Do you wonder what kind of advice Jurgen Klinsmann was giving his players during their loss to Argentina?
The U.S. coach revealed some in his post-game press conference. After the USA managed zero shots, one corner kick, and had only 32 percent of the possession in the 4-0 defeat, Klinsmann said he had screamed at them to “go at them, become physical, step on their toes.”
Step on their toes? I wonder if that’s what the U.S. Soccer Federation is teaching at their recently revamped coaching schools.
If that phrase rings a bell, it’s because after a 4-1 friendly loss to Brazil in 2012, Klinsmann said, "Maybe we're still a little bit too naive, maybe we don't want to hurt people, but that's what you've got to do. … We've got to step on their toes more and get them more frustrated."
Of all the assessments one can make about the Copa Centenario semifinal, a lot more comes to mind than the USA “showing too much respect,” as Klinsmann complained about his players, and a lack of toe-stomping.
For example, Argentina had a player who hit accurate short-, mid- and long-range passes to his teammates throughout the game. And that’s just Sergio Romero, the goalkeeper.
Whenever the Argentines failed to find a gap in the U.S. defense, they passed back, to the defenders, and very often to Romero, and launched another attack toward a different part of the field. No doubt this possession play tired the U.S. players.
You would never have guessed that the Americans had four days of rest after their quarterfinal and Argentina only two days. Because the Argentines, all of them, had the skill and savvy to, as they say, let the ball do the work.
Klinsmann deserves credit for guiding his team to the Copa Centenario semis to get to play a team that finished runner-up at the last World Cup and Copa America and is No. 1 in the FIFA World Rankings. Besides being a valuable, although frustrating, experience for his players, it also exposed an audience of millions of U.S. TV viewers to the fantastic brand of soccer played by the Argentines.
There are not many teams in the world that could have done better against this Argentine team, which had the greatest player in the world, Lionel Messi, at his finest. And is so stacked with talent that Sergio “Kun” Aguero, who scored 24 goals in 30 English Premier League games last season, was left on the bench.
Would the USA have fared better if they had gotten more physical? It’s not like they played like choirboys. Clint Dempsey nailed Javier Mascherano with a forearm to the neck and Brad Guzan felled Ezequiel Lavezzi with a left-arm swing in the first half. Both Dempsey and Guzan were lucky to escape without getting carded and neither strike helped the U.S. cause. At the final whistle, the foul count was 12 by the USA and seven by Argentina.
Chris Wondolowski getting physical did hurt the USA big time. After mis-trapping a pass from Kyle Beckerman, Wondolowski kicked the ball back into the U.S. half. He gave chase and wrestled Messi to the ground even though Messi still had three U.S. defenders and Guzan to beat. Messi scored on the ensuing free kick.
Wondolowski was starting for the first time in the tournament because Bobby Wood was serving a yellow-card suspension thanks to foolish flying tackle at midfield against Ecuador. Also missing for the semifinal was Jermaine Jones, red-carded against Ecuador, and Alejandro Bedoya, a starter in the first four games who got his second yellow in the quarterfinal.
Jones’ red card against Ecuador ruined the USA’s chance to play a man up for 38 minutes and made what could have been an easy win a 2-1 nail-biter. In the 1-0 win over Paraguay, the USA had to play 42 minutes short-handed because of the DeAndre Yedlin’s ejection for two reckless tackles.
One can’t help wondering whether some of this indiscipline comes from Klinsmann imploring his players to get nasty and step on toes. His assistant, the Austrian Andi Herzog, after failing to qualify the U.S. U-23s for the 2016 Olympics said, “We have to play nasty, too.” He said that after a 2-1 loss to Colombia during which his team collected two red cards and six yellows.
Did John Brooks, who was lucky the ref didn’t see it, sprint down the field to shove Michael Arroyo in the back, during the Ecuador melee that got Jones ejected, to impress his coaches who want nasty?
Who knows? But one can only hope that Klinsmann doesn’t really believe that getting more physical is the solution to closing the gap between U.S. soccer and an Argentina, whose superiority comes from individual skill, creativity and clever combination play.