Ahead of Wednesday’s game against Honduras, the US Soccer Federation put out an extended highlight video of the last time these two sides faced off in San Pedro Sula, back in 2009. That game, like the one this week, was part of the fourth and final phase of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
In 2009, the US clinched its spot in South Africa with a crisp, thoughtful performance in their 3-2 win over Honduras. They were a paradigm of efficiency then, making the most of their abilities and cleverly utilizing role players. The organization was sound; the back line sturdy. The system, while somewhat negative, fit the personnel, sitting back and hitting opponents on swift counter-attacks. The collective composed a whole, to use a tired cliché, greater than the sum of its parts.
On Wednesday, the US looked winded and uninterested and were outplayed by a Honduras team not as strong as the 2009 edition. Although the American talent on the field was supposedly superior than it was in 2009, thanks to the infusion of four German-Americans and the maturation of midfielder Michael Bradley and forwards Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, this new incarnation lacked all cohesion and craving.
Laid side by side as snapshots of different eras, a picture of unmistakable regression emerges.
The sample size for this comparison is small, certainly, but both games were reasonably fair representations of the larger body of work of those teams. Bob Bradley’s 2009 team was gritty and gutsy and understood what it was – and, more importantly, what it wasn’t – smartly taking points where it could. The 2013 team is well-sourced with players presumed superior and employed by more reputable clubs. But their qualifying campaign has, truth be told, been a bit of a shambles thus far. They have stumbled over mediocre opponents and had an embarrassingly difficult time overcoming even weaker ones. Yes, the games were rife with mitigating circumstances, but previous national teams faced those too, and didn’t have nearly so hard a time of it.
Nine games remain to scrounge up the 20 or so points that will more than likely take the US to Brazil. It’s early. But merely qualifying was never the point of this iteration of the US national team, however.
By finally landing their man Jurgen Klinsmann in the summer of 2011 following a 5-year pursuit and handing him $2.5 million per year, about four times what Bradley was making, US Soccer signaled that it would be making their grand assault on the world’s elite. Klinsmann was to put the US over the hump, overhauling the US national team the way he remade a dour, pragmatic Germany team into a swashbuckling one between 2004 to 2006. Upon his appointment, Klinsmann talked the talk; proactive soccer, high pressure, speedy attacks, killer instinct. The US was going to win more, and do so in style.
But after 18 months, the revolution has not come. Rather, the US is a worse version of its old self, stuck in an identity crisis to boot, as the description of tactics and philosophy continues to diverge wildly from what actually appears on the field.
On the face of it, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Klinsmann imposed an up-tempo system on players unfit to execute it. In his defense, that’s what he was hired to do, suggesting the federation may have appointed the wrong coach to lead the wrong team. Klinsmann’s player selection has been erratic, however. The US rarely shows up in something resembling the same lineup twice and he is quick to throw young players into the deep end. All four defenders that faced Honduras are fairly new to the team and they had never played together before. Unsurprisingly, they were badly exposed.
The players, meanwhile, have proved champions of the high-profile friendly, winning on Mexican and Italian soil for the first time ever. But they have consistently underperformed against much weaker opponents in the games that actually mattered. They remain hard-pressed to break down a reluctant opponent. They’ve not only failed to evolve into the team they were supposed to become, but they’ve relinquished the one edge they historically had: a never-say-die attitude coupled with superior conditioning.
Lower levels of the men’s national team programs are stagnant or regressing too. The under-20 and under-23 teams missed out on the most recent World Cup and Olympics in their respective age groups. And the next crop of under-20s is far from a lock to make it out of CONCACAF qualifying in Mexico later this month. A succession of weak generations – especially when contrasted with Mexico’s recent crops of world-beaters – could merely be attributed to a cyclical downturn, as US Soccer president Sunil Gulati suggests. But when the issue afflicts several generations in a row, and no redeeming batch is in sight, the issue could just as well be systemic and symptomatic of an incoherent youth development policy. Either way, the pipeline has run nigh on dry.
Wednesday’s loss might still prove a bump in an otherwise successful road to Brazil. But the overall trend lines are worrisome. And they beg the question if the course American soccer is on is the right one.