International soccer is currently at a particularly interesting moment in time. Senior squad players are off performing club duties while younger players fill their roles in friendlies. While there is much to look forward to in the summer – the Euro 2012 tournament and the 2012 Olympics, after the latest rounds of international friendlies, there is a brief lull. Before these friendlies, the United States senior team’s most recent important match came back in the summer when they lost to Mexico 4-2 in the finals of the Gold Cup. They subsequently played a host of international friendlies to close out the 2011 calendar year, but none held any gravitas, no matter how prestigious their opponent
That was until February 29th when the United States ventured to Genoa and knocked off the Italians for the Americans’ first victory ever against their opponents. It has been long enough since that the match has been thoroughly dissected but just a few quick points. The significance of the victory is somewhat mitigated because neither roster was at full strength and both sides were missing key players. That being said, any time you can record an away victory in Europe should be considered a great success.
Unfortunately for the US, this momentum will have to be put on hold, as the senior team doesn’t play again until Late May. Given this intermission, it is at this exact moment that we can examine the opening act of new head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign and look forward to what this country needs out of our programs in the near future.
Klinsmann took over for previous coach Bob Bradley after the United States’ loss in the Gold Cup final and has produced five victories, one draw, and four losses in these matches. No one in their right mind has challenged his average record through ten games because of his attempt to find chemistry and synergy between a variety of lineups with both veterans and new youngsters. What has struck me thus far through these experiments is the drastically different style of player the older generation is versus the newer. For the previous few decades, “American soccer” consisted of normally white, hard-working, hardheaded athletes who lacked flair and vision. That is not to say the United States Men’s National Soccer Team has not produced such players in the past, it is just that that was not our style.
Under Klinsmann we have seen the inclusion and recruitment of a multitude of international players with American passports. German transplants such as Danny Williams, Timothy Chandler, Terrence Boyd and Alfredo Morales, and Norwegian born Mix Diskerud bring a different style of play. If our nation is the most ethnically diverse in the world, isn’t it time for our soccer team to reflect that? Just looking at the rosters of the U-23 and younger teams, you can see the Latino influence Klinsmann is looking to bring to the USMNT program. Even for casual viewers of the sport, witnessing the speed and ingenuity the Mexican players played with in their dismantling of the USMNT in the Gold Cup final made you envious of its obvious advantages.
The transition from Bradley to Klinsmann poses such a dramatic shift in style and player-type and its progressive nature is exceptional and encouraging to watch. No longer are the likes of space-clogging forwards like Connor Casey or Brian Ching patrolling the field. Casey and Ching both thrived in the MLS as goal scorers and it was clear their inclusion was an attempt to demonstrate that the MLS’ leading scorers could hang with the best internationally, but that was very visibly not the case. Right now, the MLS is not recognized internationally as an elite league. It just isn’t and United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati needs to realize this and adjust their plans. In the past, Gulati and the USSF established an autonomous control of the USMNT selection process with Bradley as a quasi-puppet figure. It was for this reason, and contractual disputes, that kept Jurgen Klinsmann from becoming the USMNT manager more than five years ago when his courtship began.
Right now the MLS should be a developmental ground for North and Central America’s brightest young talent. I realize that isn’t sexy and doesn’t sell tickets – and goes against this country’s sense of patriotism – but that is why the inclusion of past-their-prime stars like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Rafa Marquez is appropriate. The recruitment of these players has seemed to satisfy the general public’s thirst for international superstars as the hype brought on by these players helps fill stadiums. I am not opining that the MLS give up and stunt its growth but if the USSF’s major priority is to make American soccer a global brand, what better way to do that than through the national team? American superstars in their prime like Landon Donovan should not be stuck playing for an MLS Cup each year but rather be overseas demonstrating their worth for a top-flight European club like Donovan briefly just brilliantly did with Everton. The world is only reminded in monthly pockets of Donovan’s brilliance – during international tournaments and the two-month stints he previously done at Everton. See: Dempsey, Clint, for an example of how Donovan could have OWNED Everton in the way Deuce has at Craven Cottage. Looking at the USMNT’s roster versus Italy, only two lineup regulars, Donovan and Brek Shea, currently play in the MLS. Next week I am going to discuss the U-23 squad in more depth ahead of their qualification matches for the 2012 Summer Olympics, but it is worth mentioning now that the team that defeated Mexico 2-0 – and looked great doing so – contained fourteen players from MLS clubs. This parallelism between MLS and European clubs and the US youth and senior teams is encouraging and a step in the right direction for the advancement of American soccer.
-Alex Arthur (@SoccerStatUSMNT)