An Outsider’s Perspective On The USMNT

Its been nearly a week since US Soccer was eliminated from the knockout stages of the World Cup, the reactions to the team’s World Cup run to date has been highly varied by both the fans and media alike. Our own opinions on the progress of the USMNT can be perhaps too insulated at times for us to get an accurate view. So we here at Two Daft Yanks have brought in an outsider, the very thoughtful Premier League Owl (@PremLeagueOwl) to answer a few questions in order to get an outsider’s perspective on the USMNT. Here is our conversation:

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After getting out of a group that included Germany, Portugal and Ghana US Soccer received a lot of positive press from the British media. Why do you think that is? Is it a hold over perhaps from the last World Cup where the US won a group that included England?

No, I don’t think it’s really related to England.  Maybe, at a stretch, our own side’s elimination left us looking around for positivity, but that probably only accounts for a small percentage of the reaction.

In the group stages, the US played with a resilience that was impossible not to admire: they gave up an equaliser against Ghana and responded to it against the run of play, they went behind early to a more talented Portuguese and fought back to almost win the game.  There’s something about an underdog which resonates with the British psyche, and the US were that team in this competition.

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You summed up your thoughts pretty well in the article you published last week (Time for the USA to wake-up to their own progress) but what do you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of the US team?

Beyond the merits of individual personnel, the great US strength is cohesion.  As a side, they add up to more than the sum of their parts.  Players like Kyle Beckerman, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez are fairly generic within the context of a World Cup, but they were able to compete beyond the limitations of their abilities in Brazil.  That’s not to say that any of those three are inferior, merely that they were frequently overmatched in the group by more talented players – and yet they were still an integral part of a side who ultimately progressed.

That’s the big argument for Jurgen Klinsmann.  While I’m aware that not every US supporter or pundit is completely sold on him, there has to be an appreciation of what he has done with what he has available to him.  When the World Cup draw was made, there wouldn’t have been one sensible person outside of America who didn’t see the USMNT finishing bottom of that qualifying group.  Why?  Because where was the talent?  Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore are all, to a certain degree, respected in Europe, but those other three teams were littered with match-winners.

In effect, then, the US’ strength is essentially also their biggest weakness.  Klinsmann had no real stars and he had no egos which, while making it easier for him to foster team-spirit, also put a ceiling on the side’s progress in this tournament.  Look at the four semi-finalists: they are all cohesive units, but they all have that individual quality, too.  When Argentina labour, Leo Messi digs them out of hole, if Germany are struggling they can rely on a Mesut Ozil, a Thomas Muller, or a Mario Gotze, and so on and so on.

The US only have one half of what they need to be successful.

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In terms of style you mention that the US was robotic, mechanical and clunky in the past but now looked like a “fully-functioning side of eleven players”. A great number of American media and supporters have disagreed with this saying we have regressed since the 2002 World Cup. What are they missing that you are seeing?

I don’t think the US public are missing anything, more that they just lack the perspective of an outsider.

It’s really easy to look back at past tournaments and judge progression on a ‘stage of elimination’ basis – it’s rational and I understand it. That being said, this was the first time I can remember seeing a US side play with fluidity and with the ability to react to certain situations within a game.  In 2002 – and before in 1994 and 1998 – the US were a blunt force who, on their day, could be successful but who ultimately relied on under-performance from their opponents.  Sure, they had some very notable performances in ’94 and ’02, but look beyond those results and at the state of the opponents – an ageing Portugese side in turmoil, a Mexican team who really weren’t up to all that much, a Colombian side (94) with all kinds of demons…a win is a win, but if you’re going to use those games as a barometer of progress you really need to apply some context.

Maybe the results don’t make this obvious, but the US really are a lot less naive than they have been at the past.  There’s less of a novelty feel to them and they competed this Summer as a footballing equal; they were, to us British snobs, no longer a group of Americans trying to play football, they were just a football team who happened to be American.  It was almost an intangible difference and that will perhaps make little sense to Americans, but to those who only watch the USMNT once every couple of years it was very clear.

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What do you see the eventual potential of US soccer being at the current pace of development?

It depends; soccer’s development in the US is at the mercy of your culture.

Americans don’t tolerate losing, and their patience for anything other than success is very limited – so, as long as their national team and the national leagues are viewed as inferior, any development will have a glass ceiling.

Soccer will never compete with the NFL, but if it can chip away at baseball’s audience and talent-pool – i.e. a sport which isn’t that appealing to young people – then it has a chance to become more prominent.  The key is grass-roots: the more 6, 7 and 8 year-olds that are juggling a soccer ball rather than swinging a baseball bat or dribbling a basketball, the more chance the country ultimately has of creating a star of the game – and that’s where the tipping-point would occur.

Think about golf before and after Tiger Woods.  Before he arrived, how many teenage Americans thought of it as anything other than ‘that sport their dad played’? But he came into the game, won, dominated, became a marketing phenomenon, and eventually playing golf became a viable option for aspiring athletes.

Would you rather be LeBron James or Michael Bradley?  Calvin Johnson or Clint Dempsey?  Tim Lincecum or Tim Howard?  It’s almost a catch-22, because how do you redress that balance without having that icon, but how do you create that magnetic star without first correcting the initial problem.

It’s tough, but that’s the challenge facing the USSF.

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Chad

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