By Paul Gardner
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Buried under the tumult and clamor of the USA's performance against Belgium -- most of it focused on goalkeeper Tim Howard’s remarkable performance -- are some uncomfortable truths for the American game.
The fact that Howard had a great game should surprise no one. The USA has always had good goalkeepers. Beyond that record-setting stat of 16 saves, questions bristle. A record number of saves must also mean something like a record number of shots by the opposing team. Fact. As the BBC’s Ben Smith put it, Howard’s “teammates were simply outclassed.”
Stats that show a goalkeeper as your MVP are great for the goalkeeper. But they invariably mean that you’re not that good a team. The USA, by now, should be well past the stage of relying on good goalkeeping. Evidently it is not -- to the point of setting a World Cup record for keeper-dependence.
We can probe further. Jurgen Klinsmann’s team has departed this World Cup at the round-of-16 stage. Is that to be considered a triumph, or even an achievement? This is exactly what Bob Bradley’s team did last time around, in 2010. Come to that, Bruce Arena’s 2002 team got to the quarterfinals. So where is the progress?
Possibly, it is to be found in the quality of the USA’s play. If the USA, under Klinsmann, has developed a style, if it can be seen to be playing consistently skillful, attacking soccer that would certainly be a huge plus. I don’t want to spend much time on this matter, because I regard it as patently obvious that the USA, under Klinsmann, has made no advance at all in either the caliber or the style of its play.
In fact, Klinsmann has led U.S. soccer astray. His insistence on ignoring young American talent while he brings in primarily German players with little or no connection to the USA, his preference for Germans on his coaching staff, have moved American soccer away from the much richer ethnic diversity that is the country’s natural talent base. Are we supposed to believe this statement of Klinsmann’s? -- "We are doing everything we can in every corner of the country to find the talent.” So he brings in players from Germany, from Iceland, from Norway -- areas not hitherto known as corners of the USA.
Only one outcome can justify this gross distortion of American soccer -- in particular, the youth development area. That would be success. Clear, unarguable, success.
Well, the results are in, and they are poor. We shall have to wait a while longer, I suppose, for all the overwrought emotional posturing to die down. I’m referring to the USA’s terrific comeback at the end of the Belgium game. Praise indeed to the players -- but is there anything new here? Did Klinsmann invent the tremendous competitiveness of American athletes, their abiding desire to come through as winners?
That spirit has nothing to do with Klinsmann. It can be taken as a given in any American team, particularly when the U.S. flag is involved. Tiresome is not too strong a word to use when the praise starts pouring in about the great American fighting spirit. Not because that spirit does not exist, but because it is so heavily overemphasized. Are we to believe that the Germans don’t want to win? That the Argentines have no fighting spirit?
The Italians, the Spanish, the Uruguayans . . . all lacking cojones?
And what about the Costa Ricans? Their remarkable performance in this World Cup -- better by far, be it noted, than the USA’s -- puts everything that Klinsmann has been doing to shame.
We can start with this: Costa Rica, population approx 4.5 million. USA, population approx 317 million. In terms of the number of potential soccer players, in terms of the money and resources poured into youth development, it’s no contest. Then there’s the coach -- the USA’s foreign celebrity version flying his helicopter, using his dubious gurus, raking in headlines with his undoubted charisma; and for Costa Rica we can offer you Jorge Luis Pinto (also a foreigner, he’s Colombian not Costa Rican) with a successful but not spectacular 30-year coaching career.
Pinto, with fewer players, less money, less resources, has done what Klinsmann has utterly failed to do -- he has produced a team of Costa Ricans, 14 of them playing for foreign clubs (not major clubs -- and there are no German-Costa Ricans on this side) that has played attractive, coherent, intelligent soccer. Watching the USA, one is often left wondering whether Klinsmann has even tried to do this.
I think you can argue that appointing Klinsmann -- a top world coach with considerable World Cup experience -- was worth a try. But he has comprehensively failed to deliver. This is a good moment to underline that the Belgium game -- the center of all the current shouting -- was a loss. Of its four games in the World Cup, the USA won only one. That is not success or progress. Klilnsmann should be dumped.
His replacement? Must be an American. Must be someone who is going to give the Hispanic players a fair shake (something Klinsmann badly failed to do). The obvious candidate here is Tab Ramos. Too young? Possibly. But a risk worth taking, I think, to put right the distortions that Klinsmann has so damagingly installed. Ramos has experience, he has shown, with the under-20s, that he has an eye for talent and he is admired for the high degree of professionalism that he applies to his coaching duties.
The time to make to change is right now. If ever that hackneyed phrase “we’ve decided to go in a new direction” truly applied, this is one such moment. The Klinsmann bandwagon is getting us nowhere.