Belgium 2, USA 1: Bittersweet Farewell to A Good Team

You can't see the angel choir behind him, but it's there.

You can’t see the angel choir behind him, but it’s there.

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon

More writing to come in the next few days, including a piece on our personal experiences in Brazil: between the two of us, TYAC was in Natal, Manaus and Recife. Before that, however, and with the benefit of a day of reflection-dangerous in the social media/internet mass content production world we’re in- we thought we’d offer our final thoughts on the USA defeat to Belgium Tuesday in Salvador and also offer a bit of reflection on the US World Cup overall.

We’re angry. We’re sad. We’re proud. We’re numb. We’re all of these at once. 

Here are thoughts, starting with Jon Levy.

Today the entirety of mainstream American media is still positively buzzing about the US Men’s Soccer team, probably for the last time until the 2018 World Cup. In spite of their loss to a wonderful Belgium team who could very well win the World Cup, these American players are being hailed for effort, hard work, determination, and the refusal to give up, even when all seemed lost. And after setting a new World Cup record by recording 16 saves in the match against the Red Devils, Tim Howard is deservedly being honored everywhere you look, most entertainingly with internet memes of Photoshopped Timmy saving everything from Mufasa in The Lion King to quarterback Robert Griffin’s infamous knee ligaments. By all accounts it’s a great day in America for the USMNT, who shouldn’t feel any shame at being eliminated from the World Cup by an absolutely world-class Belgium squad.

So why are we so damn pissed off here at The Yanks Are Coming? America, if you’re finished, please allow us to retort.

It’s not the result of the Belgium match that’s so upsetting; it’s the manner in which the result came that should have anyone who’s been paying attention up in arms. Without a doubt, hard work and grinding effort are values to aspire to. In fact, one could argue that they’re prerequisite for any US national team in any sport, with a shout out to the 2004 Olympic Men’s Basketball Team, who had none of that.

Strange lineup choices and tactics overshadow the gutty performance of a good US team.

Strange lineup choices and tactics overshadow the gutty performance of a good US team.

 

Those values are part of our national sporting identity, and they’re part of the long-standing identity of the US Men’s National Team. There’s that, and of course the legacy of great American goalkeepers. That’s what the rest of the world expects to see when they tune in to a US Soccer match, and Tuesday’s match didn’t disappoint. Check and check. But that’s not why Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to steer this ship.

The match against Belgium felt like a time warp back to 2009. Suddenly we were ceding all the possession to Spain in the Confederations Cup semifinal again, defending for our lives, and hoping for a chance to score on the break. You might remember we won that match against Spain, and became one of only two teams to knock La Furia Roja’s senior squad out of an international tournament over the course of their dynastic 2008-2013 stretch. And before we wander too far down the abyss: the US strategy, given its personnel on that day, was brilliant and ages like fine wine. Only a handful of teams in that five year stretch forced Spain to counter attack. Bob Bradley did it first. But… if US Soccer president Sunil Gulati was content to have the national team soak up pressure like that in all the big matches, former coach Bob Bradley would still have the job. In fact, with Bobbo’s emphasis on counterattacking and set pieces, the US would have stood a better shot at beating Belgium.

But that’s not the world we live in; it’s also not progress. Progress cometh in the form of German-Californian Jurgen Klinsmann, and that statement is written without sarcasm. Klinsmann, for the most part, has done an excellent job coaching the national team. The whole US Soccer program has progressed under his leadership, all the way down through the youth teams and scouting system. In fact, Klinsmann even helped craft one of the best moments in US Soccer history just last week. From minute six to minute 93 in the World Cup match against Portugal the USMNT reached a new height. The team harnessed all of Klinsmann’s teachings about cultured ball movement and quick thinking, and out-classed a good Portugal midfield (if we include the wingers) without sacrificing the aforementioned core values. That night in Manaus was magical, and the Americans fought valiantly to assert themselves/survive and advance despite visible and palpable fatigue in the same way against a markedly better German team five days later.

Too often alone with no support.

Too often alone with no support.

Then came Tuesday evening in Salvador, where the only valiant fight was the fight to survive by keeping the ball out of the net. It was a fearful reversion to old instincts, a reversion that Klinsmann himself didn’t fight with his player selection or instruction. No one who scouted Belgium had any illusions about the US out-possessing the Group H winners, but there’s a middle ground that the team was able to find for portions in the Germany match, a rather large middle ground that Jurgen and his charges should have explored.

We can point to player selection, or the fact that Klinsmann insisted on playing his two best field players, Bradley and Dempsey, out of position in this match and for the bulk of this tournament (the latter, in a somewhat bizarre way, both his fault-only bringing one hold-up striker-and not his fault (Altidore getting hurt 22 minutes into the tournament), but this boils down to a question of mindset and intent.

