It still stings, you know.
The United States men’s national team was overwhelmed by Argentina in a 4-0 loss at the Copa America Centenario semifinal in Houston on Wednesday, a reality check for Jurgen Klinsmann’s crew (and all of us).
Poring through the fallout from the loss can leave someone just as overwhelmed as the Yanks on the pitch, and I find it useful to channel William of Ockham’s oft-summoned principle for problem solving. To sum it up succinctly but not perfectly; among competing answers, choose the simplest.
So, which of these is working harder to prove a position, and which is a sad exhalation of fact?
A) Facing the No. 1 team in the world, the United States lost 4-0 and never looked in the game because it’s coach didn’t use the right players, neither committed to high-pressing nor parking the bus, and didn’t show its true class on the night.
B) Down three regular starters including two formation-critical midfielders, the United States was outclassed by a team of players who regularly compete, thrive and even win the UEFA Champions League, and went to a World Cup final two years ago.
Yeah. I’ll take B. Not Billy Madison honking on a woodwind after Eric Gordon whizzes through a performance, but closer than we’d like.
That’s not to say that Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure atop the USMNT has been anywhere near a success, or that he hasn’t shown maddening inconsistency in lineup, substitutions and at times tactics, but here’s what I believe Tuesday night’s event was not: Killed by the coach.
Landon Donovan made an astute if not clairvoyant point in our talk Monday:
“Where the drop-off is, this team has been playing together the same 11 or 12 guys for 4 games,” Donovan said. “And that’s where it hurts. Not only is it a continuity issue, but it’s also a fitness issue. Whether it’s Zusi or Pulisic or Nagbe or Besler, they’re not going to be as sharp. That’s going to make a difference, as will fitness and they aren’t going to be as confidence who’s been running nonstop for four games.”
Beckerman was overwhelmed by the speed of Argentina, and it’s likely the same would’ve been said for one of Klinsmann’s other two defensive midfield options: Perry Kitchen hadn’t played a minute in the tournament. His other choice would’ve been to break up a dynamic center back pairing and move Geoff Cameron into the middle but, as we saw Wednesday, Cameron and Brooks likely saved the Yanks from a Mexico-Chile score line.
Zusi was arguably fine, but had played a bit more in the tournament. Wondolowski was terrible, like Beckerman answerless against the speed and technique of Argentina.
Now starting Wondolowski and Beckerman was not the world’s best idea, to be sure, but would slotting Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic — the two seemingly most-desired candidates on the bench — have made a big difference? Simplified: Would starting two men with only substitute appearances for their country have turned the tables against Argentina? Probably not, and it’s absolutely cool to criticize Klinsmann for not giving them a start in at least a friendly to prepare for this possibility. To fault him for not starting them Tuesday?
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The tactical idea, perhaps, was that when the U.S. got to counter attack, Wondolowski would’ve been an adequate hold-up man as Bradley, Yedlin and Johnson joined the attack and Beckerman, Brooks and Cameron held position. As it turned out, Wondolowski was downright terrible.
Alexi Lalas said after the game that, rightly or wrongly, this game would provide a referendum on Major League Soccer. He’s right, and the referendum is wrong. Expecting MLS to be on par with the best leagues in the world is foolish, and American club soccer has grown exponentially in the past few decades.
However, awaiting that relatively nascent league’s competition with the world’s best is a daunting expectation. At the risk of counting a one-off as undebatable truth, the Yanks’ best players on Tuesday played for Hertha Berlin, Stoke City and Borussia Monchengladbach, and their key absences either play in Top Five world leagues (Ligue 1 and Bundesliga) or spent the majority of their careers there (Jermaine Jones).
One TV analyst said, “Argentina has great players, but so do we.” That was tough to stomach, given that La Albiceleste rolled out regular for Barcelona (2), Napoli, Inter Milan, Everton and Manchester City while keeping Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria on the bench. Great, but so do we? Holy smoke.
Online, the argument was made that the U.S. looked much better in defeating Spain in 2009 at the Confederations Cup, but that ignores some major plot holes: Besides Landon Donovan, the Yanks’ difference makers were all at better stages of their careers at bigger clubs. Clint Dempsey was 26 and with Fulham, Tim Howard 30 with Everton, DaMarcus Beasley 27 with Rangers, Michael Bradley 21 with Gladbach. The list goes on and on, and the U.S. needed a miracle to get out of its group after being convincingly thumped by Italy and Brazil, remember?
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It’s depressing to just say, “We’re not good enough yet”, especially as American sports fans who expected the 2002 World Cup quarterfinalists or subsequent knockout round sides to be the weight that carried them over the tipping point.
It’s not nearly as bad as Tuesday appeared, as the Yanks are between generational highs. Take a look at the ebbs and flows of Mexico through a down generation and back up to this cycle’s golden group, Chile result aside. In the pipeline are MLS-developed players at their own clubs as well as Chelsea and Porto, showing progress for the system, and talent on the books at Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Bournemouth. Life is going to get better, and really soon. There are even points to be made about how the team would look if Aron Johannsson, Jozy Altidore, Terrence Boyd and/or Joe Gyau weren’t injured.
Just don’t expect a “tactical shift” to lift the Yanks to a 3-2 win over Chile or Colombia on Saturday. Instead, hope for some breaks and progress.