America in search of a style (Part 1): The never-ending era of the ad hoc teams

The same old question keeps coming up: what style of soccer should the USA be playing?

It keeps popping up because the U.S. men’s national teams -- all of ‘em -- so obviously lack style. By which I mean there are no natural airs and graces to the American game. And what the hell do I mean by that?

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.

America in search of a style (Part 2): The USA's shameful refusal to recognize its Latino talent

21 comments about "America in search of a style (Part 1): The never-ending era of the ad hoc teams".
  1. beautiful game, November 5, 2018 at 4:53 p.m.

    IMHO, the buck starts and ends with USSF, its planning ophase, the right coaches, and developing players that make things happen. MLS can contribute, but the club coaching psycholology cannot be part of the youth development program. When too many players are unable to cope with pressure and clear visualization, nothing will change. The issue is not style, it's the ability that makes the style.

  2. uffe gustafsson, November 5, 2018 at 5:07 p.m.

    As a side note on american style.
    i happen to turn on a women’s college championship game. Baylor vs West Virginia, talk about no style or I would call it thuggery soccer.
    a bunch of beasts kicking the crap out of each other and don’t think Baylor even strung together a set of passes, West Virginia at least tried to play soccer but not very good at it.
    how can div 1 school play such aweful soccer and they are in the championship game.
    booting the ball up to no where all game long and that’s the best of the teams. Sad to watch.

  3. frank schoon replied, November 5, 2018 at 7:22 p.m.

    Uffe, we finally agree on something! LOL

  4. Ginger Peeler, November 5, 2018 at 5:44 p.m.

    I, too, watched a college league championship game. It was like watching girls just beginning to play on a traveling team. Kickball. Boot the ball up the field and hope your player gets to it first. Passes were poor and inaccurate. One team had a player who was a good finisher, but they rarely ever got the ball to her. Neither team was able to protect the ball. Ball control skills were very poor (nonexistent?) for both sides. They were 2 teams that were rated in the top 25 of the nation (Div 1). Perhaps, when the teams change their coaches, the women’s play will improve?  Some of those girls MUST have had good technical skills, but there was no sign that such skills were encouraged. Very disappointing. 

  5. John Soares, November 5, 2018 at 6:51 p.m.

    There has been much, too much said about this " need" for an American style of play. Paul, you answered the question yourself. 
    "Of course, style begins with and depends on, the players". 
    Once we develop good and consistent quality players. Style will take care of itself. 

  6. R2 Dad replied, November 6, 2018 at 12:55 a.m.

    I disagree. There is a common perception on this forum that there are plenty of "other" players around, and availblle, that might fall into other categories or types of players (and play). I believe this to be so, certainly at the youth level. But what becomes of those "other" players? If the professional ranks and the Nats silo decides that "real" players are 5'-10+", and are fast, we effectively have a hammer that treats everyone like a nail. But things could be very different.

    Imagine if the Nat coaches were instructed to "go out and find me every good player that is short, no matter how short they might be." Would THOSE players ever haved showed up at a Nats pool otherwise? No. How would they play? How would they be different? What could they do that all the guys 5'-10" and taller can't? If you believe a 5'-10" guy can do everything a 5'-5" guy can do, you haven't been paying attention, really. Look at the last USMNT friendly, where our midfield couldn't retain possession if the ball was velcroed to their feet. If possession was really important to our coaches (eg Saracha), they would insist the team play to retain the ball and NOT SELECT players would couldn't (ie poor touch, not two-footed, slow of thought and feet). The Michael Bradleys of the world would get ignored because their touch is crap. PERIOD. If they can't survive in rondo, no chance to get on the field. There are a coaches who gaffaw about rondo, but they are just kickball coaches that can't be reformed and should be replaced. But if our coaches prioritized touch, finishing abilty--essentially all the criteria top players exhibit--we would build different U teams--as long as we could continue to value these same skills year after year without some new Michelle French being interjected that screws up the player pool. Players with a stone touch, like Zardes, Altidore--they wouldn't be our standardbearers. And that would be a huge step towards our country finding a style of play that generates excitement and eventually results. Change the culture and the results follow. We've been chasing results without creating a culture that reflects our values--because we can't agree on what those values are.

  7. Wooden Ships replied, November 6, 2018 at 1:28 p.m.

    I agree with your primus R2. It is definitely anti-establishment and that’s the Everest of hurdles. We (European influence-juggernaut) would have to admit some level of defeat and the prototype player we’ve wedded ourselves to would be antiquated. Lots and lots of politics involved. With the exception of Bora we have never had a manager that had the technical skills you’ve referenced. And, they are out there, so are the players. USSF staying our next manager must be fluent in English, how about fluent in futbal first. The futbal culture here has been lost for quite some time.