The US was never going to completely stem the tide of one of Europe’s most talented attacking teams, but after surviving too many scares in the first half, they came out in the second and said, “Hey Belgium, we’re gonna put our backs right up against this wall for the rest of the match, dare you to score.” That’s conceding the midfield. To borrow a boxing term, that’s not good ring generalship, and it sure as hell can’t be described as “progressive” or “a winning formula.”

Some blame for this should fall to the players, but the lion’s share goes to the coach. Thankfully Klinsmann usually makes great in-game changes, and he did it with his substitutions again on Tuesday (even if one came about twenty minutes late), but he failed as spectacularly as we’ve ever seen in adjusting his tactics. I still support the manager, but he had his worst day on the job in his biggest match on the grandest stage. Not very German of him if you ask me. Thankfully for Jurgen, today most American media outlets are nominating Tim Howard for Secretary of Defense (good luck with that shadow Mr. Guzan), not analyzing tactics in a sport they don’t understand. 

Neil W. Blackmon

I’m going to do mine in three thoughts, which almost guarantees it won’t be as eloquent as Jon’s.

Before that, I want to add this on behalf of the both of us: Thank you so much for reading us this cycle. It’s been a privilege.  You don’t often get to do something this rewarding with one of your closest friends in the world but Jon and I have.

We’ve learned so much from our readers, in comments and on Twitter. We’ve had fun since we started this site in 2008 and will do our best to keep things going forward. 

No seriously though, Tim Howard just played one of the best games by a goalkeeper at the World Cup ever..

No seriously though, Tim Howard just played one of the best games by a goalkeeper at the World Cup ever..

1) Tim Howard played the best game I’ve ever seen a US goalkeeper play Tuesday. And the US still lost. But it was marvelous.

After the Turkey match, I wrote that the US was due to have a goalkeeper perform up to the level of his globally recognized talent at a World Cup, for an entire World Cup. I wrote this with deference to Tony Meola in 1994; Brad Friedel, who was splendid in flashes in 2002, and Tim Howard, who played very hard in 2010 despite being injured in the Yanks’ opening match. I hate that the following needs “framing”, because it shouldn’t- but so high are the expectations for US goalkeepers that Tim Howard was actually criticized for his performance against Portugal by some outlets and media folks, including former goalkeeper Andy Glockner, whose opinions I very much respect. With due respect to those opinions, Tim Howard delivered the goods. In every match. US goalkeepers have been so good for so long that probabilities suggested a US goalkeeper would finally deliver for an entire tournament. Howard made good on those probabilities, and then some. He was Man of the Match in three matches. He sees ya, Memo Ochoa.

How good was Tim Howard? Good enough to be Man of the Match in three of the Americans four matches in Brazil, including yesterday’s loss. How good Rocky in Rocky IV when Drago says “He’s not human” was Howard against Belgium? Look at this:

That’s patently absurd.

That such a performance came in a loss is a tragedy. It’s hard, in the pantheon of American sports, to think of an an athlete who performed more heroically in defeat. My Dad texted me “Howard having a Chuck Howley game” after Lukaku buried the second goal, seemingly putting the game out of reach, and I think that’s right. (Howley remains the only pro football player to win the MVP of the Super Bowl despite his team losing, in Super Bowl V.) A more recent example is tougher: perhaps Terrell Owens, just off a broken leg, in the Super Bowl against the Patriots, where he caught 9 passes for 122 yards in a loss. That’s the best I have.

So it’s tragic that happened in defeat. But there is a bright side, even if it isn’t a check the US can cash for another few World Cup cycles. As Jon alluded to, Brad Guzan now takes the mantle in the long American goalkeeper procession. But beyond him, for the first time, questions. Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson are talented, but haven’t yet been consistent. Ditto Zac MacMath, who struggled so much in Philadelphia early on the Union drafted another goalkeeper last year. Cody Cropper plays in England but doesn’t look the part, in candor. But maybe Howard’s performance changes the ballgame a bit. 

How? Well, as Taylor Twellman put it after the match yesterday: “I remember Keller in ’98 vs. Brazil,” he said. “And kids growing up today will remember Tim Howard vs. Belgium in 2014.”

Bingo. Howard was 18 when Keller stood on his head to help the Americans beat Brazil. His career path by then was more or less settled. But what about the 14, 13, 12 year old kid who saw Howard on television Tuesday? Here’s guessing somewhere in this country one, maybe two of those kids spends time day after day taking shot after shot from whoever will pay attention, trying to emulate Howard in Salvador, Brazil. What a fun column that will be when that kid shows up in the next ten years. And I like the probability of that happening.

