Far Post Footy

Friendly Fire

The hiring of Jürgen Klinsmann was met with enthusiasm and optimism. The calls for his firing after defeats in two friendly matches have been met with vitriol and pessimism on levels so typical of American soccer. The goal is to revamp the system, change the culture on all levels, establish a system of development, and set U.S. Soccer up for progression.

Anyone suggesting this could happen by 2014 is off-base. Part of the project is bringing through the slew of players based notably in Europe, the United States, and Mexico. The vetting process was always going to be painful and rife with challenges. And yet, because he dared go against the grain and challenge the status quo, Jürgen Klinsmann should be fired?

Not only is that suggestion shortsighted and petulant, it proves the ignorance most Americans have regarding a sport that must compete with foreign systems of development not by reinventing the wheel, but by aligning with these systems of development. Suggestions to fire the Head Coach and Technical Director of U.S.S.F. after a few losses in friendlies are perhaps what’s most disappointing. It shows a lack of patience and understanding of real systemic development.

The “win now” mentality ignores the need to hone the system. I’d rather see these young experimental sides lose 2-1 or 4-1 to good sides trying to play attractive, attacking, and fluid soccer than slugging out a 1-0 win soaked in sweat and shoddy soccer that’s so often the calling card of the USMNT. We must demand our players to be technical and composed. If losing a few friendlies is the tipping point that motivates the ravenous mob of impatient fans to demand Klinsmann’s firing, U.S. Soccer is in deeper trouble than previously thought.

Systemic change will take time and setbacks are part of the process. I often look at international friendly matches through the lens of curiosity. Win, lose, or draw — the result is but one fragment of the overall purpose these contests of non-consequence present. Personally, I feel there are two sides at odds with one another regarding the state of the U.S. Men’s National Team and the overall state of American soccer (including the United States Soccer Federation). Before I descend down the rabbit hole that is the American soccer system, I feel it’s important to delineate two sides that have emerged in the wake of the recent results of the USMNT’s jaunt over in England and Ireland.

There are those who know far too much and there are those who don’t know a thing. That is, there are people heavily invested in the game in varying capacities who understand soccer on levels ranging from youth development, club and league function and structure, player development (different than youth development), coaching philosophies, and systemic principles that affect the American game. Unfortunately, for the invested crowd, the struggles are tangible and their frustration is only exacerbated by the palpable ignorance of the casual fans who come in the form of mainstream journalists, analysts, former players (many of whom Jürgen Klinsmann would never pick if they were currently playing), and talking heads. This other, louder side, are those who know very little about the game. The lack of usable knowledge of this latter group doesn’t make them unimportant. It makes them American fans.

American fans live in the now. They are fickle when they should be understanding of the complexities of international soccer and intricacies of development. They are impatient when they should trust that patience leads to clarity. The American fan wants to win now and they don’t care how we win. Part of the problem with this ethos is winning ugly isn’t always a sign of progress. In fact, much of the time, winning ugly papers over the cracks in a faulty system. The most vocal American soccer audience isn’t the most knowledgeable invested faction. No, the most vocal are fickle and casual fans who equate soccer with every other American sport. They are the ones talking the most, yet saying the least. The fans are ones who denounce people whose success doesn’t align with their own.

Even before the 2-1 loss to Colombia and the 4-1 loss to Ireland Jürgen Klinsmann has been the focus of American soccer. The reality is Klinsmann, love him or hate him, represents the thorn in the side of the American soccer (and sporting) psyche it needs. His criticism of Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, two American players who had reasonable success in Europe and returned to Major League Soccer — and were paid handsomely to do so — is valid as neither Bradley nor Dempsey has found the form Jürgen Klinsmann expects and demands out of each player. Add in the Landon Donovan soap opera, which has put the German at odds with many Americans, and the tunnel vision plaguing many fans clouds the collective’s judgment.

