One of the sillier -- and more dishonest -- arguments put forward by the proponents of maintaining the status quo -- in American soccer is this: challenging
their adversaries -- i.e. those who want to see a much greater importance given to Latin-American talent, a group to which I certainly belong -- they demand to see, immediately, “all these great
Latino players, the ones that Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley apparently overlooked. Where are they?”
Because, the argument goes, if they can’t be revealed at once, then the case for using Latino talent collapses ... because the players just aren’t there.
It is the classic straw man, a deliberate misrepresentation of the opponent’s position, distorting it into a weak argument that can then be easily demolished. The idea that there exists, right now, a large group of Hispanic players who are good enough for the national team is a nonsense, it is a position that no thinking person maintains -- as those who push it forward must know, hence my insistence that it is a deeply dishonest assertion.
To clarify matters. There is not a pool of Latino players ready to step into the national team. No one is saying that there is. The argument is a rather different: namely that, at this point in the development of the American game, there ought to exist such a pool.
The fact that it doesn’t exist is the result of neglect -- some would say deliberate neglect, others, more kindly, would allege simply a lack of awareness. If, over the past decade or so, Hispanic players had been granted the same care, attention and encouragement as the anglo- and black players -- then the pool of national-team-ready Latino talent would probably exist. I say "probably" because there is never any certainty in soccer.
But, thanks to Jurgen Klinsmann, we can now change that "probably" into "certainly." By starting three Latin-Americans against Mexico, Klinsmann dramatically cleared the air. The first thing to notice is that all three players are with Mexican clubs. Not, that is, with MLS clubs. An embarrassing point for MLS -- but maybe one that can be tempered with the observation that things are, at last changing, and that another of the promising Latinos used by Klinsmann, the youngest -- Juan Agudelo -- is an MLS player with the Red Bulls (where, in the cause of protecting him, Coach Hans Backe has him spending most of his time on the bench).
So -- three Latinos who found that their talents were appreciated only south of the border. How did they do for the USA? A mixed bag. Edgar Castillo had a dreadful first half at left back (long a problem area for the USA). He improved considerably in the second half, without ever impressing. In defense, Michael Orozco proved a solid centerback, not without errors, but with positives to compensate. Jose Torres -- particularly in the second half, after a positional switch -- looked the most accomplished of the three.
No, truth be told, not Castillo nor Orozco nor Torres could be judged, on this showing, as an automatic choice. But Klinsmann stayed with them -- even allowing the desperately struggling Castillo to play the full 90 minutes -- so that he, and we, were able to get a fuller picture of their talent.
What was proved here was this: that Castillo, Orozco and Torres are all genuine contenders for national team places. Not by any means the finished product, but in that sense, no worse than most other prospects. They are not ready to simply walk onto the team a command a place. But then, as I have pointed out, no one has been claiming that such players are ready. The fact that three -- presumably the cream of the current Latino crop -- have managed to come close is pretty remarkable. But the awkward truth that they had to go to Mexico to develop their game is something that should be of major concern to the folks at MLS and the USSF.
So Klinsmann has proved that there are young Hispanics with considerable talent and great promise for the future -- maybe even for the immediate future if they are given strong encouragement. It is that encouragement, that faith in their potential, that has been so crucially lacking in the past.
In showing that, despite that lack of interest, a few top Hispanic players have surfaced, Klinsmann has gone a long way to proving the point about the USA’s pool of Hispanic talent. The next step is to show that Castillo, Orozco and Torres are not just one-offs, and that there is more to come, that they represent the tip of the iceberg.
By putting three Mexico-based players on the field -- and keeping all three of them there for virtually the whole game (Torres was subbed in the 84th minute) -- Klinsmann has started his new job with a remarkably strong indication of what -- I’m hoping -- will be his future modus operandi: bringing in new players with an emphasis on superior ball skills. This would mark a shift from what has far too frequently been the case in the past, when athletic prowess has evidently been rated the most valued asset.
A midfield that consistently creates rather than merely runs hard, beckons. The combination of Landon Donovan and Torres worked well in the second half against Mexico, and it is surely on the skills of Donovan that Klinsmann should build his team.
Which makes it regrettable that it was Donovan who struck the only sour note of an encouraging evening when, in a post-game interview with ESPN’s Rob Stone, he found it necessary to slur the Mexicans with a charge we’ve heard before, that they buckle when the going gets rough: “When they’re under pressure, they don’t do well, they don’t like it.”
Unfortunate comments from the man who had been, as so often before, the best player in the game. But they should not be allowed to tarnish what was, all in all, a highly satisfactory debut for coach Klinsmann.