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.
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.
As I watched the USMNT in the Gold Cup, something occurred to me: Graham Zusi is the American James Milner. He’s a strong, capable player who is both faster and more technical than people think he is, and is willing to play pretty much any position he’s asked to play. I don’t think Zusi is as good as Milner — Milner is a really good footballer — but like Milner he’s amazingly versatile. Though by nature he’s an attacking midfielder, he’s done just fine as Bruce Arena’s preferred right back (cf. Milner as Jürgen Klopp’s preferred left back) and you get the sense that you could play him anywhere from striker to centerback and he’d not make a hash of it.
This is a beautiful play by Clint Dempsey. Notice:
- Before the ball gets to him he’s already positioning his body to pivot away from the defender.
- Even at age 34 he still has the quickness of feet to juke the second defender.
- As soon as he’s past that guy he sees that Altidore is making a run, and that if he doesn’t pass it immediately Jozy will probably be offside.
- So he snaps off a quick rolling pass which is so perfectly weighted that Altidore has to run all-out to get to it — but that run takes him away from the defender and gets him to the ball before the keeper. It’s not the easiest of finishes for Jozy, but Dempsey has perfectly set him up for success.
There are two American players with the vision and technique to pull off a play like this: Dempsey and Christian Pulisic. The USMNT desperately needs a few more such players, but where they’re going to come from I have no idea.