Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Jürgen Klinsmann Was Right

No sour grapes here, really.  I thoroughly enjoyed our team’s performance in the World Cup. I’m proud of our boys.  I think they did the best they could.  I hollered and hashtagged, “I believe that we can win” with more hope than belief, though. Because Jürgen Klinsmann was right.   

In spite of the admirable success of Major League Soccer, increased exposure to European Soccer, and an increasingly well-informed and enthusiastic fan base, the performance we saw out of the U.S. National Men’s Team in the World Cup in Brazil is as good as we’re going to get for the next fifty years or so; maybe as good as we’ll ever get.

First, the good news.  We won the CONCACAF qualifying process over the other teams in North and Central America.  We survived the dreaded Group of Death, beat a Ghana team that was probably better than most people thought and tied a Portugal team what was not as good as everyone thought. And all that is great, really. 

But now the bad news. What we saw against Germany and Belgium was what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from the U.S. teams when they face the best in the world. We pray that our keeper can make as many as sixteen saves, we pull most of the team back to defend, and we hope we can create a scoring chance out of a counterattack or a set-piece.  That’s it. We can’t maintain possession of the ball. We can’t create.  We can’t defend in space.  And we can’t win against the best in the world.  Please don’t tell me we were one Wondolowski shank from tying with Belgium and going to PK’s. We were totally outplayed except for Tim Howard. 
We hired an outstanding coach who understands, as a player and a coach, how World Cup winning soccer is played.  Our players understand how to play the same way you and I understand how the San Antonio Spurs’ ball movement offense functions.  We just can’t do it because it requires a high level of individual and collective skill. And this is the situation which led the U.S. coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, to say back in December that we can’t win the World Cup.

It’s not a matter of our players trying harder or believing harder or drinking some more Gatorade or putting Landon Donovan back on the team. Our problem is systematic. Soccer is a minor sport in the U.S.  Thank you, Captain Obvious.  We don´t have a culture where everyone plays and understands soccer and we do not have a youth development system on a level with the best soccer countries in the world.  One theoretical development system could be college soccer but that possibility has been blown apart by Title IX.  Even if Florida State and Auburn had soccer teams, though, do you think Jameis Winston and Cam Newton would be playing soccer?   

And that´s why Klinsmann is right and he´ll be right for the next fifty years.  Soccer is not a U.S. sport.  Football and basketball are.  I wish it were not so. I wish I had played soccer growing up instead of tackle football.  It’s a more sustainable, more humane game.  It just doesn’t fit with our culture. Soccer will be a minor sport until the best athletes in the country play it and the best athletes in the country won’t play it as long as it’s a minor sport. So we get what we get.  We qualify for the World Cup by beating teams like Belize and Canada.  We become a soccer country for one month every four years. We may get out of the group stage by the force of our keeper and the incredible will of players like our Texas homeboy Clint Dempsey. And then, when we face the best in the world, we’ll see what we’ve always seen.