American Underdogs

The Brazil 2014 World Cup draw ended the speculation and guessing. The match-ups drawn from each bowl during caused a collective gasp heard globally as the fixtures were assigned and the participating countries learned their World Cup 2014 fate.

For the United States, was the fate of a country still struggling to establish itself on the global stage of world football all but sealed? The wider sentiment most Americans have approaching Brazil is not a vote of confidence, that part is clear. What’s unclear is why the nation feels this way.

Group G, comprised of top-seeded Germany, playoff winners Portugal, a gritty Ghanaian side and the proudly dubbed underdog USA, looks tough because it is tough. The problem with the fixture list in Group G surely rests partly in the tenacity of the sides within it – but the real issue, for the USA, lays thousands miles away on American soil.

The cynics love a talking point. The surge of Group G talking points ranged from impossibility of isolating Cristiano Ronaldo to pointing out the fact that the Yanks were ousted from the previous two World Cups by far more tenacious Ghana sides and, of course, there’s the revived German Nationalmannschaft; capable of dissecting teams with their trademark German efficiency and discipline. Those are the valid talking points.

Enter the American concerns. American journalists and pundits pointed out (in the most American of ways) the total number of miles the USMNT will to travel, emphasizing it’s the most of any team at the tournament. Why should such a point hold relevance at this stage of World Cup discussions? Because that’s how the American football following calculates success and failure. This over-analyzing of facts is an aspect of sporting culture only America recognizes and oddly revels in; and it uncovers a real problem with the US game.

To the outsider looking in, the immersion of such facts and figures into American sporting culture seems ridiculous. To Americans, this is typical sports conversation and analysis fodder. As The Jam proudly sang about the slice-of-life aspects of British society in their 1980 hit ‘That’s Entertainment’, the American sports machine works best with entertainment greasing its gears.

Without these supplemental talking points, Americans might be put off solely talking about the footballing matters the country faces. Without a doubt, Sunil Gulati and the United States Soccer Federation has put its best foot forward and drastically improved the quality, development, presentation and ultimately the final product of US soccer since the 1990 qualification campaign and subsequent World Cup appearance.

But why does Ghana strike fear into the hearts of both American players and supporters alike? Has the West African nation with a population of 24 million people and a per capita income under $2,000 unlocked the secrets of world football? Hardly, but they have unlocked the USA. Twice.

Football in the States, regardless of its increasing popularity and expanding domestic league, has reached a period of sustained growth nearing plateau. The development of players is still lost in the mire of a nation devoid of a definitive footballing style. American sporting culture is obsessed with winning and high scores.

African, South American, European and Asian players play for love of the game. Outside of America, football exists in tight communities revolved around football and national pride. Many players don’t know another way of life and football is their escape and best sporting option.

Brazilians take pride in joga bonito, the Dutch pride themselves on the mechanical perfection of individual technique allowing their acclaimed Total Football to decimate opposing sides, while the Spanish have embraced the tiki-taka football (which ironically stems from the Dutch system and players from the 1970s onwards).

This discrepancy is entirely cultural. American players learn the game haphazardly to expose them to the revolving door of available sports and activities. A player might be great, but he may also have to play tennis, baseball or American football.

From a parenting standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with promoting sporting diversity and exposing a child to many different hobbies and sports. The result, however, is a nation comprised and armed with an ethos where players find themselves as Jacks of all trades and masters of none. A nation lacking a footballing identity.

At youth level, players are taught to win at all cost, even at the expense of learning the fundamentals. It seems that one singular purpose of playing the sport, in America, is results-driven and orientated. For far too long, the injection of misguided coaching held America back.

Development of individual technique, tactical awareness, football-specific fitness and consistency on the pitch take the back-burner in place of winning. The biggest, strongest and fastest players are put up top to score as many goals as possible whilst ignoring the fundamentals – but that has changed.

Until recently, youth systems failed the American player by stressing the Victory At All Costs doctrine throughout the scholastic ranks. In many of the top footballing countries, youth teams seldom keep score until the age of 15. Why? Because before that age, score doesn’t matter in comparison to total player development. The approach is both systematic and formulaic. The emphasis on individual achievement matters little compared to the collective development not of a team, but a generation of players.

There was a time when the talking heads of football punditry put stock in the argument that American success at a World Cup revolved around cultivating a team comprised of pure athletes. In other sports, pure athleticism might suffice, but in football, that argument couldn’t be more inaccurate.

Developing a mind for the game, understanding patterns of play that unlock tactically sound defences has been absent for generations at the developmental level. This essential approach is now implemented through a rejuvenated effort to develop footballers rather than winners.

The evidence is at the youth national team levels, especially their most recent success in the Nike Showcase Friendlies where the U17 YNT dominated a U17 Brazilian side (comprised of mainly U15 players) to the point where the Brazilians literally gave up at the 85 minute mark. There is progress, but the real question remains: is there enough?

Developing technique is paramount in all of the football powerhouses. There, players are groomed from an early age to appreciate and share the ball. In America, this practice is just starting to seep through the younger levels. In the results-driven world, American youth players aren’t exposed to enough quality competition.