  8. uffe gustafsson, November 5, 2018 at 9:12 p.m.

    Ginger peeler
    think we watched the same game!
    atrocious was the name of that game.
    send Baylor coach back to coaching school before coaching another game.

  9. Randy Vogt replied, November 6, 2018 at 10:23 a.m.

    All levels play during autumn in New York, where I live, so I see a real contrast in play in the games I officiate. Many Division 1 college teams, both men and women, are overcoached. The teams in the lower college divisions might not have the same technical skills but those players seem freer to play so their games can be more entertaining to watch (and officiate!). Some HS games are very, very good and some HS games have a low quality of play. Often, the youth games I ref appear to have a better quality of play at times than college soccer and everybody gets to play. Yet no matter the level, it’s rare to see a player who is proficient with both feet.

  10. Bob Ashpole, November 5, 2018 at 9:29 p.m.

    I agree with John, but want to add one important point. We are talking about senior international soccer, the top of the senior game. Players should be able to play any style of play and successful teams need to be able to play the styles needed to win matches, whether that is attacking, possession, or counterattacking changes under changes under changing circumstances.

    In my view, the national teams need to play "great soccer". To play great soccer, players need more than just great balls skills; they need to be excellent in all aspects of the sport. Not some of the players--all of the players.

    How I describe "great soccer" is classic Dutch Style Principles of play. I refer to the Dutch version, but I believe the concepts of "great soccer" are universal despite the confusion of cultural and language differences. Matches are won by dominating play, which can be done by many ways. The more ways a team can dominate play, the more success they have.

    This paragraph is addressed to USSF. There is no excuse for the development of "elite" players who are not two-footed or lack excellent first touch. Spend less time on travel and tournaments and focus on player development instead of match results.

    What does winning a youth or reserve match matter if the winning team's first touches stink?    

  11. frank schoon, November 6, 2018 at 10:03 a.m.

    All of you guys, R2, Soares,Bob, BG, made some good points as well as PG. Yes, we need to have players that can handle a ball and  sophistication of style is directly related  to the quality of the players. First we need direction from the top (USSF) like BG states, as far as style goes and that is not difficult to implement. For example, everyone still remembers how youth played with a libero/sweeper, that wasn't long ago, a decade or so and today they're all playing with a flatback or square centerback did this change all of sudden come about? well, from the top, ofcourse. Coaches just didn't wake up one morning and all them all of a sudden decided ,willy nilly, on a new defense  back line strategy. So, from the top, USSF, could state we want to direct youth teams to play more ball possession oriented soccer with employing building from the back and the USSF, would admit the repercussions of trying more ball possession contributes to more loss of ball possession, which is OK for sooner or later the youth will begin to get better at it...So here is an example of implementation from the top which will also effect the type training procedures coaches need to carryout in order to have more ball possession. Remember, this is what the youth teams experienced when they began to institute the new defensive line strategy for that didn't all the smoothly in the beginning.
    Bob had mentioned the dutch style principles which in effect  are now with used every successful team(s). These principles have been influenced soccer thinking in Spain, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, etc. 
    Now style is not as easy to take apart like a math problem for culture and geographical area also plays a part influencing the style. For example, in 2006 Germany  decided to play more of a Dutch style using employing those basic principles. The Germans ,their mentality is very businesslike, they are not artists with the ball and never will produce creative players like a Zlatan, or likeso many creative players the Dutch have produced. Have you ever heard of a German ballet, or English ballet troup, or for that matter well known painters from those countries. Germans love to run ,they have played counter attacking soccer all of their lives , it's drilled into them. Guardiola ,as much as he has done to help change the German game with Bayern , stated Germans have a mental chip and that is their love for running and fighting,"stampfing und laufing"
    The Dutch don't like to run unless it is necessary, for they believe in letting the ball do the running for that is much faster and therefore the game is all about POSITIONING ,POSITIONING ,POSITIONING, off the ball in order to make the ball move faster. The dutch saying in Holland made by Frank Rykaard, stated " if you come off the field all sweaty doesn't mean you played well." NEXT POST.

  12. frank schoon, November 6, 2018 at 10:34 a.m.

