Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Cups All Around (and not a Drop to Drink)

Some observations after watching most of the Confederations Cup and attending the U.S. Men's National team Gold Cup game against Panama in Nashville:

1.  The Confederations Cup Is No Longer a Test for Anyone but the Host Country.  Sure, you can say that the Germans don't have a B Squad, or that even their second team is better than most other countries, but whatever the excuse or the analysis, the simple fact is that they breezed through the Confed Cup starting exactly zero players who started the 2014 World Cup Final against Argentina. 

While roster turnover is a fact of international soccer, and it would be a shock if Philipp Lahm or Miroslav Klose featured in the 2018 German World Cup team (since both have retired from international football), there are several players from that team (Neuer, Ozil, Muller, Boateng) who seem naturals for the next edition as well. But they were nowhere to be found on the squad as Joachim Low chose a team without a wealth of international experience. The Germans won four games and tied one, "avenging" the tie by beating Chile 1-0 in the Final.

2.  Russia Met its Lowly Expectations. Apparently the "test" for Russia hosting these games, as far as FIFA was concerned, was to prove that it could be at least superficially friendly to traveling supporters of the participating teams and avoid any overt racism, homophobia, or hooliganism. While new FIFA Capo Gianni Infantino said that the tournament was a great success, it remains to be seen whether Russia can duplicate the feat on a much larger scale, with many of the stadiums not used for the Confederations Cup still not complete. Not to mention the pesky North Korean labor abuses upon which those stadia are apparently being built.

3.  Russia's Men's Soccer Team Met its Lowly Expectations. Which is to say, it sucks. Although one player, Yuri Zhirkov, was fun to watch.

4.  Mexico is Still Mexico. Which is to say, it folds on the big stage. The best Mexico has to offer was a poor, poor second to Germany in the semis, losing 4-1, and couldn't beat a Ronaldo-less Portugal in the third place match.

The view of Nissan Stadium in Nashville from the American
Outlaws' section prior to the U.S. v. Panama match. (photo by me)

5.  The U.S. Men's B Team is Not Germany's B Team. Or C Team. No surprise there, of course, but the performance against Panama was dross. Fortunately, the players know it and Bruce Arena knows it. While Arena chose to use the Gold Cup as a testing ground for players who are on the fringe of the potential 2018 World Cup roster, they were out-of-sorts defensively and particularly in the midfield. Which leads to the final observation ...

6.  Shut Up About Michael Bradley Already. After every U.S. match of any significance, the trolls crawl from their parents' basements to complain about how Bradley gives away the ball too much, doesn't play high enough, doesn't play back enough, blah, blah, blah. If the match against Mexico at the Azteca and a Bradley-less midfield against Panama don't convince you of Bradley's quality and the absolute necessity that he be a starting midfielder for the U.S. as long as he wants to strap on his boots and don the shirt, nothing will.

While Kellyn Acosta was good in the warm-up match against Ghana and threw himself around a bit against Panama, the other two center mids against Panama, Dax McCarty and Joe Corona, were abysmal. Here's hoping Arena gives someone (anyone) else a shot against Martinique. But only with the caveat that they will back-up, or at best play alongside, Bradley.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Giving Klinsmann His Due (If He's Owed It)

I know I've been incredibly wishy-washy about Jurgen Klinsmann over the years here.

Aside: You may ask: "Who cares about Klinsmann at this point? He's gone. Arena's got the men's team headed in the right direction. Enough is enough." But it's not, because ... well, because I've been searching in vain for something that interests me enough to post about, and this is where I landed. With the enigma that is Klinsmann.

I defended Klinsmann's decision to not include Landon Donovan in the 2014 World Cup roster, then admitted that it may have been a mistake. I took his side when critics accused him of being too European (or un-American), then took him to task for trying to assert ownership of the uniquely American traits of his team and players.