Not his best day.

Not his best day.

2) Jurgen Klinsmann made some poor choices with his squad selection, and coupled with his failure to make adjustments yesterday, the US paid the ultimate price.

No question the Belgians on paper are one the two or three most talented teams in Brazil.  And there’s little question the Red Devils saved their best performance for the Red, White and Blue. Still, the Americans had a route to win the game yesterday, especially in two segments, minutes 1-20 and minutes 55-90, and by and large lacked the personnel to exploit it. But let’s start with the personnel he did have, because the players deserve that.

From the whistle, the US missed Kyle Beckerman, who was replaced in favor of Geoff Cameron, presumably to deal with Belgium’s superiority physically and in the air. The US simply left too much space in front of their defense, and Kevin de Bruyne, who had carved up a US setup suffering from the same frailties only a year prior in Cleveland, did the same throughout the match in Salvador. With no one to track de Bruyne, the savvy midfielder helped Belgium create a bundle of chances, but somehow, the US Tim Howard prevented a breakthrough. Cameron sat too deep and didn’t track, and looked every bit the player who hadn’t marshaled a center defensive midfield spot ahead of a back four since his Houston Dynamo days, despite having a rather strong game in the air (which was no doubt the idea). How Klinsmann allowed that mistake to occur again after seeing it in person a year prior is a mystery, and an indictable one. 

Additionally, Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to sit Michael Bradley a bit deeper certainly helped Michael Bradley, who played his best game in Brazil. This isn’t to say Bradley was excellent–he was simply better. Nonetheless, the move both harmed the United States in the match and illustrated Klinsmann’s fundamental error with Bradley at this tournament. 

It hurt the United States in this match because it left Clint Dempsey, playing out of position as a lone striker, with a chasm between his spot and link-up play. As a result, the Americans won possession on the day, but often held it simply to relieve pressure, rather than looking like they would threaten the Belgian goal. The fact that Dempsey, whose work rate was absurd (over 10,000 meters before added time), appeared a bystander for stretches of the game is a great “object lesson” in player ratings usefulness. When people ask me why we rarely use “player ratings” for individual matches at TYAC, my new answer might be “Clint Dempsey vs. Belgium.” Hard to rate a player who has zero help and whose manager leaves him in that spot. The difference between Dempsey for the first hour and after Klinsmann decided to help him by bumping him back and bringing on Chris Wondolowski was marked– but not in a work rate sense- only in a “I can actually receive the ball in threatening areas” sense.

We saw less of the Ghana Graham Zusi this tournament than we needed to.

We saw less of the Ghana Graham Zusi this tournament than we needed to.

Beyond this, the Americans squandered an enormous opportunity by starting Graham Zusi, who is a better player than he showed in Brazil, John Brooks set piece delivery aside. Zusi was asked consistently to tuck inside, largely because he lacks the footspeed (different than pace!!) to maintain his marking on the flank, and he offered little defensively and in attack. This was a squandered chance for the US, particularly in the first twenty minutes before Johnson’s hamstring gave out. Johnson did manage to pressure Vertonghen, who is not a natural left back, on three occasions in the first twenty minutes, but never had the support he needed from Zusi and was tentative because he was worried about support on the back end as well. Some credit due to Vertonghen here- who played above his ability getting forward- but a lost chance for the US, who should have started the dynamic DeAndre Yedlin from the opening whistle. It’s a suggestion we made in our preview– and one that would have provided Johnson support in the beginning and given Vertonghen’s aggressive forays forward, may have left Belgium stretched while Johnson was on the field. Instead, by the time Yedlin entered, it was for Johnson and Yedlin was stuck with the baggage of Zusi tucked inside on his flank. As good as Yedlin was, he was limited by that fact.

Finally, the final 55-90 segment was the largest indictment on Klinsmann’s squad selection we saw at this tournament. Desperately needing width and speed, especially to counterattack in a match where there was plenty of space in the midfield zones, the United States had no such options on its bench. Gone was Brek Shea, who was bizarrely called into camp in May only to not be heard from again. Gone was Landon Donovan, whose pace and ability to calmly possess the ball under pressure (still a strength nearly unrivaled in the American player lexicon) would have been devastatingly useful Tuesday. Gone was Eddie Johnson, who in addition to being a back up striker to alleviate pressure on Dempsey in case, you know, Jozy Altidore got hurt- killed a pressing Bosnia and Herzegovina on the road on over the top balls that the US defense and Jermaine Jones alike desperately tried to play yesterday to no avail. These are choices Klinsmann made that haunted this team, and probability suggest when you don’t get your roster right sooner or later you’ll pay the price.Making matters worse, when Klinsmann finally did bring on youngster Julian Green, the Bayern Munich youth starlet  who is doubtlessly a pacier option who can play out wide or up high, the Americans were already down 2-0. Why that change didn’t occur twenty minutes earlier is terribly poor management.

