Consider yourselves warned: this will be a long read. I, like many of you, tuned in for the USMNT’s Copa America semi-final against Argentina last night. I, like many of you, held out a thin hope that we would compete and give a good account of ourselves. And I, like many of you, was let down in a spectacular fashion. The 4-0 drubbing we received at the hands of Messi and his friends last night did little other than mercilessly shine the light on everything wrong with the current state of the U.S. Soccer program. Yesterday’s match had all the ingredients of a sporting disaster. Horrific individual performances and an opponent in scarily good form conspired to sink us within 20 minutes. When it mattered most, the U.S. wilted; and so complete was our own ineptitude that it hardly mattered we were playing one of the form teams in world football. We’d have lost to a pub side with that performance last night.
So, what happened last night, and how are we so far off the elite? Here is the breakdown:
#1: The Players
Culprit numero uno to the hardships our national team currently faces is the lack of quality players in almost every position. There were guys on the field for us last night that wouldn’t start in a second-division league team in Europe, and yet were being counted on to defeat one of the best national teams on the planet right now. Players like Wondo, Beckerman, and Zusi simply aren’t good enough. All started last night and were passengers for large portions of the game. One of them (lookin’ at you Wondo) even thought it’d be a good idea to give the best player in the universe a free shot from 25 yards out; the shot led to the 2nd goal. The thing these 3 have in common besides being bang-average players is that they are all MLS-lifers; guys who have spent the vast majority (if not the entirety) of their playing careers in our objectively inferior domestic league instead of playing overseas. They just aren’t up to the technical level of most of the teams we face. So long as we’re relying on players of this caliber to man our midfield and forward lines, we’re going to struggle.
Another elephant in the room from last night’s game was one Michael Bradley. A promising player in his early USMNT days, he’s become a shadow of his former self in recent years as age has conspired with the severely lowered expectations of MLS play to hamper his ability to boss big games. He’s had a positively shocking tournament from an individual perspective, and I’m confident in saying he’s contributed more meaningful passes to opposing team’s attacking moves than he has ours. There’s not much Klinsi can do about a senior member of the team performing so far below par. The option to drop him wasn’t even there due to the foolish suspensions Jones and Bedoya picked up last round.
Just about the only unit that looked reasonably competent in last night’s game was the defence. This is hardly shocking to me, as it was comprised of all European-based players who got regular minutes for their club teams in top-flight games this year (Brooks being an exception, but he’s also been over-performing). Even last night, they didn’t look that poor, but their midfield kept ceding possession in dangerous areas and putting them in situations where conceding was inevitable. Luckily for us, these guys are young and could have years of time together to gel and solidify their defensive partnership. Unluckily for us, they have the unfortunate distinction of playing behind perhaps the least-talented midfield and forward pool of the last decade.
#2: The League
When I say the league, I’m of course referring to the MLS. Arguments for and against our quaint little domestic competition are usually pretty fierce among U.S. soccer fans. Many see it as an up-and-coming league that just needs time to grow. Better players are coming over, better teams are being formed, better games are being played. Others, however, look at it as a retirement league; a place for former European greats to enjoy dumping on college kids with only a fraction of their level of experience.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Yes, MLS has grown in popularity and competitiveness in the last decade. But it’s not even approaching an elite league yet, and it’s not likely to for a very long time. This is because it’s run like the NFL, where owners have an insane amount of sway over league policy and the front office determines where the best players are allowed to go. Nowhere else in the elite soccer world does the term “designated player” exist. In no other league are franchises told how many good players they can sign. None of the other top leagues in the world are run without a promotion/relegation system in place.
All of these things make MLS unique for the wrong reasons. The designated player system hoards the talent among only a handful of popular franchises. Many MLS teams don’t ever get the opportunity to sign a Keane or a Drogba. Meanwhile, the teams that do gobble up all the overseas talent end up putting roadblocks in the way of homegrown players, sacrificing the potential development of future USMNT talent in favor of applying a band-aid fix to their starting XI. Think about it for a second…when was the last time a primarily MLS-developed player went on to become a fixture for the national team? Landon Donovan almost 15 years ago? That’s a horrendous record for a nation of our size and the talent pool that we have.
I won’t get too in-depth with promotion and relegation, because it’s a subject that could warrant it’s own blog post alone. But the simple fact is that not having it in place simply encourages complacency. Owners don’t have to invest in talent because they know their spot is safe regardless of where they finish. Players don’t have incentive to try if their team has no playoff prospects halfway through the year. Hell, franchises are even encouraged to do poorly to get a better draft pick. Lower league teams in the USL don’t have a path to the top flight even if they are better than the teams already there. It’s a mess, it doesn’t work for soccer, and it needs to change.
#3: The Expectations
Stroll the soccer-inclined portion of the internet for even five minutes today and you’ll read a ton of articles about how Klinsmann should be fired over last night’s result. Now, I’ll disclose here that I’m a fan of Klinsi (goes with the territory as a Spurs fan), but I know he’s not without his faults. His team selection can be baffling at times, he tinkers a lot when there isn’t really a need for it, and in my opinion he isn’t the most tactically astute manager out there. But the fact remains that he’s the most qualified manager we’ve had in awhile, and he’s working within a system that does him no favors.
Here in the U.S., we like being the best at things. It’s an incredibly significant part of our national identity both in and out of the realm of sports. As a result, our fans don’t like to see us finish eighth, or third, or fifth in tournaments. They want us to win. They expect us to win. Despite all the evidence that we are not a world footballing power, we so desperately want to be. All of this places an insane amount of pressure on whoever occupies Klinsi’s seat. In reality, the entire system in the U.S. needs to be rebuilt from the ground up if we’re ever going to compete with the likes of an Argentina or Spain. Klinsmann said as much when he first joined us. But that takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money. If pride is a virtue America has in spades, patience is one we’ve never had in particularly great supply.
So the story goes the same every time we disappoint; blame someone but ourselves and start over. I’ll tell you right now, however, that we could have Mourinho himself managing our team and it would make little tangible difference. A manager can’t win if he doesn’t have the talent, and our talent in this country is hampered at almost every level by a domestic league and mentality that discourages improvement. Until we recognize this and start making substantial changes to how we treat soccer in this country, we’re always going to be a few steps behind.