Neil W. Blackmon
A break for Final Four weekend and it ends up being a short and sad one for your author, whose Florida Gators fell to Connecticut 63-53 in the national semifinals. Still, an incredible season for my alma mater: 36 wins, a Final Four, a conference regular season and tournament championship, the only perfect conference record in the history of SEC play, three wins over Kentucky, and only three defeats. That’s excellence.
Speaking of excellence, let’s start the Monday musings 70 days from the US World Cup opener against the Black Stars in Natal by focusing on what is without question is the best news for US Soccer fans emanating from this weekend’s rivalry-heavy MLS slate:
Clint Dempsey looked like Clint Dempsey this weekend. Finally.
When Clint Dempsey made the move to MLS official in front of an adoring Seattle crowd less than a year ago, it seemed inconceivable that a player who had so much to do with Gareth Bale’s star-turn and who, for the most part, was the only American who could score for the United States for about ten months of this World Cup cycle, would struggle to find his way in his new league. Nonetheless, that has been the case as Dempsey has struggled immensely with his form since making the jump. Worse yet, the dip in Dempsey’s play has, for the past six months, affected his play with the national team as well, as Dempsey has struggled to impact matches for the Yanks in any capacity, let alone score goals. Just two weeks ago, Dempsey appeared to have hit rock bottom, earning a two-game suspension from MLS for a cheap shot on Toronto defender Mark Bloom. Dempsey, always a fiery player, appeared to have allowed his personal frustrations to boil over into the realm of the dirty and unprofessional. There is a fine line between the “Deuce-Face” passion we revere and unprofessional, and Dempsey crossed it.
The whole thing presented an immense dilemma for Jurgen Klinsmann (and doubtlessly sleepless nights for US fans). Clint Dempsey is the captain of the US Men’s National Team, its designated leader and one of its most passionate players, this we all knew. More critically, Clint Dempsey is one of the US’ most talented players, and perhaps its best pure goalscorer. That Clint Dempsey, bad form or no, was going to be on the plane to Brazil was never truly in question. That said, what Clint Dempsey would offer in Brazil was perhaps one of the US’ most pressing questions.With goals in the Group of Death likely at a premium, it was, and is, “survival” critical that the Americans bring a fit and in-form Clint Dempsey to Brazil.
The past week is proof of life. First, there was a brilliant ball to Tony Beltran with two defenders on the shoulder that ultimately led to the Americans second goal vs. Mexico in Glendale. Dempsey was criticized by many for disappearing for large swaths of the game– but that occurred mostly in the second half, when the US lost possession and the tactical edge by playing far too narrow against El Tri’s 3-5-2. The Dempsey US fans saw in the first half, a bumped up version that relieved Chris Wondolowski of permanent hold-up duty, that was a good version of Dempsey, an active, slick moving player capable of placing pressure on a defense without the ball. That was a good sign.
The better sign came this weekend against rival Portland, where, as Keith Hickey wrote, Clint Dempsey finally played like a superstar for his club. How much of this had to do with a brilliant Obafemi Martins is a question for another day, but I’d caution folks against thinking it had much to do with Seattle manager Sigi Schmid. More likely, it had everything to do with confidence, garnered from a fairly good night in Glendale, and Clint Dempsey’s uncanny ability to sense occasion. There isn’t a better rivalry in MLS right now than Portland and Seattle– it is an enormous game between two entertaining sides that draws a national audience– and Dempsey proved yet again that he loves grand occasions and is capable of raising his level the larger the moment. There is no greater moment than a World Cup, and for this reason, American fans (and coaches) should be encouraged. The goals are linked here.
Meanwhile, the US Soccer Federation “Sunday nighted” us again with a late-evening press release announcing they had parted ways with USWNT coach Tom Sermanni. This was very surprising news.
The Sunday prior to the Mexico match, the US federation announced Jurgen Klinsmann was “reassigning” primary tactical coach Martin Vasquez. One Sunday later, and, even more strange, in the aftermath of a 2-0 USWNT victory over China, Sunil Gulati relieved Sermanni of his managerial duties. It’s bizarre coincidence that the US Soccer Federation drops these stories on Sunday evenings, but it certainly makes for fascinating debate on Monday, no?
Reaction was immediately tinged with shock, then speculation. The shocking part was a mixture of timing (in the immediate aftermath of a USWNT victory) and track record: Sermanni navigated his first year as USWNT coach unblemished, knocking off Brazil in Orlando in November to finish the year 13-0-3. After the Brazil match, I asked Sermanni how he felt year one at the helm went, and he said “We didn’t lose and I’m still employed, so I’ve got that going for me.” He spoke in jest, certainly unaware that he’d lose two matches over the next four months and suddenly find himself out of a job.
