Saturday, July 10, 2010

Final Thoughts on USA Soccer...

First, let no one say that the United States Men’s National Team embarrassed anyone in South Africa. Far from it in fact. They showed heart and hustle, two things that are rapidly becoming a staple of America’s bourgeoning soccer identity.

Even in the face of leaking early goals, bad refs, a continued lack of respect from the rest of the world and countless other obstacles, Bob Bradley’s men “died hard” (to quote the great Jim Brown). That’s certainly something the English, the French and Italians cannot say about their teams.

Indeed, even some of America’s sharpest critics prior to the tournament warmed to their relentless approach. (probably one of the best soccer websites on the internet) was gracious enough to note:
“They’ve also shown tremendous character and team spirit – that may seem a hollow compliment after such a gutting defeat – but look at the French side to realize how important it is in getting a team playing cohesively.”
After reading article after article about why America is a pushover on the soccer field, I couldn’t help but feel a little sense of pride seeing the rest of the world (especially Europe) give us a tip of the cap, even rallying to our defense after that horrendous Slovenia call.

Plenty of athletes…

Yet while we can take heart from the result, the tournament also exposed American soccer’s inherent flaws. In the past, the chief problem was always supposed to be our lack of athleticism. Soccer received about as much priority from our best young athletes as Greenpeace had from Dick Cheney.

This narrative no longer holds true. If you don’t believe me, just have a look around our national team:
Obviously, goalkeeper Tim Howard is one of the most athletic in the game today (the dude can dunk “on the reg”…can you picture an English goalie doing the same?)

Hulking defender Oguichi Onyewu remains one of the most physically imposing men in world soccer (though his mobility remains a question.)

Midfielders Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu (both of them 6’2”) are as capable of winning tough tackles as they are running marathons (which they did in the Slovenia game).

Forwards Jozy Altidore and Edson Buddle combine size and speed (especially in Altidore’s case…just ask Jamie Carragher, who was lucky Altidore only hit the post after skinning the Liverpool man in the England game).

Other forwards Robbie Findley and Charlie Davies can run with anyone in the world (Findley recorded the fastest sprint time of any player in the tournament’s group stage).

These are the reasons why I have no qualms about playing with Team USA in FIfa 10; they can dominate athletically like few teams in the world.

…but where are the brains?

Our fundamental issue lies not with raw physical capability, but with reading the game (what video games measure as “awareness”.)

Much is made of the endless youth soccer programs in this country. They are, after all, the most prevalent of any in the United States. More young kids play soccer than any other sport. Yet it doesn’t take a genius to realize that quantity doesn’t produce quality.

Far too many American coaches aren’t qualified on the level of their international counterparts. What’s even worse is that many of them think they know what they’re talking about (I had one or two coaches like this with maddening results).

The end product of this is an entire generation of Americans who think “kick and chase” is the right method to play, simply because that’s what’s worked for them since they were nine.

The best proof for why our current cultural style isn’t the best method was the simple fact that all of the goals conceded by the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup were because of either poor positioning or a dumb turnover:
Steven Gerrard’s goal for England: stemmed completely from Ricardo Clark not tracking his man and Onyewu being drawn out of position.

Valter Birsa’s goal for Slovenia: again, poor marking by Onyewu and bad positional sense from the center midfield (though it must be said that Bob Bradley’s 4-4-2 left an inherent gap in this area).

Slovenia’s second goal: this was a direct result of no one covering for right-back Steve Cherundulo when he went forward. It demonstrates a clear difference between American midfielders and, say, Nigel De Jong of Holland (De Jong has an impeccable sense of when and who to cover for.)

Kevin-Prince Boateng’s goal in the 5th minute of the quarterfinal put Ghana up 1-0, handing America another early deficit. This was becoming a redundant and almost cliché pattern, again stemming from a dumb turnover (this time from Ricardo Clark).

The final deathblow to U.S. soccer’s adventurous World Cup came from a simple long ball played right down “route one.” That the most conventional of attacks caught the U.S. backline off guard is unforgivable, though that goal was attributed more to fatigue that poor positioning or intelligence.

What American soccer could learn from 2000 Manchester United

So like it or not, America has inherited the moniker of “all hustle and no brains” from England (or partially anyway…since England’s horrible display still warrants most of that mantle).

In fact, this English similarity also exists at a tactical level. 4-4-2 in its most distilled form was not only Bob Bradley’s choice formation, but the accepted default in England as recently as ten years ago.

Manchester United during the late 1990’s was most famously posed by the same problem. Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad leaked early goals more often than not. 

And like Bob Bradley’s team, they were renowned for their panache, their resilience.  Always arriving just in the nick of time, United’s goals arrived in the style American fans have come to appreciate.