Before the current academy system, the majority of the professional players the country produced hailed from the collegiate system. An obvious problem with college ball is the season lasts only about four months with maybe one month of pre-season conditioning.

This system, which allows promising players to gain a valuable education (which most will inevitably need), puts them developmentally behind players of the same age abroad playing at least nine months of the calendar year, thus expediting their speed of play and maintaining consistent levels of competitiveness absent in US players. If the USSF is smart, it should hold discussions with the NCAA and NAIA to extend the collegiate season. The truth is, it’s unlikely to happen.

So how does America cross this divide? The answer is the US Soccer Development Academy system which gives elite players in specific areas a chance to play year round with optimal training and competition schedules. The problem with this system, besides it being in its infancy, is what Jürgen Klinsmann identified in 2010 as a soccer analyst.

Then, he pointed out that America is the only country in the world where it costs families thousands of dollars to play for the best clubs. The country is literally pricing its talent out of the sport it was supposed to develop to be world beaters by 2010. That time has come and gone, but the inadequacy still exists.

There is, however, promise implementing such a system as it gives MLS a direct funneling channel to develop and foster young talent to carefully integrate within the ranks of individual clubs. In time, this system should prove a better alternative than the college route for promising players – but it must remain reserved only for the elite players, not just players from affluent backgrounds or those lucky enough to receive financial donations to fund their expenses.

As it stands, the US Soccer Development Academy tempts players who want to use it as a stepping stone to the aforementioned hit and miss collegiate system. The signs of its effectiveness are promising but not definitive.

The other glaring issue the USSF must face is the MLS calendar, which lies in a partial juxtaposition with Europe’s top leagues. MLS hardly has the clout to amend its schedule. The top American players must supplement their fitness and level of competition by either plying their trade abroad or going out on loan at the conclusion of their domestic campaign.

Landon Donovan, surely a player with his best years behind him, should be on a plane back to Merseyside and at the very least, training with Everton. Clint Dempsey’s decision to return to MLS after a wonderful spell in England’s top flight still mystifies the masses – but his return to Fulham on loan could see him recapture the form he demonstrated in his first spell at the club in time for the World Cup.

To further complicate the selection process of MLS-based players, how is it that Mike Magee, the league’s MVP, does not get a call-up to the national pool for a training camp? Magee, a player with two MLS Cups to his CV, has played with and against the league’s best players and continues to garner respect for his silky and lethally instinctive play. His experience would definitely provide a new attacking element to the national side in preparation for Brazil. The frustration lies more with Klinsmann’s apparent lack of interest in a player with quality attacking ability.

With regards to those playing abroad, a critical eye as to what teams secure their services needs closer examination. For instance, Brek Shea isn’t gaining the valuable experience sitting on the bench at Stoke City, having recently failed to even be named to the 18-man roster for the League Cup against Manchester United. Jozy Altidore has forgotten how to score goals at Sunderland, the underperformance of Americans abroad is peaking in an important year.

As important as it is for the top American players to play in the top leagues overseas, what good does it do for a player to be buried in the depth chart or be consigned to sporadic performances? The disconnect between players from the MLS and European-based players is apparent on the pitch.

Success in Brazil depends on three main factors: controlling the midfield, clinical finishing up front, and fitness. Praise should be heaped upon Jürgen Klinsmann and his staff for their precise attention to fitness in his training camps. But at this level, fitness should be a given.

Some might think Sunil Gulati and the United States Soccer Federation deserve the plaudits they receive for signing Jürgen Klinsmann to a contract extension. The extension is the practical move for a man entrusted with not only leading the national team in the next World Cups, but reaffirms the united front Klinsmann and USSF share in developing a new generation of players capable of becoming a top international team.

Klinsmann’s vision blends the best components the country has to offer in athletically talented players willing to learn from a legend with the tried and tested developmental practices Germany utilized to revitalize its own national program.

At a glance, Group G is one of three Groups of Death. Just like every team in the group, the US needs to accept that and begin to identify a way to maximize its preparation and performances before June.

The underdog role is one that resonates well with American players and supporters alike, but the day where America can look at themselves with the confidence and swagger of the other teams in Group G is in the near future. Perhaps the proving ground for the US is less on paper and more on the soil in Brazil.

By Jon Townsend. Follow me on Twitter @jon_townsend3

Published by Jon Townsend

Jon is a long-serving writer for These Football Times and the Original Coach and is the author of the upcoming book "It's Just a Ball: Exploring the Complexities of a Simple Game". Jon is a supporter of Liverpool Football Club and AFC Ajax. Based in the U.S., Jon is involved in promoting grassroots football and specializes in player development writing and coaching. He is the co-founder of Year Zero Soccer, a non-profit grassroots football organization that is partnered with TFT. His work has been featured on the Guardian Sport Network, Inside Soccer, NSCAA Soccer Journal, White Lines Magazine, and Spartan Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @jon_townsend3

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