Has Jürgen Klinsmann been flawless in his decision-making, tact, and public persona? No. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with the USMNT Head Coach and U.S.S.F. Technical Director expressing strong opinions. For high-level players, criticism is part of life. What’s disappointing is most of the American public, fan base, and media base is super sensitive and defensive of its stars and system. When anything about U.S. Soccer is criticized, people, in the most American of ways, go on the offensive instead of taking a breath, pumping the brakes, and opting to assess the criticism from another perspective.

I find it funny when I hear fans say, “If we had José Mourinho or Pep Guardiola, we’d be much better off.” Yes, I’ve heard such phrases. The reality is those two men make Jürgen Klinsmann look like a puppy dog. Mourinho, never one to shy away from the spotlight, openly criticizes fans, players, and other coaches–sometimes in a single breath. Pep Guardiola, represents the innovative side of football with a revisionist and revolutionary approach. To a man like Pep Guardiola, there is no destination, only the journey. His criticism would shatter the average American player’s confidence and will power for the better.

I’ve always contended results are more about the system than the coach regarding American soccer. I haven’t seen much accountability on the players using their own malaise and performance as an excuse. At the international level, effort isn’t enough. Perhaps in Major League Soccer it is, but the reality is the recent friendlies showed the difference between players who are clueless at the National Team level (Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, Bill Hamid) versus players who know what they’re doing but aren’t doing it well (Kyle Beckerman, Chris Wondolowski, Matt Besler, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Jozy Altidore). The players who should own responsibility disappoint the most. Part of this is Klinsmann’s fault for selecting them in the first place. And part of this is state of the American game.

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It may be that no other country has as many Monday morning quarterbacks and armchair analysts than the United States. I’ve heard more idiotic criticism and condemnation from people who reveal their lack of knowledge, experience, and depth in the game in the first few words of their on-air diatribe against Jürgen Klinsmann. On one of the few shows I listen to on Sirius XM FC, John Bolster of “Over The Ball” and MLSsoccer.com said, “Bob Bradley was fired for less, I’m just saying,” the day after the loss to Ireland. So what? Bob Bradley has no doubt grown by going abroad to coach. His teams relied heavily on grit and determination. They didn’t keep the ball, play out of the back, or try to attack for a full 90-minutes. Bob Bradley’s sides were very good, but they were also poor at times. Is that the fault of the coach or the players? Perhaps a bit of both, but more ownership should fall on the players.

Here’s my question to the American fans: If the American system, as we know it, is working, why aren’t we world beaters yet? The problem is the American player is conditioned in an archetype that treats friendlies as such. Prior to the Colombia game, the amount of disrespect for Colombia from U.S. fans was not only odd, it was downright ignorant. “We should kill Ireland!” a caller said on Sirius XM FC’s show, “Counter Attack”. Even if Ireland fielded a “B” squad, most of those players are either in the English Premier League or the Championship. They aren’t hacks. They are no slouches. Designated Players from MLS were taken to the cleaners. Americans who ply their trade in Europe didn’t show well. The fault is ultimately on the players.

The mindset is troubling. I don’t mind watching a USMNT of any permutation try new things. To me, it really doesn’t matter where a guy is paid to kick a ball. What I care about is performance. When I see players like Kyle Beckerman play square passes through the midfield that get picked off for fun against superior opposition, I wonder if he plays in a league where he could get away with that on the regular. When a team like Ireland, physical, energetic, well-organized, but historically not adept at any type of pressing or gegenpressing infused into its National sides realizes it doesn’t need to pressure the USMNT for the Americans to give the ball away, I raise an eyebrow. Is this down to the coach or the lack of application of the players? When DeAndre Yedlin turns back into pressure, loses the ball, then Colombia breaks 70 yards and has a scoring opportunity, I wonder if it’s just an fundamental error or a habit of a player scared to create something going forward in advanced positions. When Jozy Altidore fails to hold the ball up, has the first touch of a rhinoceros, or dribbles out of bounds, I begin to question if the problem is less Sunderland or England, and more Jozy. When Bill Hamid foolishly rushes out and concedes a goal, I put that on him. When Matt Besler is flat-footed and lunges in more often than not, I realize that the problem is on the players.

