Signs of progress small but clear for the United States

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Like a political candidate who ran on reform, Jurgen Klinsmann was immediately taken to task after today’s loss. After one question about his substitutions, the second salvo of his post-match press conference jumped right into the debate: Did Brazil 2014 represent progress for the United States?

I’m sorry, is this all coming too soon? Hardly. Even the broadcast disrespected your mourning period, jumping right into the debate moments after going back to the studio. Whomever asked Klinsmann the question in Salvador? He’s got to have his piece up by now. Just like presidential campaigns, the race never truly ends; it only rolls from one race to the next.

This campaign is going to be contentious, though. People are already digging in, trying to make their case why the U.S. is treading water. After all, by purely objective measures, the team appears to have done slightly better in 2010:

  • In South Africa, the team went 1-1-2 (W-L-D) overall, finished first in their group, and was put out in the Round of 16 with a relatively level 2-1, extra time loss.
  • In Brazil, they went 1-2-1 overall, finished second in their group, and were eliminated in the Round of 16 with a 2-1, extra time loss, where they were clearly second best.

For some, bottom lines are the only measuring stick. For them, the U.S. either held steady or receded in 2014. Ultimately, their record was worse in Brazil than it was in South Africa.

But after reading two paragraphs of that, hopefully those points have started to sound hollow. Objectively, sure, the facts hint the U.S. is treading water, but no fact exist without context. Level of competition is important. So is the underlying play. For a program focused on building for tomorrow, these things can be as telling as the results.

And if, in that quest for a better tomorrow, you’re inclined to look for progress, consider …

source: AP
Thomas Mueller scored the winning goal as Germany defeated the United States 1-0 in group play at the World Cup. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

1. Strength of opposition

Let’s do a little exercise, shall we? Take the four teams the U.S. played in 2010, add the nations the States faced in 2014, and make a list. Go from strongest to weakest and rank all the opponents the U.S. saw in the last two World Cups.

What do you get? It should look something like this:

1. 2014 Germany
2. 2014 Belgium
3. 2014 Portugal
4. 2014 Ghana
5. 2010 Ghana
6. 2010 England
7. 2010 Slovenia
8. 2010 Algeria

Maybe, in time, we’ll swap one and two. Perhaps three and four flip, too, but that’s not really the point, is it? By most estimations, the four teams the U.S. faced in South Africa were weaker than every team on the schedule this time around.

Think about that. Whereas the U.S. was drawn into a group of “How the heck is England a seeded team” in 2010, this year they were in one of the three toughest groups – one of the three toughest groups in an insanely unbalanced opening stage. I may not agree with all this Group of Death pandering, but Group G was really, really difficult.

So yeah, the U.S. was slightly worse, record-wise, in 2014. Does that mean they’re a worse team? Of course not. That the 2014 team matched the 2010 squad’s progress is a huge hint: The U.S. is better now than they were four years ago.

2. Injuries mattered

Let’s not act like 2010’s team was healthy going into the finals. Charlie Davies’ loss will forever be under-appreciated after his career changed course in Oct. 2009. Oguchi Onyewu tore his patellar tendon the same month. Bob Bradley had his challenges, too.

This year’s Jozy Altidore injury, however, was big. Say whatever you want about his quality, but the absence forced Clint Dempsey out of position and was a big factor in Michael Bradley’s performances. With one injury, the U.S. not only lost one of their two main goal scorers but also saw their two best players handcuffed. They were set back at two, perhaps three positions.

Then there was Fabian Johnson, who Jurgen Klinsmann lost early in the team’s decisive game. Omar Gonzalez wasn’t healthy coming into camp, sat out the first two games, then played the tournament’s last 210 minutes. And Matt Besler? The U.S. lost him for the second half of the opening match.

Klinsmann spent three years enforcing a resilience that paid off in Brazil, but that doesn’t mean the team wasn’t hamstrung. Bradley may have lost two key players, but unlike the Altidore injury, those absences didn’t affect other parts of the lineup.

Is that progress? No, but it does add context to this year’s results. Not only did the U.S face stiffer competition, but the internal obstacles may have been greater, too.

source: AP
Geoff Cameron (20) and United States’ Jermaine Jones, left, celebrate as Clint Dempsey, center, runs from the goal scoring against Portugal. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)

3. The high points of the tournament

Think back to 2010. When did the U.S. truly play well? Not that the team was ever bad, but was there ever a point in South Africa that made you feel as confident about the team as the Portugal game did? There were certainly moments against Slovenia, and the end of the Algeria match is legendary, but this year’s performance against the Seleccao had people discussing whether the U.S. had really turned a corner.