Yet Ferguson eventually grew weary of the disturbing trend of conceding early and often. His tactical evolution away from 4-4-2 started allegedly after the epic 3-2 home loss to Real Madrid in 2000.
As tactical historian and “floating brain in a tank with wheels” Jonathan Wilson said of the matter:
“In that 1999-2000 season, for instance, United conceded the first goal and came back to win or draw against Arsenal (twice), Wimbledon (twice), Southampton, Marseille, Everton, Sunderland, Liverpool, West Ham, Fiorentina, Bordeaux, Middlesbrough and Watford. Ferguson would seemingly revel in the fact that "United always do it the hard way", and they were routinely praised for their resilience; perhaps the question, though, should have been why such a dominant team was so leaky.
In the later stages in Europe, not only were sides less easily submerged (yet Real could have been; in the 10 minutes following Real's opener, United had five very good chances), but the consequences were more severe. Over a league season United could afford the odd home draw; in Europe that same draw could mean defeat. And so began the slow, painful, transition towards a lone striker.”
United’s transition was painful at times, but the end result was a fluid, single striker system that ensures defensive solidarity (though they still occasionally run a 4-4-2.) 2008 saw them hoist another Champions League, and it was their discipline and tactical acuity (especially in the semifinal against Barcelona) that allowed for it.

The Future of USA Soccer

What we need is a youth system where our players learn about soccer as it really is: a game of space (and its manipulation) and not just about kicking a ball into the net.

Far too often, American teams are overly predictable in their approach (going right for the goal with no patience). Any semi-coherent side can defend this easily, knowing full well that there will be no diversity in the build-up play.

A kick and chase mentality also leaves the U.S. exposed at the back on a consistent basis (hence the problem of conceding early goals). Patience and composure with the ball are crucial, particularly in away games. When American players learn to create different angles with their passing and, when necessary, hold the ball in the midfield, victory at the Azteca in Mexico City might finally be a reality.

Until then, we’ll just have to settle for a compelling yet outmoded style of soccer, where the team shoots themselves in the foot Plaxico Burress-style before embarking on a frantic comeback. To be fair it’s not a bad life and frankly, it’s better than being an England fan…

Sunday, July 4, 2010

World Cup stars playing for their country even if that's not their country...

One of the great attractions about the World Cup has always been its competition at an international level. This immediately makes it more epic than any club competition because of the tournament’s sheer scale. It unites entire countries in a singular cause like few other peaceful means (famously halting a civil war in the Ivory Coast before the 2006 tournament).

Yet, for all the notions about “country versus country” and the millions of people who reside in each of the qualifying countries, why is it that so many players end up on the roster of countries they weren’t born in?

Seriously, scores of countries in the World Cup this year (as in others before) field players who were not born within the borders of the nation they represent. Miroslav Klose, Deco, Marcos Tulio Tanaka, Pepe and Benny Fielhaber are but a few examples in a sea of players who’ve plied their trade for a foreign country in South Africa.

Players are allowed to do this via a number of possibilities. If, for example, they have dual citizenship through their parents, then they can choose. Zinedine Zidane had this fork in the road, choosing France with amazing results (unless you’re Algerian).

No matter the means of doing this, it is a fascinating historical trend that has impacted nearly every World Cup in one way or another. Even in 1934 (the second ever World Cup), Italy emerged victorious on home soil largely due to the services of three Argentineans (one of them even scored a goal in the Final.)

What I sometimes wonder is what would happen if FIFA suddenly instituted new rules outlawing all of this. I mean, what if every player could only play from the country he was born in? I’ll bypass the argument over whether this would be fair (because in some cases, it certainly wouldn’t) and focus on what the consequences of this would be.

Firstly, as an American, I would have found this rule awesome, attributed completely to the fact that Giuseppe Rossi, born in New Jersey, would not have been able to skip Team USA for Italy (where he hilariously didn’t make the final roster).

Probably the most interesting byproduct would be in the case of Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentinean star, who powered Diego Maradona’s team to its fateful run to the quarterfinals, was actually born in Brest, France.

Had he played for France, how different things might have been. The prolific Real Madrid man scored several goals (go-ahead goals against both South Korea and Mexico) along with excellent link-up play with Carlos Tevez and Leo Messi (Germany game aside.)

In other words, he’s the exact thing France was missing.

Perhaps no one man could’ve salvaged the Titanic wreck that was the French national team, but the hole he would have left in Maradona’s lineup could have sealed the South American’s fate even faster than when it actually happened.

Yet it was the team that put Argentina to the sword (Germany) who would have the most to lose by a switch in eligibility rules. The aforementioned Klose (who is currently tied for second in all-time World Cup goals) is just one example.

Even though other countries have more foreigners (Algeria have an ungodly 17 French born players on their roster), no other foreigners matter so much to the country they’re pulling a Benedict Arnold for.

Klose and Lukas Podolski (more than the other non-German born players on Die Mannschaft’s roster) have been crucial for Germany. Each has contributed goals and a rugged defensiveness to what many considered before the tournament to be a vulnerable German side.

Again, speculation as to “what would have been” provides no true answers, but one undeniable is that things would have been different. And the argument that Germany would have a better team without the two Polish born forwards isn’t a very convincing one.

That said, the rule would have given the Germans back Kevin-Prince Boateng, one of the midfielders of the tournament.

I don’t think FIFA will adopt any restrictive citizen laws (since we can’t even get replays), but it is nonetheless an interesting line of thought. Just ask Leo Beenhakker, the Polish coach who was fired after not qualifying for South Africa.

Because, unequivocally, I’m sure he would’ve loved to have had both Klose and Podolski.