The U.S. men's program has regressed since 2014, becoming must-see TV along the way as Jurgen Klinsmann continues to puzzle us all, Charles Boehm writes.
Unspectacular, but reliable. Short on imagination, yet organized, hard-working and resilient.
The U.S. men's national team program was very much a known quantity when it was handed over to Jurgen Klinsmann nearly five years ago. The team's limitations were fairly clear to see, but so were its strengths; the murky part was the true scope of its potential.
Many – eyeing the size, wealth and diversity of the nation at large – believed it to be nearly limitless. Even the most realistic observers generally acknowledged that a series of domestic-reared head coaches had taken the United States men to a stable plateau, and that a fresh perspective might be timely as the U.S. Soccer Federation sought that elusive path into the global elite.
After Friday night's 2-0 World Cup qualifying loss in Guatemala, the latest downward dive in the wobbly, frustrating sine wave that is Klinsmann's second cycle in charge, the usual adjectives have indeed been thrown out the window.
The U.S. men have indeed found a way to be spectacular under Klinsmann. Even with a 10 p.m. kickoff on the East Coast, Friday night's debacle was truly must-see TV, giving the fans back home a riveting spectacle to consume, as they turned the 95th-best team in the world (according to FIFA's dubious calculations, at least) into CONCACAF's Rocky Balboa.
The problem, of course, is that all those useful yet generally unsexy qualities seem to have vanished along the way.
Guatemala was led by a past-it striker, started an MLS reserve fullback in central defense (FC Dallas' Moises Hernandez) and couldn't even rely on their most creative player (Marco Pappa) to start the match. Yet they showcased the type of bravery, belief and collective understanding that underdogs so often use to make magic and wreak havoc in this strange, beautiful sport, ending a 21-game winless run against the United States which stretched back to Jan. 10, 1988.
And the mighty favorites simplified the task by dropping their hands early on and offering a free shot (or two) at their glass jaw. Guided by conventions that are clear only to him, Klinsmann continued his steadfast tradition of fielding several players out of position. Right back DeAndre Yedlin remained his preferred right midfielder. Geoff Cameron was moved out to right back despite starting the United States’ last three competitive matches at center back, flip-flopping with Michael Orozco (who's lately been relegated to cup duty with his club, Tijuana, but still got the start on Friday in part due to other injuries).
Alejandro Bedoya was ordered to leap on the hand grenade of left midfield, a spot he's rarely been asked to man on international duty – though it's hardly the first time he's been saddled with an unfamiliar and unfair tasking; remember that ill-fated run-out at defensive midfield vs. Brazil that ended with a first-half substitution and public postgame slating from Klinsmann?
Michael Bradley and Mix Diskerud started together in the central midfield of a 4-4-2 shape despite having spent little time together in that setup over the past year or so. While everything we know about both players would suggest that Mix would be advanced and Bradley holding, the duo seemed to have little clarity of their roles, a muddle that was not fixed until Darlington Nagbe replaced Diskerud at halftime and brought immediate improvements.
To cap it all, even the most reliable veterans suffered brain farts at disastrously costly moments. How does a serious, fully-professional national team forget to station a player on the near post while defending a corner kick, as happened on Rafa Morales' opening goal?
Who earned the assist on Carlos Ruiz's decisive lead-doubling goal? None other than Chapines goalkeeper Paulo Motta – on a line-drive GOAL KICK that was allowed to fly untouched through the U.S. lines, Bradley simply whiffing on an uncontested header at midfield before a half-hearted Diskerud got distracted by a Guatemalan's light contact as the ball bounced past.
— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) March 26, 2016
It was a litany of recreational-level youth soccer follies by coach and players alike, most of them crammed into the game's first 15 minutes, and a 2-0 deficit was the fair and logical punishment – regardless of the opponent's limited resources. Subsequently connecting hundreds of passes against a comfortable, bunkered foe was scant consolation – and scant danger, not when so few of them were completed in the attacking third, where only Nagbe and Clint Dempsey served up a few flashes of imagination that went unrewarded by others' misfiring finishes.
Dressed in black, dominant in possession, bemused in tactics, imposing to look at but not to play against – the Yanks were more pantomime spaghetti-Western villains than Ivan Drago at Estadio Mateo Flores, a venue that posed challenges but little real menace, with a running track separating the visitors from a half-capacity crowd's questionable venom. Indeed, the home faithful’s main contribution to this memorable occasion was not hatred, but mockery, as they hooted like a vaudeville audience at Pappa's nutmeg of Bradley and later shouted “Olé” – a classic humiliation for a trailing team in Latin America – when their team killed off the late stages with a few passing sequences.
— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) March 26, 2016
Terms like “hapless,” “chaos” and “self-inflicted wounds” now top the United States men’s national team’s word cloud, making the staid old descriptions sound like quaint charms of a bygone era.
The product on the field has steadily slid south to alarmingly poor levels of quality since the 2014 World Cup. But the U.S. men remain must-see TV for at least one more game, because Tuesday's home meeting with the Guatemalans in Columbus is now a must-win.