US must curb ‘bright side’ mentality

It is rare to find Jurgen Klinsmann without a smile on his face and a spring in his step, even when those around him are somber and down. This contrast was never more evident than on Monday night in Nashville, when the devastation caused by the US Under-23 national team’s shocking elimination from Olympic Qualifying left most Americans at LP Field feeling stunned and distraught.

Whether simply the product of a naturally positive individual who always sees the bright side, or the work of a calculating spin master, Klinsmann’s take on the United States’ failure to qualify for the OIympics almost made it sound like hadn’t just witnessed one of the must gut-wrenching endings to a game ever played by an American soccer team.

“Overall, the way Caleb developed the program in these just couple of months was outstanding,” Klinsmann said, referring to US Under-23 head coach Caleb Porter. “He’s done an outstanding job. How he put his thoughts and ideas into these guys. There’s a bright future ahead of him in his coaching career.”

Klinsmann continued: “You saw that tonight, you saw it against Cuba, you saw it against Mexico, and it’s important for us to see that we’re on the right path in terms of style of play.”

Klinsmann’s talk of the right path seemed to ignore the glaring fact that US Soccer’s quest to walk “the right path” cost the United States a place in the second biggest international soccer tournament the Americans can play in (with all apologies to the CONCACAF Gold Cup).

Did the US team try to play a better brand of soccer than past editions of the American team? Has Porter helped a talented generation of creative players and introduced them to an attacking style of soccer that could lead to better results on the senior national team level one day?

It’s tough to look at this past the Olympic qualifying tournament and say so. Yes, the Americans certainly looked impressive against an overmatched Cuba, but promptly looked very ordinary playing against a Canada side that was content to bunker and counter, and had far too easy a time stifling this new brand of American attacking soccer.

Then there was the El Salvador match, which the saw the Americans enjoy some impressive stretches, but hardly groundbreaking stuff we hadn’t seen before from US teams. If anything, the only unfamiliar sight we honestly saw from the US Under-23 national team was awful goalkeeping, something American fans certainly aren’t accustomed to.

The sad thing is the best performance this team delivered under Porter came before the Olympic qualifying tournament, against arch-rival Mexico. In that game, we saw crisp passing, high-pressure defending, a focus on technical soccer and signs that maybe, just maybe, Porter’s ambitious plan and Klinsmann’s lofty hopes for American soccer were attainable.

Unfortunately for US fans who got their hopes up after watching that game, we only saw that sort of quality in the team’s opening rout of a 10-man Cuba side. The next two games were case studies in chaotic defending and terrible goalkeeping, and frantic, desperate soccer rather than beautiful attacking football.

Porter was unapologetic about his desire to teach young American players a more technical style of play, a more attack-minded approach than the ‘defend and counter’ style the United States had become known for in the past few decades.

“This country is evolving and even though maybe it’s not showing in this tournament and didn’t show in the U-20 tournament, you can’t measure success always on results” Porter said. “You sometimes have to prioritize winning less to play a certain way and clearly I went into this tournament with a philosophy and I stuck to it.

“We didn’t get the results that we needed to but I still feel like these players evolved and I feel like our country’s evolving. I have a lot of confidence in that.”

You can’t blame Porter for believing in his system. He’s one of the most promising and well-respected young coaches in American soccer for a reason, because he is a visionary, a good teacher and motivator. These are the reasons why he has become an innovator in college soccer and a reason he has caught the eye of MLS teams.

All that said, Porter is also young and inexperienced. Having a tournament as important as the Olympic qualifying tournament be his first major international event, might have been a step too far. As much as he did to teach a new approach and a new system, his lineup decisions and in-game management were fraught with question marks and cringe-worthy mistakes.

Do you blame that on the ambitious young coach, or on the people who put him in such a pressure position in the first place? This brings us back to Klinsmann, who has aligned himself with the Porter hire, and labeled it part of his plan to change the American soccer landscape. Whether it was Klinsmann or US Soccer President Sunil Gulati, someone needs to come right out and acknowledge that, and maybe even admit, that they are okay with another tournament disappointment at the cost of ‘bigger picture’ attitudes.

Even if we accept Klinsmann’s premise that this recent Olympic qualifying disappointment is simply chalked up to experienced gained, and the cost of coaching young players, at what point do those kind of excuses start to ring hollow?

Will he have similar ‘look on the bright side’ comments if the US national team goes to Guatemala in June and fails to get a result in World Cup qualifying? Will he simply chalk it up to implementing a new system and new approach if the Americans struggle in a World Cup qualifying group including Guatemala and Jamaica, two teams capable of making things difficult?

Maybe Klinsmann can’t help being an eternal optimist, but at some point he needs to be a realist and be ready to admit that results do matter, and be ready to admit when a US national team at any level simply wasn’t good enough, be it one coached by him or one coached by any other coach in the American system.

There are players with bright futures who were part of this recent US Olympic qualifying team, in addition to intriguing young talent coming through the American pipeline. Yet any way you slice it, outstanding isn’t a word that should be associated with the United States’ recent Olympic qualifying performance.

There’s looking on the bright side, and then there’s choosing to ignore reality.