LET OUT THE SLACK EDITION
There’s so much soccer going on right now that I don’t know where to turn where to look where to work. The largest project in the history of this little blog is almost finished and will help usher in my favorite month of the year. The last two weeks in an un-August-like Manhattan have already begun to hint at the change.
On top of what has been the busiest summer of my life, I’ve been neck-deep in research, swimming in hours of interviews, and what feels like a lifetime has passed trying to write what will be by far the longest story in the long-loving history of TIAS. It’s been some time coming–I’ve gotten married and will have changed “day” jobs since I started writing this particular story–and still I’m not finished.
A clock needs to stop before I can put the final stamp on it. So I lift my head out of the weeds—willow weep for me—and try to watch some soccer, think about soccer, or god help me write a blog post about something other than what I’ve been absorbed in. Maybe it is my fault, my full plate, but American soccer has to take some of the blame.
Man, I was psyched for the Olympics. It was the first meaningful tournament for the men’s national team program since the Gold Cup. (and I don’t care that is a U23 +3 team—the Olympics trump that cop out). Grant Wahl’s dispatches from Beijing tell the tale: Nowak has balls… Nowak said what? Huh? Seriously?… Let’s go ahead and cut soccer from the Olympics? It could have been the U.S. against Argentina in that final instead of Nigeria, and that pain was something even the U.S. women’s gold medal couldn’t cure. It came and went so fast. As high as we were, about to beat the Dutch, it turned quickly into a hangover finding the team out on the Beijing streets before anything real could be learned–except for counting cards.
As seems to be the case with the men’s national team, coaches tactics, substitutions, and even call-ups are scrutinized but rarely pressured. The events pass and the teams move on. There is always something coming up to prepare for, World Cup qualifying in this recent case. Moral victories might not be enough anymore, but neither does winning seem to be necessary. Jeff Carlisle shares quotes more than a decade apart stating that the USA has shown it can play with the rest of the world. Oooof.
The Olympics left me overly underwhelmed but not completely disgruntled–which kind of sounds a lot like “we showed we can be competitive (but still lose) to the best in the world.” Bradley’s regime was supposed to get us past that. Wasn’t that why Team Arena was fired? There are always moments of class, but moments like moral victories just aren’t good enough… anymore? They never should be good enough.
This isn’t a steroids scandal; Sunil Gulati is not going to be called into Congress. Team Bradley will likely march on through the 2010 World Cup looking like reluctant heroes in games like the recent slug fest in Guatemala and something less than that in just about every other contest. Game after game, you start to wonder if this is American soccer or is this because of certain people, coaches, players. When the coaches appear to have it right–as Bradley did bringing his time-tested old guard to Guatemala–the players are anything but consistent. In friendly play they will tie with Argentina yet barely show up against England in Wembley. The coaches stick largely with who and what they trust before taking what may be a risk but one that could be floated on aggressive hope. Team Bradley has not risked losing; they have defended against it.
Two years have passed in this World Cup cycle. We are halfway to South Africa, which is long enough for coaches to show their hands. Where is the creativity? Where is the risk? There is no life to this team (U23s included). But it would not be easy–maybe even unfair–to heap praise or guilt on any one person. How much of the US MNT’s deficiencies are on the players, on the coaches, on honest to god stiff competition (to say nothing of players’ club environments and commitments)? The improvisational data-deprived world of soccer is a tricky one. Do the men have to accept second rate?
The women don’t. They go through disaster, hire a new coach, win a gold medal, then go get the coach of the Brazilian national team to coach one of your new WPS clubs, in St. Louis. It’s an unfair comparison, but one impossible for the American soccer fan not to think about. The men can only laugh about it, laughing so as not to cry. Except MLS which is apparently laughing all the way to the bank. (Which proves, along with the women’s game that a soccer fan in this land can’t cry too hard these days.)
Every time someone calls for a coaches’ job or a new president of USSF, it is hard not to recoil with the fact that you could argue we are getting better, no matter the cliche quotes that last decades. In exactly two years we should be playing in a World Cup with more foreign based players than ever before on top of the much improved MLSers. The US MNT have solidly qualified for everything they need to in terms of tournaments between now and the World Cup. There is qualifying games, the Confederations Cup in South Africa and another Gold Cup in 2009. Could all of this goodness possibly come in spite of a poor system?
Maybe? Come 2011 the American soccer landscape will be re-written one way or another; I can’t harp on that fact enough (collective bargaining agreement in MLS, possible World Cup bid by USSF, new coaches). That’s going to be a fun year.
The U.S. will always have problems competing because it is not a soccer-first nation, and the culprit will always be hard to pin down. But I think it is safe to say we shouldn’t be having the same problems. What I like to call the adolescence of the American soccer could be winding down, but that will require the parents to let the child off the leash of past experience and grow into its own identity. Until then, the same questions persist.
Sooner or later, you have to just lay it down.
So in this mindset here is a rare TIAS armchair toss for the e-mailers who asked why TIAS was silent after the Guatemala game and what I want to see from the team in Cuba.
We all want offense right? Against Cuba, who just got beat by T&T 3-1, give me Dempsey, Altidore and Donovan free-flowing and pushing through the middle with an anchor of Edu while Beasley and Davies stalk the flanks. Put Adu into whichever of those first three you don’t like. Scoring goals is our biggest problem, but some of that comes from where to position certain players, especially in the middle of the field.
Someone is going to have to be left out and we need to determine who that is so the rosters can be built accordingly. I’d hoped we would be closer to those answers than we are, what with WC qualifying in full swing, but we’ve basically trotted out the same line-up game after game. I have trouble moving forward without testing out other options. So why not mix it up, especially when you have a game against a lessor opponent?
Put Altidore up top and leave him there for 10 years. Bring in Ching or Cooper or whoever when Jozy is hurt. Bring Dempsey into the middle of the field with Donovan which is the long-running experiment waiting to happen. For years the “playing out of position” cries have been raining down. Both players prefer the middle of the field, and technically they are probably the team’s two most gifted players, so why not allow them to figure out the middle and spend time on the ball (instead they fall invisible along the front and side lines). Don’t like Edu, let M. Bradley provide the central cover to their creativity. If and when Adu proves a consistent work rate, I have to give precedence to the experience and defensive capabilities of Dempsey and Donovan. (If I am the coach, I’m counting on this move to light a fire under these two players who have been lackluster of late.)
As I wrote after the England friendly, I’d rather lose 5-0 if it meant we were pushing forward and attacking.
Choose two flank players. Beasley is obviously one, while the other is up to debate. But you have to give speed a try. Davies is never going to be a starting striker for the US MNT; he needs to turn himself into Beasley’s mirror. That pretty much goes for every other attacking player at the moment that doesn’t want to be a back-up (Rogers?). Learn the flank position, defend like hell, and run the whole field. I don’t like the arm-chair coaching, I’ve always been more of a big picture off the field kind of guy, but we haven’t really seen something like this; every game the patterns deepens. It’s hard to miss and thus hard not to wonder what it might look like.
Why not give it shot? Give it 45 minutes. Give it two years. I don’t want to draw it out, but call it a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-4-1-1. It’s nothing people haven’t said before. Put the best players in their most natural positions where they can do the most damage with their skill set. At least one player is likely going to be out of position on the national team, but why put it on our best players to compromise?
Those leashes you see on kids that just make you want to cry, they always say much more about the parents than the kids.