Ultimately, even though I liked the energy and inventiveness he brought to the position of National Team coach, I agreed that Coach Klinsmann needed to go based upon the U.S. team's miserable results in the first two matches of The Hex CONCACAF qualifying.

But I'm wondering now if his defense of his performance after he was let go, that his time with the team and its abrupt end was "an incomplete picture" was closer to the truth than we may have suspected at the time. At least as far as his second job, as technical director of all of the U.S. Men's teams, is concerned.


A bemused Klinsmann at a press conference
(photo from zimbio.com)

The recent showings by the U.S. Men's U-20 and U-17 teams have led me to think that Klinsmann was undervalued as a developer of young players, or at least of putting a system in place to help them succeed. While there are a variety of factors that no doubt play into the recent successes of our national teams with a "U" in front of them (MLS youth programs, more young players turning pro rather than going to college, more youth players signing with European clubs while young, etc.), I can't help but think that Klinsmann had something to do with the improvement, and indeed some of the other factors listed above.

Although his criticism of MLS was sometimes unwarranted and generally just not helpful, whether because of that criticism or just the organic growth of the league and its teams, much of the improvement in our national youth teams is due to the fact that most of the players at the U-17 level up are now professionals, a far cry from 10 years ago. It was Klinsmann who beat the drums for the professional development of young players (admittedly, at the expense of college soccer).

By the same token, the fact that more and more young Americans are going to Europe to play must play a role in the overall improvement of their national teams, not only from a technical aspect, but also simply from a comfort level of playing against the best in the world on a weekly basis. One has to look no farther than Christian Pulisic, who age-wise is eligible to be playing in the U-20 World Cup now being held in South Korea, but talent-wise has already graduated to the full men's team, to see the added value in playing professionally in one of the best leagues in the world (in his case, the German Bundesliga).  Again, it was Klinsmann who beat the drums for players to play professionally at the highest level (i.e., in Europe) although this again put him at odds with our American soccer establishment (such as it is) in the MLS.

The genesis of this post is the U-20 World Cup, in which, to this point, the Americans have never looked overmatched, have been inventive going forward, and have actually possessed the ball for long periods of time! After going down 2-0 in the first game against Ecuador, the U.S. fought back to tie at two, only for a gaffe/howler/_______ (insert English football phrase you deem most suitable) by American goalkeeper ... (wait for it ...) Jonathan Klinsmann, only to then score again in the fourth minute of extra time to earn a tie.

The Young Yanks then beat Senegal 1-0 and tied Saudi Arabia 1-1 after a series of incredibly bad refereeing decision that left them a man down for 55 minutes and three men down (due to yellow card accumulation) for the knockout stage match against New Zealand. And all of this was accomplished after the team's primary playmaker, Gedion Zelalem, was subbed off with an apparently serious knee injury only half of an hour into the Ecuador match.

While the group stage was encouraging, the New Zealand match was a revelation. Despite starting three players who had seen little playing time to that point, the Americans dismantled the Kiwis 6-0, as 17 year-old U.S. starlet (hauling out all the Brit football terms here) Josh Sargent scored his fourth goal of the tournament, and five others chipped in a tally as well.

As is always the case, Sargent's goal scoring has attracted much of the media attention (and interest from another Bundesliga club). But the work of those under coach Tab Ramos's guidance in the midfield and defense has been equally admirable.  Even operating without Zelalem, the team has looked confident on the ball and, except for the first half hour against Ecuador, preternaturally poised.

Similarly, the U-17 team (led by Sargent) had a good run in CONCACAF qualifying, winning a spot in that World Cup by tromping Cuba 6-2 before falling 5-4 in penalty kicks to Mexico in the Final.

Maybe it's the fact that Jurgen Klinsmann has been present for the U.S. U-20 World Cup matches, watching his son perform well (for the most part) in goal, that has led me to think of him a little more kindly and want to give him credit for our recent success at the youth levels. But I can't shake the feeling that, while Dad is present, his director ghost is too, and is more than a little pleased to see that his work is bearing fruit.