsistent with the national team, then a champion at Pachuca, etc. Ream was out of the picture then became the flavor of the month. As Ream rose, Matt Besler — who was very good in San Pedro Sula — seemed to fall. Fans, coaches and media anoint and then unanoint American center backs with regularity, but the fact remains that none have remained good enough or healthy enough to seize obvious and permanent control of the position. If the USA had world-class center backs, it would be Germany or Italy.
Well … No. not Germany or Italy. (Midfield creativity continues to be wholly absent, and finishing inconsistent at best.) But surely not struggling just to arrive, breathless and exhausted, as one of the last passengers on the World Cup Bus.
Straus’s overall point is absolutely right, though: the inconsistency of USMNT defenders is of long standing and is rather remarkable to behold. Nobody plays well on a regular basis — nobody even plays well a third of the time — but everybody back there has an occasional good game that casuses supporters to think Maybe he finally figured it out. However: hopes are dashed. Every hope for USMNT defending — and for the national team more generally — is dashed.
We are who we thought we were: a mediocre soccer nation whose fans — and, more important, whose players, coaches, and leaders — are perfectly happy if we make the World Cup, and tickled pink if we get to the knockout round. Until the expectations change, neither will the player performances or the results. Those truths can be seen most clearly in how the team defends, but apply elsewhere as well.
The Centenario seems curiously aware of its own legacy. It exudes importance from the moment the visitor enters its impeccable museum, tucked under one of the lateral stands. Rather than the hagiographic story-telling of a club or nation’s triumphs one usually receives when entering such establishments, the emphasis here is on a celebration of the game itself, in Uruguay and across the world. Images of Obdulio Varela’s winner for Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup decider against Brazil, therefore, sit comfortably alongside a replica of the shirt Sir Geoff Hurst wore when he made his own piece of history sixteen years later. It is as if the tiny South American republic can afford to be magnanimous in its telling of the football tale, secure as it is in the knowledge that as four-time world champion it has already played its part in making the game the universal behemoth it is.
The above sentence needs no correction. Uruguay, it is true, have lifted the World Cup on two occasions, that debut victory over Argentina in the partially completed Centenario followed with the famous Maracanazo that destroyed the hopes of neighbours Brazil. On the Celeste shield, however, four stars shine proudly from players’ chests. To understand the reason for this anomaly of arithmetic, further inspection of the nation’s most illustrious sporting arena is required.
— Dan Edwards, in The Blizzard
Steven Scragg writes,
Peter Schmeichel frantically back-peddled as Aljoša Asanović sent a wonderfully precise diagonal pass from his own half, a pass which Davor Šuker, situated on the far left, took effortlessly within his outrageous stride, dragging the ball across his body with the inside of his right foot, and sending it towards the left-hand angle of the Denmark penalty area. One further touch took Šuker and the ball into the penalty area. As Jes Høgh closed, and Schmeichel planted himself just outside the angle of his six-yard box, Šuker dug out the most beautiful left-footed chip.
This is not quite right, and it misses the mark in an important way. Asanović did not send a wonderfully precise diagonal pass. Šuker was making his run down the left flank and the ball was not hit far enough forward, not nearly. (Wonderful vision, wonderful idea, not the best execution.) So Šuker had to slow, slow, slow himself almost to a stop and then, when the ball arrived, indeed he did drag it “across his body with the inside of his right foot” — it’s one of the most beautiful first touches I have ever seen, but perhaps more to the point, one of the most effective, because the dragging movement sent the ball well ahead of him so he could then resume a full sprint towards it. One more touch goalwards and then the chip that left Schmeichel sprawled on the ground in disbelief.
I don’t have an embeddable version but here’s a good-quality video, with some bonus commentry from Šuker, if you’re into that kind of thing. One of my favorite goals ever.
That would be the Premier League, says Jonathan Wilson. He cites several certain or possible causes, among them the uncertainties caused by rosters always in flux and basic “flaws in concentration and structure” — though the latter point is an explanation that calls for further explanation, because why in the world should such flaws exist at this level of player ability and coaching expertise? Are players not being coached well, or are they simply ignoring their coaches?
Two other major points that Wilson makes: first,
There’s not merely an expectation now that defenders should be able to pass, but a growing acceptance that if they can pass it may not matter too much if they aren’t especially good at more traditional defensive skills such as heading, marking and tackling.
To an extent, the defensive chaos is the result of changes in the laws of the game. It’s harder to defend now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Back lines cannot simply push up in the knowledge that any opposing player in behind them will be called offside. Shinji Okazaki’s goal against Arsenal, for instance, would not have counted under any but the most recent interpretation of the law: he was offside as the cross came in but not as Harry Maguire headed the ball back across goal. That means both that modern defenders have to be much more capable of reacting to specific circumstances and that they sit deeper, leaving more room in midfield for skilful players to create.
At the same time, cynical fouls are punished far more harshly now than ever before. It’s still possible for teams to break up games with rotational fouling around the halfway line, but it’s far harder than it used to be. There’s almost an expectation now with every foul that it will bring a booking. Intimidation has all but vanished from the game and it’s not possible for defenders to cover for a mistake by hauling down their opponent – or at least not more than once.
These are very important points, and I think they help us understand some of the major shortcomings, but I still have a few questions.
- If you look at the chart on this page, you’ll see the an actual rise in goals per game has been quite recent, and that the overall trend of the past decade has been only slightly upward (and of course remaining far below historic levels of scoring, established when defenders were free to intimidate attackers and balls were badly made but defensive tactics were primitive at best). So do we even have a truly meaningful trend here?
- Can we distinguish between errors made by defenders and those made by goalkeepers? On the Okazaki goal against Arsenal mentioned above, it’s true that the short back line Arsenal played that day couldn’t get above someone as small as Okazaki, but the bigger problem was Cech’s indecisiveness: he got himself caught betwixt and between and so could defend neither McGuire’s headed pass nor Okazaki’s headed shot.
- My personal observation of Premier League matches — I have no data yet — suggests that the most drastic defensive errors in the past couple of years have happened in set-piece situations. Liverpool are of course reliably catastrophic on set pieces, but Arsenal aren’t much better. Much of the time, it seems to me, the problem is that you get zonal marking schemes in which players understand the “zonal” part but not the “marking,” as when Arsenal players simply ignored Jamie Vardy as he ran to a point on the pitch where none of them happened already to be standing. I need to look into this more carefully when I have time, but if set-piece goals are indeed on the rise, it would be interesting to see how much of the recent overall increase in goals they account for.