U.S. U-teams: Whether to emphasize results or approach

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In the last handful of years, Spain and Uruguay have risen to the top of their confederations. Beyond talent, a facet each setup shares is one of philosophy: Results at lower levels are de-prioritized while emphasis is placed on reinforcing the nation’s system and style. Of course, it helps that the chosen approaches stay consistent from the senior team down through the lowest levels of the program. (There is one other, itsy-bitsy factor that makes this “sacrifice” tenable, but more on that in a moment …)

Right now seems like a good time to consider whether we’re making too much of the U.S.’s Monday elimination from Olympic qualifying. Why we’re doing so is the easy part: We wanted to see the team in London. We tend to like when our athletes win medals, let alone qualify in their sports, so it’s no surprise we look at the inability to do so as major sign of inadequacy. I’m surprised I haven’t seen a story noting an uptick in sales of Miata convertibles to disconsolate, middle-aged soccer dads.

But part of the disappointment comes from expectations that existed independent of our Olympic dreams. We didn’t envision the U.S. losing to Canada or being tripped up by El Salvador. Mexico, in the final? Well, we knew losing there was possible, though we expected the team to at least get to that point.

Funny enough, they’re expectations Jurgen Klinsmann didn’t necessarily share. That may be one of the reasons why the senior coach was one of the only people who put a positive spin on the tournament (fully backing the progress Caleb Porter has made). Before the tournament, Klinsmann said that while he hoped the team went through qualification as smoothly as possible, medaling in London was an unrealistic goal. Perhaps those sentiments lacked the rah-rah we’re used to, but in light of the results, Klinsmann’s measured tones seem downright prescient.

All of which brings us back to expectations. Do we want our U-teams focused on winning? Because if we prioritize results, sacrifices will have to be made. When games are close and you need to hold a one-goal lead against (perceived) inferior competition, you might start blindly punting the ball instead of working on retention. And if you do that enough, pretty soon you’ve programmed the practice into the kids’ heads.

It’s difficult to say “results don’t matter” because that’s never really true. Best to think of winning as de-prioritized when you have to strike a balance. While we look at the final score as a big letdown, we may also want to mind the bigger arc. Did Porter, in the long run, make process by emphasizing how things were done? We’ll need time, rather than two results, before we know.

Back to Spain and Uruguay. They should be lauded for their principles, but principles are easy in the face of success. Spain is Europe’s current U-21 champion. Uruguay was runners up to Brazil at the 2011 South American Youth Championship, beating out Argentina to accompany the Brazilians to London. Of course, their principles may have got them to their point, but it’s much easier to be a philosopher when you’re on top of the mountain.