US Support everywhere in Brazil, like these fans in Manaus, was exceptional

US Support everywhere in Brazil, like these fans in Manaus, was exceptional

3) Nonetheless, the US have made some progress under Jurgen Klinsmann-AKA, the obligatory “Soccer in America” paragraph.

I got compared to Ann Coulter yesterday on Twitter by Keith Olbermann for suggesting he lay off criticizing MLS team names and constantly ripping MLS attendance numbers as “false indicators” of the popularity of soccer in America (as if any of us thought that high attendance was a “sacred cow” barometer anyway). I suggested to him he might be a bit paranoid about the rise of MLS and soccer in America. He responded by explaining that sports aren’t political and then devoting a whole segment of his show last night to “How Soccer Can Make it in America.”  Here’s his pitch.

That’s nice but all I have for Keith is what he had for me: “Bye Felicia!”

I usually like Keith Olbermann but here I’d just assume he stick to Yankees highlights. Meanwhile, we get pieces from fine writers like Franklin Foer suggesting that this was the World Cup where American truly fell in love with soccer. Due respect, but yawn.

Soccer is already here. It’s true that this team captivated and captured hearts, but so did Bob Bradley’s group winning side in 2010. And the spectacle and four year hiatus between World Cups makes it a truly compelling event to even casual sports fans, let alone casual soccer fans. 

Julian Green scored in the World Cup Tuesday. So there's that.

Julian Green scored in the World Cup Tuesday. So there’s that.

Time is better spent focusing on how young people are playing the game at record numbers and embracing the professional game, whether it be MLS at an increasing rate or the North American Soccer League or the Barclay’s Premier League, whose ratings trumped regular season NBA basketball and did so rather handily despite 7 AM kicks in some instances. 

Time is better spent focusing on the American Outlaws and the thousands of Americans who went to Brazil and were the subject of profiles, for simply being fans, in magazines such as GQ and Esquire in addition to sports mega-outlets like ESPN. 

Time is better spent focusing on how soccer is already present in America because the United States just sent the best team it ever has to a World Cup, even though it left the best player it has ever had at home. Position for position, this team was vastly improved over the one Bob Bradley won a group with in 2010. That they succumbed to a stoppage time goal in the same exact minute that the 2010 edition did is one way to pour cold water on notions of progress; the glass half-full version however is that the Americans weathered a much tougher group this time and attempted, despite tactically not being set up to succeed, to stand toe to toe with one of the most talented teams in the tournament.

Time is better spent appreciating the grit and guts of the players on this team.

For this, Jurgen Klinsmann deserves a great deal of credit. His recruitment of several of the players on this team was instrumental to this team raising the talent level to new heights. John Brooks and Julian Green, both German Americans, scored goals- one of which won the US a group stage game.

Aron Johannsson scored a thrilling goal at the end of the Hexagon after choosing the US over Iceland, a decision he made not because he had fond memories of his three years in Mobile, Alabama which he left as a toddler but rather because Klinsmann was relentless. 

Jermaine Jones was a Bradley recruit, and of the German Americans- in fact, of the Americans outside of Howard, he was the most influential US player at this World Cup. Jones was a mystery to fans throughout the cycle- and maybe that’s our fault- but Klinsmann deserves praise for getting so much out of him in the end. And he didn’t even get a yellow card suspension.

This is the upside of the Klinsmann regime, one you balance with the tactical deficiencies and the sometimes curious roster choices. There are more players to recruit, like Arsenal’s Gidion Zelalem, who could start in the Gunners midfield come the next World Cup. And there are others soon on the way, like Junior Flores and Joe Gyau, longtime objects of American die-hard affection who are playing at Borussia Dortmund’s youth team, which isn’t really Borussia Dortmund but is at the same time. There are academies of well-known global clubs (Juventus, Everton, Benfica) in the United States now, designed to find and groom talent. Couple those with the ever-improving MLS academies and an ever-increasing MLS quality and the recipe is already in the oven. 

Soccer is, was, already here. Maybe this World Cup is just a glorious reminder, a gift to all those who dared to believe, that it isn’t going anywhere.

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. You can follow them on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon and @nwb_usmnt.

 

 

 

 

Filed Under: 2014 FIFA World CupFeaturedJuly 2014USMNT

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