I’ll come back to that later. For the moment, I’ll concentrate on finding another word to describe the way that the U.S. men’s national team plays.
Frankly, they’re a mess. New generations of players have come and gone, but a style of play has yet to be seen.
How, then, to describe the many U.S. national teams that I have seen since May 1964? That was my baptism: USA vs. England at Randall’s Island in New York (a rather less-than-state-of-the-art venue, long since smashed into nothingness by the bulldozers). Back in 1964 it was the USA that was vaporized, on the wrong end, the nothing end, of a 10-0 scoreline. Well, remember, England was only two years away from winning the World Cup. The USA was so obviously light years away from winning anything.
The decades since then have been a switchback ride of a few quite outstanding results, and plenty of relapses into incoherent mediocrity. There is a phrase that neatly describes these teams. I owe this one to my friend Ben Boehm, the guiding light at New York’s splendid Gottschee youth club and as canny a soccer brain as I know.
“They’re always ad hoc teams,” Ben remarked matter-of-factly one day. Perfect. That was literally the truth for a long time -- teams put together quickly for the purpose of playing just one game -- as the dictionary says: “ad hoc -- formed, arranged, or done for a particular purpose only.”
That word “only,” the one that ends the definition, is the key. “Only” explains the crippling limitations of an ad hoc approach. It implies a short-term aim -- just win this one game, then we’ll start thinking about the next. That was totally understandable back when. That 10-0 slaughter the USA suffered in 1964 was the only game it played that year, indeed, it was the first game the USA had played since 1961 ... over three years! And the team would not play again for another 10 months - under a new coach, of course.
With so few games and constantly changing coaches, long-term planning was out of the question. In addition, there was a dire shortage of experienced players, and the money wasn’t there either.
The arrival of the NASL did improve things, but not by much. The colleges entered the scene, and proved wholly unable to cope, incapable of supplying a stream of pro-quality American players (things have not changed). The NASL, supposedly a money-making pro league, was inevitably more worried about its own survival than trying, quickly and magically, to turn naive college players into hardy pros.
The NASL failed on both counts, and collapsed into oblivion in 1984. Dark days for the pro game in the USA - yet this was when, in 1988, FIFA announced that the USA would host the 1994 World Cup. It became a matter of national pride that the national team should prove worthy of the honor. It did that, firstly by qualifying (for the first time since 1950) for the World Cup (1990 in Italy). Coach Bob Gansler’s team was basically a college team, and did not fare well in Italy. He was replaced by the experienced Bora Milutinovic, a move evidently meant to introduce more professionalism into the team’s program.
Certainly it introduced a new approach: Milutinovic, knowing that he lacked experienced pros in the USA, brought in a couple of U.S. passport holders from Europe. And his team just managed to advance to the second round of the 1994 World Cup.
My interest here is not so much the results -- which could be judged as OK-ish -- but this matter of style. The team was now well financed and played many more games. In the 5-month lead up to the 1994 World Cup, Milutinovic’s team played 18 games (after that 1964 disaster against England, it took the team 8 years to play its next 18 games).
But on the field, the team still looked disappointingly makeshift. This was still ad hoc soccer. Irritatingly erratic, and usually not particularly attractive to gaze upon. OK, Milutinovic was basically a defense-oriented coach, so nothing attractive was to be expected from his teams.
Things did look up when first Bruce Arena, and then Bob Bradley took over -- a 13-year span that saw some of the best results ever, but still left the matter of playing style unanswered.
When Jurgen Klinsman took over in 2011, what had been merely a confusing mess became an incomprehensible chaos. Klinsmann’s preference for young German players (of course, with American passports) made it clear that he, for one, did not believe the Americans were good enough.
A great attitude for the national coach -- and one that ended in disaster. Arena, so successful earlier, returned and failed. So, the team keeps going with an interim coach, Dave Sarachan.
And still the ad hoc atmosphere surrounds the team. Always something new, something different, always change and experimentation. It remains impossible to recognize an American team from the way it plays.
A style of play? Definitely not. A method or a system of play, yes, plenty of those -- they add up to little more than repeated shifts in the tactical alignment, the changes abandoned as quickly as they are adopted.
Style, then -- what is it? It is not system, or method, or tactics. All are important, no doubt, but all are ephemeral, they do not represent any underlying, basic essential of a team’s way of playing.
That is, of the players’ way of playing. Of course, style begins with, and depends on, the players. Look at how a player moves on the soccer field. To appreciate the point, think of the opposites (gracefully or awkwardly?), how he kicks the ball (smoothly or jerkily?), whether he is able to control, fluently, the ball (or whether the ball seems to be in charge, perversely determined to make life difficult for the player).
Any discussion of a soccer style of play has to begin with Brazil. There has always (until quite recently, anyway) been a flowing rhythm to Brazilian soccer, a product surely of the confidence of each and every player that he can always control the ball, can always make it do whatever he wants. From that comes the ability to make it do unlikely things -- in short to be truly creative.
Brazilian teams, unmistakably have a style. The Germans too, have their style, rather different. No one would ever mistake a Brazilian team for a German team, or vice versa. Mention of those two teams gets us to the biggest style divide in soccer: the difference between the South American (or Latin) game, and the European game.
Briefly: the Latin game encourages the ball-skills of the players, their artistry; while the European places greater emphasis on the physical and tactical aspects of the sport. An explanation that is immediately, and obviously, full of holes, contradictions and exceptions. Confusion, then ... but that’s soccer for you.
The major cause of the confusion is the arrival of globalization. It is quite possible that a homogenized style of play, universally adopted, may yet settle on the sport. The Germans have been the leaders here, changing their pretty rustic style of the 1950s into something much more skillful and intelligent. The Germans have also learned a thing or two from the Brazilians about ball artistry.
The counter-flow, of European influence spreading to Latin American players, was inevitable. How could it not happen when so many of the top Latin Americans now play for European clubs? A pretty convincing case can be made that the sense of drifting that surrounds the current national teams of both Brazil and Argentina has its origins in attempts -- conscious or not -- to play a “more European” style.
For the moment, the two styles clearly exist as separate, identifiable, and important factors in the sport. That fact is of paramount importance to the search for style in the American game.
Rather, it should be so. That the American youth development people, to say nothing of the colleges and the army of coaches now being churned out by the U.S. Soccer Federation have had virtually nothing to say on the matter, defies belief.
Next time I’ll look into just how damaging this ostrich head-burying has been, and continues to be, to American soccer, and how it has completely sabotaged the hopes of seeing the U.S. men’s national team playing with style.