    In other words some implementation from the top is needed to initiate a process, not a whole process but a step by step process. For example ,we need to get away from counterattacking style of soccer which basically describes how the US has played in the past 50 years. We need a more possession oriented style. And yes, there will be plenty of ball loss while learning ball possesson style soccer due to players not being able to handle to ball under pressure, which means coaches training procedures should emphasize ball possession. For example, play, 11v11 half field ,full goals in practice or 15v15 full field. All of which forces the players to think faster ,to move faster, it forces quicker ball handling and it also forces  the players to look up for open space. This is how players will learn. Or, divide the field into 3 big lanes ,2flank and 1 centerlane. Whenever the ball is the center lane you have free license but the ball in the flank lanes it is one-touch.
    One of the problems we have is that we don't produce creative players like Zlatan who can play any style because he is great individualist with the ball. HE CAN HOLD ON TO THE BALL, which our players can't because they have NEVER been allowed to hold on to the ball in their younger years. Zlatan's skill was all learned playing pickup ball, street soccer. When you watch Zlatan, you are watching a street soccer player on grass. You don't see him outrun anyone on the field, that's not his style, that's not his strength, but he can handle a ball given any situation which NO COACH, can teach for that is only learned in playing pickup soccer. That is why I say , without having a backround in pickup soccer we will never produce great creative players.....
    Our training procedures need to accent more individualism with the ball and as a result we will beging to play a more sophisticated style of play along with using those Dutch principles which have now become a standard in all of soccer.

  13. uffe gustafsson, November 7, 2018 at 10:23 p.m.

    Frank since when did USA think long term in anything?
    i do have to give Sarachan credit to bring in younger players and let them experience international soccer.
    and to see what they need to do to play at that level.
    as a youth level and HS coach I see the win at all cost all the time, to hell with teaching good soccer.
    and it really bothers me to watch.
    if our teams can’t build up played from the back then I have failed. Not going to teach boot the ball up to the fwds and hope for a break away. But in youth that is a quick way to win games but didn’t teach anything about team work and how to possess the ball.
    my first comment on this thread on the college game is exactly what I was complaining about.

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, November 8, 2018 at 6:53 a.m.

    Uffe, good points. I give Sarachan credit, too, but not much. What else should the senior team coach do in a cup finals year when we didn't go to the show?

  15. frank schoon replied, November 8, 2018 at 9:41 a.m.

    Uffe, can't agree with you more. What Saracen is doing is correct, no team building but give the youth and unknowns a chance.
    True, we don't have long terms plans and if we do have a one, changes to it will be always  be implemented. In other words the 'long term' plan is really semantics. But what should ALWAYS be LONG TERM is TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT of the youth.
    Don't be so tough on yourself about not able to teach building up from the back, because you'll put yourself in the same class as the MLS coaches and everyone else, for building up from the back is not a salient feature of American soccer...
    It is very difficult aspect,building up from the back, but it needs to be introduced and taught and it is more difficult when teaching the youth due to their lack of development. I hear so often that teams should be taught how to build up from the back, and I hear coaches say we have to play more of a tickie tacka style of passing, which is so rediculous. I remember one coach say to his youth team, "we have to pass more like Barcelona".
    I remember when Total Soccer was in vogue and all the Dutch youth coaches were trying to teach their teams how to play Total Soccer. These youth coaches began to copy the terms and concepts of Rinus Michel's "Total Soccer"  and used them on their kids. These idiots totally overlooked that Michels had world class players. It is the copying that coaches do which has the effect of overlooking and missing  other very important elements that make up the tapestry of 'Total Soccer"
    For example, the coaches all studied Michels and found out that Michels employed much physical running. These coaches thought that Total Soccer required lots of running when in fact it has nothing to do with running. The reason why Michels employed running for that was the only thing he could possibly improve  his great Technical players on. But these coaches overlooked that element of having great technical skills. This misunderstanding ruined the technical part of the game up to this day, for the coaches began to accent more the physical part of soccer at the cost of the technical part....

  16. Bob Ashpole replied, November 8, 2018 at 2:16 p.m.

    Frank, I am probably revealing a lot of ignorance here, but I don't understand at all what the fuss and the distinction in "building out of the back". To mean it simply means 1) breaking lines and penetrating, and 2) using combination play to advance the ball instead of a long keeper punt. 

    I don't see how the skills or tactics for backs differ from midfielders. I agree that the amount of acceptable risk taken will vary with circumstances, but that is always true for any player. Am I old fashioned in that I always think of shape within a line as well as team shape. As a former midfielder, shape of the midfield line was extremely important in accomplishing our main purpose (linking the back and front lines). But that is also true of the front and back lines. Positioning is important for everyone.

    In short from a fundamental viewpoint, there is no differences. So the only difference is when you get to the point in development when you are using functional training to teach specific positions in a specific system, then the universal fundamentals are applied to specific contexts. But that shouldn't be happening at the fundamental stage.   

  17. Bob Ashpole replied, November 8, 2018 at 2:18 p.m.

    Although I have autocorrect turned off, I am getting some weird autocorrect going on with this site. Somehow "me" changed into "mean". Probably some other "corrections" too. Please accommodate me.

  18. frank schoon replied, November 8, 2018 at 3:20 p.m.

