USMNT: The New Era Begins...?
A new era begins but is the future as bright as the pundits believe (or better yet want) it to be?
The game against Jamaica was set up to be a triumph for the US. This was supposed to be the showcase of how far the team had come since the appointment of Gregg Berhalter as head coach of the USMNT after the dismal period since the departure of Jurgen Klinsmann. Yet, the game fell flat and that’s all the commentators could seem to focus on for the full 90 minutes. As if implying that their expectations for the team were much higher. From my standpoint at the time of watching the game it seemed a little premature to have such high expectations for a team whose majority of its players don’t play together on a consistent basis and whose coach was newly appointed to the position only a few games ago. Combined with the fact that the player pool is strictly speaking weaker depth wise at every position than any generation before it. And whose best players, like many other high profile nations, were coming off of grueling overseas seasons. Some might suggest this is no excuse. That they are professionals and should be up to the challenge. True they are professionals but how many of us, the fans on the couch or in the stands, have ever played a season as long as most of their players endure? So I had to ask myself “Why did the pundits have such high expectations? And were they reasonable?” In a short word. No.
I’m not an expert by any means; however, the length of a European season on a player is a factor that should not be overlooked when assessing a team's potential performance in such competitions. The more high profile nations in the CONCACAF are arguably the most affected by the grueling scheduling of top tier leagues. Teams like USMNT, Mexico, Canadia, and Costa Rica.
While the exposure by having so many players playing overseas is great for those nations mentioned above it can be a negative as well when it comes to playing in these tournaments which is what I believe is part of the issue at the heart of the United States National teams issue on the field. Yet it is not unique to the USMNT. All these high profile nations tend to have more players playing in high profile overseas leagues and Jamaica is another national team making significant inroads into this “elite” club of international teams with star players plying their craft in Europe. These minutes played over a long season add up and have a substantial negative impact on the body despite the new techniques for preventing injuries. So to ask these players to then play an international tournament directly on the heels of long campaigns seems to only lend itself to increasing the chances for injuries. Mexico’s Hirving Lozano’s injury being the biggest and high profile injury blow to any team in the Gold Cup trying to bring the coveted silverware home.
In addition to long seasons, the mixing of players from different leagues lends itself to the lack of cohesion that was shown in the last few games. This comes from playing together inconsistently and these things are damn near impossible to rectify in the short amount of time provided to the international teams in regards to practicing together. Which in turn is compounded by the lack of ability to schedule international friendlies during the club season. Which is precisely why we get results like the one against Jamaica.
However, these pre tournament friendlies like the one played tonight have always been in my mind only a glorified training session and nothing more. That’s why when people commentators say things like “this is the worst performance we have seen from the team in a while” it rings stale in my ears. Comments like that are unproductive and rather weak. The fact is there should be little to no expectations for a high quality performance from any pre tournament friendly. And I believe this expectation stems from the fact that every USMNT team is now compared to the 2002 World Cup team.
I will even go out on a limb and even suggest that what has been even more detrimental and influential on the current team is the sharp cast by the success of the 2002 World Cup team. Which has in fact been detrimental to not only this generation but also the one directly before it.
The 2002 World Cup team was true to the phrase “Golden Generation” of players. The success of that team set an unattainable standard for our national soccer to be held to. Players like Brian McBride, Eddie Pope, Kasey Keller, Cobb Jones, Brad Freidel and Earnie Stewart headlined the “old” guard of that World Cup cycle. The players in their prime were the dominant midfielder Claudio Reyna, John O’Brien of Ajax, Frankie Hejduk of Bauer Leverkusen and our master of the touch line Gregg Berhalter, then playing for Crystal Palace. Yet, the stars of my day were just beginning to shine. The stars on the rise like Landon Donovan, Steve Cherundolo, DaMarcus Beasley, and John O’Brien of Ajax rounded out the team. Looking at that list it’s hard to even compare our current pool of international players.
Overall they might have had a slight advantage skill wise but I argue it was soccer environment back then is what sets that team apart from our present generation. Hindsight is 20/20 but I argue the culture back in 2002 was perfectly set for the USMNT to have success. The soccer scene in the country was less intense and demanding than it is today. Due in small part to the media coverage of the team, which was less interested in the story of the national team than the upcoming Winter Olympics that year in Salt Lake City. The eyes of America were looking towards the glory of the Winter games which seemed like a more certain bet than a fairly unacclaimed soccer team.
The World Cup 2002 was the perfect kind of platform for an underdog, a team already counted out. The role of the underdog is a role we as Americans relish and have always embraced wholeheartedly. Throughout our nation's history we have fed off this kind of lack of respect or dismissal of our qualities, by our adversaries both political and on the field of play. It has been what has fueled our greatest accomplishments on the international stage both politically, individually, and on the field of play. In 2002 I bet you would find it hard to come by to find a reporter alive in or outside the United States who wholeheartedly believed the USMNT had a chance of making it out of our group stage, let alone make it to the quarterfinals. Given that the USA had to play in a group that consisted of Portugal, Poland, and co-host South Korea. None of which were push overs. Yet, despite all of this we shined and made it to the Quarterfinals of the competition. Simply put it was due to the chip on the shoulder the team carried. This “chip” was the fuel which got us to the deepest stage of the World Cup we have ever been to, then or since. That same chip on the shoulder is what our current team lacks now.
Now while my rant about the 2002 team may seem long winded there’s a point to it all. The performance tonight and then again when we played Venezuela were predictable based on the factors I have laid out. We have players have far too many players who are playing at vastly different levels professionally. Which is why we lack bite due to lack of cohesion. Which I turn creates a lack of creativity when it comes to producing offense. But the most notable is the lack of a “workman/underdog” mentality. Which mind you is not all the fault of Berhalter but the federation as a whole. Due in part to their poor handling of the vacancy left by Klinsmann.
Lastly, I have noticed since his departure (from what I have seen on the field) the atmosphere in and around the team has deteriorated. There is a sense that those wearing the Red, White and Blue feel that qualification for any major tournament of any kind is akin to a birthright. Compounded by the decision to go back to an old touch line general, Bruce Arena, at a time when we needed someone new with a more modern philosophy. Maybe that’s unfair and the sentiment is closer to “who can possibly challenge us” or “what do we have to prove.” And for a time they could have been right to feel this way. Since for some time now within our confederation, outside Costa Rica, Mexico, and Honduras, we had little competition. Few were able to play at the same level as us.
This is of course a generalization and there of course are those players who don’t adhere to this sentiment but that is the general feeling I got watching our performance against Jamaica and Venezuela. However, this level of arrogance should also be backed by results. Yet, Berhalter has not been able to produce anything positive as of late. And maybe I’m wrong. And maybe Berhalter is the man to turn it all around. However he will need to figure out his team fast. Because I, and I’m sure the rest of the nation, eagerly await the return of the glory days. When the powers of international soccer once again bemoan the prospect of facing us on the world stage. If this is to be realized, our resilience and underdog fighting spirit will be key to success going forward. And I hope they are in full supply this summer. Here’s to hoping that Berhalter is the man to turn this young generation of talent into something Golden just like the cup they so desperately seek and what better place to start than at this years Gold Cup.