That doesn’t change the bottom line, but it tells us how the U.S. went about their business. It goes to assessing what the team is capable of doing, going forward. It speaks to how, if things to continue to improve, the U.S. can grow, and yes, it speaks to progress. The 2014 team, at its best, showed it was capable for more than the 2010 squad.

4. What others around you are saying

Say you know your soccer. Like really, really know it; know it so much that you don’t usually need to listen to anybody’s opinion on anything. Not only are you perfectly qualified to be a professional sports journalist, but you may also be smart enough to know that, on rare occasions, you’re fallible. And when you are, the whole world’s likely to tell you.

This time, literally the whole world is saying so. Across the globe, this U.S. team has forced soccer fans to take notice. Two weeks after the planet had the same, pessimistic predictions that most U.S. fans begrudgingly made before match one, the world’s woken up. By derailing a talented Ghana and coming back (only to be ultimately drawn) against Portugal, the U.S. gave everybody reason to take notice.

This was more than knocking off Mexico in a 2002. This was beating teams the world thought would cut through a star-less American squad.

But let’s get back to talking about you. I know you’re smart. Hey, you tell us so all the time, but maybe your view that the U.S. was lucky against Ghana is jaded? Maybe, like a lot of other people noticed, the U.S. were just playing like a team with a lead. Perhaps they didn’t “choke” against Portugal (please, stop listening to so much sports talk radio). And although they were outplayed by Germany and Belgium, most of the world would be, too.

Maybe the Americans were actually kinda good. Not Germany good, but still … good, by a more inclusive, fairer standard.

But, of course, I’ll defer to you.

5. Everything else this team has done

The World Cup is ultimately four games. It’s pretty insane to draw huge conclusions based on such a small sample size. You know that Netherlands team that’s now a favorite to reach the tournament’s semifinals? They went 0-3-0 at Euro 2012.  Since then, they haven’t lost a competitive match, going 13-0-1 between qualifying and the World Cup.

So let’s look at the U.S. in the bigger picture. They locked up a World Cup spot in CONCACAF after eight of 10 final round games, ended up finishing first in the region, are confederation champions, and had a 12-game wining streak last year. Yeah, there were some down points, like the team’s performances against Ukraine (this winter) and Belgium (last summer), but nobody expected the U.S. to solve all its problems in one cycle.

If you want to say the U.S. isn’t making progress, that’s fine, but you have to explain why the last two years’ results are so deceivingly positive. You have to explain why the rest of the world is wrong to see the difference, and why the team looked so good at points of this tournament. Once you’re done with that, tell us why the U.S. were able to their overcome injuries, and why a much tougher schedule in Brazil couldn’t send them home after three games.

It’s not an impossible argument to make. I’m just glad you’re the one trying to make it; not me.

Personally, I see progress. It’s not earth-shaking, but it’s there, and it’s clear. The U.S. hasn’t established itself as a soccer power, but they’re better than they were four years ago.

Bobby Wood looks forward to working with Arena, praises Klinsmann

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A back injury kept Bobby Wood from United States men’s national team camp, but the Hamburg striker has been feeling good about the side’s World Cup fortunes since before the big win over Honduras.

Speaking with Hamburg’s team magazine, Wood gave a sprawling interview on his career and time with the national team. Wood praised Arena for scouting in Germany, saying the USMNT boss is a quiet coach who has his own style of playing, one that will prod the Yanks into the World Cup.

[ MORE: Complete USMNT-Panama preview ]

But the 24-year-old Hawaii-born striker saved his fondest words for ex-coach Jurgen Klinsmann, essentially calling him a career-saver. From HSV live (translated from German):

He’s very important to me. I believe if Jürgen had not been U.S. coach, then I might have stopped playing football or would have played somewhere in the fourth league.

That is why I am very, very grateful to him. At that time I was in a deep hole – it was real heavy. … He has believed in my quality. We are still in contact, he texts me.

Wood was a part-time player for 1860 Munich when Klinsmann first called him up to the national team side, and now he’s a Bundesliga striker who will be in demand if the club is relegated. Wood has also been mentioned as a target for Premier League clubs.

That’s a pretty good career jump. Klinsmann may have failed to deliver much of what he promised to the national team, but talent mining was done quite well.

USMNT-Panama preview: World Cup calm at stake

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Still wounded from the first two matches of the Hex but buoyed by its demolition of Honduras, the United States men’s national team faces an inspired Panama on Tuesday night in Panama City.

