There’s a frightening trend for the United States men’s national team, one that hasn’t been a conversation point for the team for some time.
This team is showing a distressing need for frequent wake-up calls.
The U.S. men earned their status as darlings of their fans by succeeding in the face of underdog status. Sometimes, it was the result of favorable draws and results — see the fun 2002 World Cup run.
Other times, a rough group stage was superseded by fortunate math and brave performances in a knockout round, like the 2009 Confederations Cup.
[ MORE: Qualifying scenarios for the USMNT ]
And finally, once it was simply emerging from a perceived Group of Death and getting a Matrix-like performance from your world class goalkeeper.
Maybe some or all of those were cases of dousing garbage in gallons of air freshener — I’d like to think not — and two of those examples included prime players from the current crop of Yanks, but they certainly didn’t feel like the roller coaster ride we’re experiencing now.
Keeping in mind that the Yanks needed results on the last day of qualifying to make it to the World Cup as recently as the 2010 edition, did it ever feel like this, so often?
After battering Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 6-0, Jurgen Klinsmann’s Yanks slept through a 0-0 draw in Trinidad and Tobago before losing to Guatemala for the first time in better than two decades. They responded by blowing out Guatemala, SVG, and T&T by a combined score of 14-0 the rest of the way. So it wasn’t about class.
Klinsmann then lost his job after a horrible start to the Hex, one that may still prove to a major part of a historic downfall. It wasn’t even that the Yanks fell to their two main CONCACAF rivals; Klinsmann’s men were outclassed by Mexico at home and embarrassed by Costa Rica on the road. See ya, JK.
All of this demanded change, but also circled the players’ names moving forward. Were they subconscious quitters who just wanted a coach fired? Was their underperformance mostly about the coach, or were they simply not that good? Moreover, how would they respond?
Hello, Bruce. And hello another bellying up to the bar to throw down top shelf stuff in front of a rabid group of partiers. In San Jose, the Yanks waxed Honduras to the tune of 6-0. Yay! Much better!
Again, it wasn’t about class.
So what was next? The U.S. was out shot 9-3 in Panama en route to a 1-1 draw, one that felt fine at the time on account of the four points gained, but looks poor in the residue of Friday’s home loss to Costa Rica.
About that second Costa Rica loss: No, the U.S. wasn’t totally outplayed, but it sure did look outworked (though to ignore some of the worst own- and middle-third passing decisions would be criminal). The word ‘entitled’ even comes to mind, like a team that is ready to buy into its own hype after generating even a marginal amount.
So what’s wrong, overall? The answers from the Internet come from every direction, some grasping at straws, some looking at the minutia, and others going meta. I’ve even read the rationale that the American “pay to play” structure is to blame, with kids being told they are the best players ever by youth clubs desperate to stop each kid’s parents thousands of annual dollars from moving across town. That’s a talk for another day, an embarrassing one that probably doesn’t equate to the national team’s struggles.
But there’s definitely something about mentality here, especially as CONCACAF watches Mexico just go out and win qualifiers. El Tri isn’t free from flaws and its coach has been under fire, but it won its first five matches of the fourth round and conceded just once. It’s conceded just twice in the Hex, and once was on a Michael Bradley bomb. Part of this certainly has to do with the fact that Mexico’s most impactful defensive forces in this generation are really strong (By the way, Mexico was without mighty Hector Moreno and a number of other recognizable names like Miguel Layun and Marco Fabian. They beat Panama).
There’s also a problem the U.S. has had for a long, long time aside from DaMarcus Beasley’s best days: the left side. Thanks to the good people at CONCACAF.com, let’s take a look at how CONCACAF is coming at the U.S. in World Cup qualifiers:
USMNT 1-2 Mexico
Costa Rica 4-0 USMNT
USMNT 6-0 Honduras
Panama 1-1 USMNT
USMNT 2-0 Trinidad and Tobago
Mexico 1-1 USMNT
USMNT 0-2 Costa Rica
So aside from the Mexico opener and the Honduras blowout, the tactical idea is to get the ball on the left of the midfield and see what opens up (more or less, the graphics aren’t perfect).
Here’s a bonus heat map from the Gold Cup Final, one of only three matches in the tournament in which the Americans conceded a goal (Jamaica is going right to left).
It’s probably all of the above in some aspects, but Bruce Arena is not the sort of boss who we should expect to be consistently outfoxed tactically as he was with Darlington Nagbe in the central midfield and Costa Rica just fouling the heck out of the Yanks.
Come Tuesday in Honduras, it’s going to be dirtier, grittier, and filled with desperation. The Yanks, in all likelihood, will respond well. Yet even if they post a 3-0 win and look dominant, this batch of players has proven that we should draw no comfort or expectation that it will continue come October 6 against Panama. That’s just one month away, and that’s scary.