Of course, said experts provide myriad reasons and numerous scapegoats as to why the U.S. national team is manhandled by Argentina, 4-0, in the semifinal of a major tournament. A glaring talent gap is the primary culprit, and there’s many fingers being pointed this way and that regarding how to address a complex and touchy subject.
Whether or not a Centenario-type competition blossoms into a regular fixture on the FIFA international is, for now, irrelevant. The Americans attained the objective set forth by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann of reaching the semifinals, which they did by rebounding from defeat against Colombia in their opening game to beat Costa Rica, 4-0, and Paraguay, 1-0, in group play, and prevailing, 2-1, in quarterfinal with Ecuador.
A thorough butt-kicking inflicted by Argentina was fairly represented by the scoreline and had the Americans been at full-strength rather than deprived of starters Alejandro Bedoya, Jermaine Jones and Bobby Wood the margin would have been narrower. The best teams in the world are still much better than the USA as has been the case for many decades, but the insertion of Graham Zusi, Kyle Beckerman and Chris Wondolowski accentuated the differences.
There doesn’t seem to be much consensus about what can be done to ramp up the national team, other than magically transform MLS into one of the world’s greatest leagues and turn every domestic elite player into a potential World Cup starter. But what can be done is to look at the semifinal and determine what hidden truths, if any, can be comprehended.
LINEUP CHOICES. Not for the first time in his tenure did Klinsmann take on a tough task and make it worse through questionable decisions.
Why Klinsmann excluded an experienced, reliable defender in Matt Besler -- who manned the left-back slot in the quarterfinal against Ecuador -- with a shorthanded squad taking on the best player in the world is difficult to fathom.
Reverting to the back four that played the first three group made sense on some level. Criticized throughout his tenure for churning through formations and personnel with little or no regard to continuity, Klinsmann’s decision to stick with the same quartet of (left to right) Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin in the group phase imbued some consistency and cohesion.
Yedlin’s suspension for the Ecuador game prompted a logical decision to use Besler -- whom Klinsmann had deployed on the left side for the first half of the final tuneup against Bolivia -- on the left and move Johnson to the right. To face Argentina, Klinsmann could have kept Besler at left back and returned Yedlin to right back and move Johnson again into midfield, where he plays club ball for Borussia Moenchengladbach and his experience could have helped blunt Argentina’s dominance in the middle third.
Besler may not be a natural left back, but he’s a zealous, determined defender and unlike Johnson, Brooks and Cameron had not slogged through four pressure games in 14 days. Many Americans looked fatigued, including Johnson, but he could have been somewhat effective in a primarily defensive role on either flank, backed by either Besler or Yedlin or even as a second defensive screen in front of the back four.
In any case, adding Besler to the back line would have increased the USA in its individual and collective defense as well as freshness and experience.
BECKERMAN'S REPLACEMENT. The RSL stalwart looked overmatched against Argentina, but nobody else on the roster comes close to taking on Jones’ defensive resiliency.
That said, trailing at halftime, 2-0, and lacking any real presence in central midfield, a change was desperately needed to give the U.S. any chance of getting back in the game. But Klinsmann made no such move until 10 minutes after Argentina scored its third goal in the 60th minute. Only then did Beckerman come off in favor of --- wait for it – defender Steve Birnbaum?
I don’t agree with many who were clamoring that Darlington Nagbe should have started against Argentina. For all his skill and cleverness, he’s prone to costly turnovers in the middle third that would have been eagerly gobbled up by Argentina. A solid run for Portland during the last few months of its run to the 2015 MLS title can’t be instantly transformed to the national team level and among other problems, his inconsistency is one reason the Timbers are teetering this season.
But at 2-0, Klinsmann could have made this move rather than that of Christian Pulisic for Wondolowski. Ironically, the third goal stemmed from a ball Beckerman played to Pulisic with a pair of Argentines about to close down the teenager. It was a bad decision by Beckerman and when Pulisic turned, he did so right into a double-team that easily snapped up the ball. Argentina swept over the midfield line, and though Geoff Cameron nearly snuffed the sequence by stretching his right leg to intercept a ball, he couldn’t recover it, and a few seconds later Gonzalo Higuain smacked a shot low just inside the post.
Though he too is new to the national team, at 26 Nagbe has a lot more pro games under his belt than Pulisic. Their double entry together in the opener against Colombia changed the game a bit but not significantly, and so Klinsmann might have been reluctant to pull the same double-switch at halftime.
Yet Argentina’s total dominance in the middle of the park demanded drastic measures, and Klinsmann didn’t act soon enough.
PLAYER DEVELOPMENT. Every time the national team doesn’t look good, the sky falls on U.S. Soccer and president Sunil Gulati and Klinsmann and MLS for botching up player development. They are all to blame, but only partially.
The fact is, the U.S. is still decades away from a true pyramid structure in which player scouting and development starts at the grassroots level and is interlocked at each stage. This interlocking goes beyond the formal process at the regional levels that feed into the youth national teams; rather it emerges along more organic lines. In youth hockey and baseball, leagues and organizations are monitored by scouts, both paid and volunteer, who pass on information regarding promising players to people higher up the chain.
There’s no substitute for time in this regard. In the past two decades, several different levels of competitive soccer outside the traditional club system -- both youth and adult -- have blossomed: USL, NASL, PDL, NPSL, etc. In turn, they are fed by a vast array of leagues and clubs at the local and regional levels that may or may not be formally tied to U.S. Soccer or other umbrella entities.
Certainly, U.S. Soccer can do a better job in its Development Academy programs and many MLS teams are still grappling with the logistics and best practices of running several youth teams, fielding a USL operation or joining with an affiliated club, along with the myriad headaches of staying competitive and solvent in MLS.
Contrary to what many believe, it is not the job of MLS to groom players for the U.S. team. MLS teams are businesses and will take any measures necessary – which may include fielding as many non-U.S. eligible players as the league permits —to succeed financially and competitively. Otherwise, it would be counterproductive to allot each team eight international slots and allow teams to acquire more of them if they so desire. That limit is subject to U.S. Soccer approval; it has been as low as three players per team in the past.
Klinsmann can only pick the players who are eligible and available. His penchant for foreign-based players and critiques of MLS rankle many, including Commissioner Don Garber, but as head coach he is obligated to make decisions whether they ruffle feathers or not. The limitations of Gyasi Zardes are likely to remain even if he plays another 100 games for the Galaxy. Starting for Sunderland rather than Seattle is why Yedlin has improved significantly though deficiencies persist.
The issue of what Klinsmann can achieve as technical director isn’t so clear. In more than five years of his tenure, the song remains the same. Some critics contend his true value lies in player identification and development, and someone else should select the national team and prepare it for games and competitions. His glowing reputation as a former international player and recruiter might dim if he were not the head coach as well as TD.
Gulati reiterated his stance following the Argentina game that the federation makes no decisions on the basis of one result. As it should be. But the body of work under Klinsmann is extensive and at some point conclusions need to be drawn and acted upon. The Centenario fell precisely in the middle of a cycle between World Cups and changes can be wrought in time for 2018.