The takeaway is this is a development cycle. Wins are meaningless. “He should keep his job through the Gold Cup,” is another phrase I have seen on Twitter and heard on the radio. Of course, the fact that Klinsmann questioned MLS has put him at odds with American fans. It’s en vogue to blast him. It’s even more popular to bring up the fact he’s German and this is America! Love him or loathe him, the reality is this country doesn’t produce the players of the competitive ilk or tactical nous to compete consistently. The American player can still get away with “trying hard” and can still pass off “distance covered” as a measure of quality to American fans. To the rest of the American soccer audience comprised of: coaches, former players, independent writers, immigrants, progressives, “Eurosnobs”, and those who study the game ad nauseam — these metrics don’t matter.

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What matters is building cohesion through the American professional soccer pyramid. If that can’t happen, form another pyramid with promotion and relegation to allow meritocratic principles to drive the sport forward. The American player grows up in a system of relative non-consequence. The game cannot grow to the requisite heights needed to compete and dominate internationally under limiting and unnecessary-imposed ceilings. One league should not dictate the direction of the entire federation.

What matters is building soccer cages and futsal courts in the great cities of America where anyone can play and access the game. What matters is the “de-suburbanization” of the sport and elimination of pay-to-play. What matters is Academies operating as academies, not clubs with fancy labels and false pretenses for faux development. Win, lose, or draw, the culture of American soccer must change. The American player tries hard? Well, so does every other nation’s player. The American player is soft. For a nation full of fans who want to “win” above all else and aren’t scared to bash anyone who questions MLS, its fan are awfully sensitive to losing some “friendlies” or to the valid criticism of a league with crazy rules and shrouded in ambiguity.

The federation must start funneling more money down to the youth levels as the need for more resources and funding across the spectrum of the American game increases. I use the phrase, “one doesn’t build a house starting with the roof”. However, many believe that the Top-Down approach is what will lead US Soccer forward. While a strong “top” league is important the game needs help at the youth level — the two are not mutually exclusive. Most countries with involved federations address this. Belgium is one example that comes to mind, which is why the USSDA has hired a Belgian company to conduct an audit of the system.

When Don Garber says MLS will spend $30 million on development, it’s really not enough. And it’s not like MLS (NFL owners, MCFC/NYY, et al) don’t have the funds. The issue is traditional American sports (MLB, NBA, NFL) can use the industry of the NCAA and collegiate sports as their development pool. Soccer, as we know, plays by its own set of rules in a global competition pool. I look at the NHL in the lens that we see European club soccer. Talent from all over the world goes where the money/talent is. Jürgen Klinsmann (or any USMNT coach) telling young players to go abroad suggests more work has to be done on development here.

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I’ve said it before, our soccer culture must decide to rule or be ruled.

One thought on “Friendly Fire”

  1. As always Jon, excellent piece. As you know I am a big fan of what Iceland has done on their macro scale, built infrastructure for the whole community to use, trained coaches in a style of play that is technical and attack oriented, and made a long term investment to become a “football nation”. It is what is needed if the US is to become serious about soccer on the worlds stage. Of course we are going to lose to an Irish B team, those guys live and breath the game since they were tikes. They grew up in a system, not in a loosely organized pay to play pyramid scheme.

    The fact that the US has a closed D1 system that has no connection down to the youth and academy level is where we are at fault. If the lords of US soccer want the game to look like the NFL they should put money into the lower levels and build the game up form the bottom, not pick and choose pre-made stars who have payed “coaches” along the way to get where they are.

    Keep up the work, you are the voice of reason in this world of madness and chaos we call “soccer”. We need to get the pure and true message out to the people that make decisions about the future of the sport in this country. Lets not let them turn it into the NFL. Or the MLS (inside joke, sorry)

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