Still, despite a great opening year, Sermanni’s USWNT put in a disastrous, completely out-of-character performance at the Algarve Cup, where they failed to advance out of the Group stage and ultimately finished seventh, by far the worst showing for the US Women in the history of the federation. There’s no question this type of result is unacceptable for the USWNT, and the culture in and around the women’s national side goes beyond winning to something else– a directive to play brilliantly and impose dominance. Finishing seventh is a failure, and one without space for caveat. No doubt Sermanni understood this, but if the Algarve Cup failure was the problem, why not fire him immediately after that tournament? Why wait until the next camp had begun and the next friendly had been played?
Players felt they weren't learning and advancing under Sermanni. Unclear whether they went to Gulati for change. #uswnt
— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) April 7, 2014
Speculation raged on social media in the aftermath of the decision that this was a decision spurred on largely by players. Even well-respected soccer journalists got in on the act, suggesting the players revolted and asked Gulati to make a change.
They weren’t growing or improving under Sermanni, the suggestion went. Queries regarding “source” went unanswered. The expectation is we will learn more this afternoon, when Gulati addresses the media, but if it was indeed a player revolt then that would surprise me, on two levels.
First, I spent a good deal of time around the USWNT at their extended camp in Florida prior to the Russia friendlies and the Algarve Cup. The friendlies went exceedingly well and mood and morale at the training sessions I observed (I was the lone media figure present with any remote claim to a national audience) seemed terrific. Players were upbeat and focused on the year in front of him, which of course featured the Algarve Cup but more critically, World Cup qualifying. Based on my actual observations, if the players lost confidence in Sermanni, that happened at the Algarve Cup and it happened quickly.
Second, while Sermanni deserves criticism for the US Algarve Cup finish, the only match at that tournament where extended criticism seemed warranted was the Denmark match, a 5-3 US defeat that saw the Yanks fall way behind and never fully recover. In the other two group stage matches, the Americans outplayed Japan only to draw at the end after a silly foul led to a Japanese equalizer, and even then, it took a brilliant free kick from Aya Miyama to level things. The Sweden match was similar, with the US dominating the run of play and outshooting Pia Sundhage and Sweden two to one, but the Yanks failed to finish in front of the net and were caught out on the counter early, which allowed the Swedes to absorb more of the American pressure in the final hour of the match. Point being: American players were as much, if not more to blame for the failures in Portugal than their manager. And some of the US problems have been creeping to the surface for a year or two.
Setting aside for now the shortcomings at youth tournaments the last two years, the Americans have struggled to find a steady and safe combination on the backline. This problem began at the end of Sundhage’s term and was complicated by injuries and maternity leave and aging (Rampone looked old and slow in Portugal) under Sermanni. Indeed, when I asked Sermanni if finding continuity and reliability in defense was the number one priority heading towards World Cup qualifying, he was quick to answer it was. “Absolutely. The thing is we had a situation last year that made it difficult, with injuries and because we have players playing overseas, so we had availability issues on non-FIFA dates. So, we won’t know until after the Algarve Cup. We still have injuries- Ali Krieger came back, but Crystal Dunn is injured; Stephanie Cox returned, but Kelly O’Hara is still dealing with an ankle injury. At the end of the day, until we’re healthy, we have a vast amount of experience and we have players that have played in major tournaments, so regardless of combination, they’re going to have to do a better job.” If that doesn’t sound like a manager who, at the very least, senses what the problems are and knows what needs to be fixed, I don’t know what would. Still, there will be plenty of speculation about players and comfort levels and a sense of urgency as World Cup qualifying is around the corner. To hear educated speculation, listen to Julie Foudy here.
And that’s the tricky thing about coaching changes: sometimes players don’t necessarily self-evaluate when the coach is the scapegoat. What’s clear, as Jill Ellis, longtime US Women’s technical director and UCLA head coach, takes over on an interim-basis, is that the US veteran corps of Christie Rampone, Heather O’Reilly, Abby Wambach and perhaps more so than ever Carli Lloyd, will need to step up and usher this team smoothly towards World Cup qualifying. There is still ample time to right the ship the federation clearly felt was headed the wrong direction.
Finally, TYAC happenings: our “32 Players to Watch at the World Cup” series kicks off tonight.
For a look/preview/flashback to the format for these pieces, read this one from Jon Levy on Carlos Tevez, written for our 2010 series of the same name.
The comments, as always, are yours.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be found on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.