The Yanks arose from the ashes of losses to Mexico and Costa Rica to bury Honduras 6-0 Friday behind a Clint Dempsey hat trick and a goal and two assists from Christian Pulisic.

A win on Tuesday in Panama gives the U.S. something that can only soothe the nerves ahead of two summer qualifiers and the Gold Cup: Top Three status in the Hex (as is always expected).

Now the resurgent Americans face a Panama side which sits above them on the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table, having narrowed the gap on a Los Canaleros side who itself has narrowed its sights on a USMNT which burned them nearly four years ago.

[ USMNT-HONDURAS: Player ratings | Three things ]

Panama looked set to earn an interconfederation playoff berth with a 2-1 lead over the already-advanced U.S. when Graham “San” Zusi and Aron Johannsson led a shocking comeback at the Estadio Rommel Fernández to give Mexico the Hex’s fourth-place.

Los Canaleros shot out of the Hex gates with a win at Honduras and a 0-0 draw at home against Mexico, but fell 1-0 at Trinidad and Tobago on Friday thanks to Minnesota United star Kevin Molino.

Now licking its wounds while eyeing revenge, Panama will hope its pair of draws with the U.S. at the 2015 Gold Cup are the start they need to pick up a first home World Cup qualifying win over the States. Panama won the third-place match over the USMNT via shootout at the that tournament.

Boss Hernán Darío Gómez is no stranger to international battles having led Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala. He deployed a 4-5-1 against T&T, and could opt for that again but has usually used either a 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2 with two holding mids against deeper sides than the Soca Warriors.

The former has worked better, and the personnel sometimes serves as a surprise. Last time out, in a 0-0 draw against Mexico, Gomez kept Anibal Godoy and Luis Tejada on the bench in what looks like a 4-2-2-2 at times.

[ MORE: Making sense out of the 6-0 win ]

Bruce Arena faces his own issues. In addition to the absences of Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson, the USMNT lost Sebastian Lletget and John Brooks in the win over Honduras.

Lletget’s absence is quickly remedied by either Alejandro Bedoya or, more likely, Jermaine Jones, but Brooks is a bigger problem. The Hertha Berlin man cleaned up several messes made by Omar Gonzalez, the ex-LA Galaxy man who — for better or worse — may not have shaken Arena’s confidence thanks to their long relationship.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Geoff Cameron is his best option at CB, and could serve a similar purpose to Brooks. Still, he’s not 100 percent.

Gonzalez and Matt Besler worked well together a long time ago, but Tim Ream was Arena’s first choice when Brooks hit the turf with dehydration on Friday. There’s also wild card Walker Zimmerman, who would be taking the field in his highest-profile match yet.

Arena will want to take the match to Panama, even on the road. How will it look in front of Tim Howard? This is an option for Arena, though not one we expect:

Howard

Zusi — Cameron — Ream — Villafana

Jones — Bradley — Nagbe

Pulisic

Dempsey — Altidore

Instead, Arena will probably roll the bones with Gonzalez again, and keep things close to the Honduras win. It would be silly to break up the Villafana-Nagbe partnership on the left, and the top three isn’t changing one bit.

The question is whether Arena ruffles Jones, who is both combustible and not part of the long-term future. But Jones, like all of us, would’ve seen 6-0. So, probably, this:

Howard

Cameron — Gonzalez — Ream — Villafana

Bradley

Bedoya — Nagbe

Pulisic

Dempsey — Altidore

If Bradley provides the same picture-perfect cover for the back four and Pulisic continues to hum off the veteran big bodies of Dempsey and Altidore, the latter of which who is due a goal or two, the Yanks win. At worst, they’re beaten for pace by Alberto Quintero and stymied by Jaime Penedo. But the former can be covered by an in-form Howard, and the latter can only hold out for so long.

A draw puts the U.S. behind Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico ahead of two months off and the knowledge that both Mexico and Costa Rica are home for both June qualifiers.

Schweinsteiger waiting on visa, training in Mallorca

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Bastian Schweinsteiger is waiting on a visa to make his trip to Chicago official.

It’s a formality, albeit a bit trickier now given the political climate in the United States. The former Manchester United midfielder is training at Real Mallorca ahead of the move.

The transfer was announced one week ago, and Schweinsteiger is anxious to get back on the pitch. Set for a 1-year, $4.5 million deal, the midfielder has not missed any Chicago matches yet.

[ MORE: Under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

The Fire is 1-1-1 to start the new season under Veljko Paunovic, and has three home matches next: Montreal (Saturday), Columbus (Apr. 8), and New England (Apr. 15)

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.