    Bob , good insightful question. As you read my comment about "building up from the back, to Uffe,
    I hope you inferred from this that it's not as easy as the phrase implies, as per my example such Ticki Tacka, Barcelona passing..... As a matter of fact last year, I spend an inordinate amount of time going through my notes, interviews of players and coaches, and Cruyff interviews spanding a time from the 70's to the present ,looking specifically for anything dealing with" building up attack from the back"(BUAB). Once I got all the info on BUAB , I broke it down into various categories: Passing; Tempo; Positioning; Tactics.  I created 25 points in looking for "Signs of Good Build up"; I found 72 points that "Causes Improper Build" Up; 25 Signs of "Proper Build Up"; I found 34 points that influences the Tempo of the Build Up. I enumerated them point by point and in addition I made another list called 'Keywords on Building Up" 34 of them which is a short cut to quickly finding what you need to look for.
    There is a lot to building up an attack from the back , the problem is you can't find a soccer book that specifically deals with building up. What I've done is to look for the "insight' details you won't find or learn in a coaching course.
    I have all the info, I just waiting to formally present it... 

    Your statement concerning your seeing no difference in skill or tactics  between back and midfielder. In fact there is a lot. For example technically the back needs to be able to pass the up to a midfielder in a manner that is very hard and accurate and to the right foot on the ground. The pass needs to be made with the instep not the inside of the foot which is much slower. The instep pass is a very  difficult pass to make especially accurately. This is why in Holland we stress that a fullback or defender is able to make such a pass which we call the "initial pass from the back" to midfielder. When you watch Ajax the next time ,look and Daily Blind passing the ball, it makes one's mouth water. This is no ordinary pass.
    Next tacticall you don't want to pass straight up the flank for the receiver will not only have his back facing downfield but also is restricted positionally next to the sideline. Or how a pass from the back in the air ,over his direct opponent to a midfielder with his back facing downfield who one-touches to an upcoming free midfielder/defender ,3rd man who is wide open, facing downfield running to meet to meet the ball....How often do you see that..not often, but that is how you break high pressure defense of the opponent... These are just some of the many examples 

  19. Bob Ashpole replied, November 8, 2018 at 4:05 p.m.

    Here is how I see it Frank.

    "For example technically the back needs to be able to pass to a midfielder in a manner that is very hard and accurate and to the right foot on the ground. The pass needs to be made with the instep not the inside of the foot which is much slower."

    I see those same skills be used by a midfielder to pass the ball up to a forward. Quick and accurate passing to the foot is essential when passing to forwards too. Not always of course. Sometimes the defense takes away the passing lanes on the ground so you have to pass off the ground to make the service.   

  20. Bob Ashpole replied, November 8, 2018 at 4:14 p.m.

    Don't get me wrong Frank. I agree with you, but I am pointing out that the fundamentals are the same, just applied in different circumstances.

    Pet peave. The biggest tactical problem I see with USSF affiliated soccer right up to the national teams is the violation of the Dutch Style principle of compactness. USSF doctrine has the attacking shape spread out to 60 yards or more front to back and just as far apart accross the field. This guarantees that the defense will be numbers up wherever the ball goes and flank players often isolated.

    Why do I mention this now? Because this is their stategy for "building out of the back" along with the north-south passes you mentioned.

  21. frank schoon replied, November 8, 2018 at 5:20 p.m.

    Bob, I pick the instep pass because it such a crucial pass because if the pass is not good you have no build up causing build up problems and making you start over again. Also it is more crucial  if not executed properly it can set up a counter attack  by the opponents from your own midfield half.
    In other words the instep pass is more valued crucial coming from the back to midfield as compared to midfield going forwards.
    The instep pass from a midfielder going forward causes you to have at the same time  more players, defenders behind the ball. The instep is not a fundamental pass ,although it should just like a pass with the outside of the foot which is not seen much either. It is obvious American playere are not good at the instep pass and even in Europe not all defenders, many are not good at it. That is why opponents up front allow one particular defender to be unguarded for they know he is weak in the build up with the ball and therefore they want him to get the ball.
    The instep pass from the back to midfield usually comes to a stationary player where as passes from midfield going forward tend to be more to players on the move, which means the instep pass employed  as much for there are other types of passes needed due less spacing and more opponents. 
    The instep pass is about a 20 meters medium to long range pass coming out of the back, which is not often possible  from midfield going forward because  we are usually outnumbered in the opponents own half, not in our half where we outnumbered the opponents.
    One of the major problems in the build up is when the back receives the ball standing stationary. THe back should never get the ball unless he is on the run with an open space in front of him, otherwise you have bottled yourself up on one side not able to go forwards and as result have to pass the ball backwards...

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