By Neil W. Blackmon
For about twenty minutes, you knew the goal was coming. Sure, Guatemala had scored first, but even great sides sometimes fail to properly mark a corner. The relentless attacking we’d witnessed since the deficit were enough to keep admittedly nervous onlookers cautiously confident. The breakthrough was coming, and you could sense it, even as the young Guatemalan goalkeeper made stop after stop, his own value cycling upward like the national debt clock in Union Square. (One can’t help but follow that young man now, as at least a look on a Mexican Primera side seems warranted).
Yes, there had been reasons to pause throughout: Kelyn Rowe, marvelous in the tournament’s group stages, had missed two sitters, ditto Conor Doyle, who became increasingly frustrated by tight marking as the game progressed. Joseph Gyau had looked threatening as ever on the right flank, but had also given the ball away on simple link-up, possession holding passes, mostly towards steady-as-ever West Ham product Sebastian Lletget—and those weren’t mistakes he had made earlier in the tournament. The crowd was a factor too—it is hard to explain how difficult it is to play a central or Latin American side in their backyard unless you’ve seen it in person. Even the brilliant Zac MacMath had been a bit hesitant in some of his decision-making, slow on set pieces and shoddy in his distribution.Still, the exuberant confidence in the game’s build-up had only diminished to a quiet optimism as halftime came and went and the second half began with more of the same—the Americans attacking relentlessly, the Guatemalans struggling (but managing) to hold. Possession, tempo and style all favored the Americans. The breakthrough was imminent, and it would be a question of “Then What?”
“Then What” indeed. Conor Doyle’s masterful chip, after a class-at-any-level throughball from Amobi Okugo (splendid last night, by the way), finally beat the Guatemalan goalkeeper, and prevailing sentiment was the floodgates were about to open. It was a “you beat on a wall and you beat on it and you beat on it and eventually it crumbles” moment, and the crowd, quiet as a Baptist church on Good Friday, seemed to feel that way too. Surely the Americans were headed to a 3-1 win. Then What.
How about a “Bocanegra/DeMerit moment”? Having leveled, the Americans took possession in the midfield and immediately went back to attack. Guatemala, defending desperately at this point, simply cleared the ball towards the final third, where two American defenders surrounded the chasing Guatemalan forward Henry Lopez. The young American defenders mishandled the ball, and now with support, the Guatemalans turned Gale Agbossoumonde, headed cleanly towards goal and slotted calmly past a mostly helpless MacMath. 2-1, but still, one wouldn’t have been laughed at it for suggesting the Americans would again equalize. Except “Then What.”
The young Americans became rattled. Their manager, failing to sense his forward Doyle was tiring and his brightest star of the tournament, Kelyn Rowe, was having an off night, didn’t react in a way that would settle nerves. He waited to substitute, bringing Salgado on only when the Yanks were becoming increasingly less-organized in attack, and using his last substitute, the quick-strike capable Moises Orozco, only when things became wholly desperate. To be clear, credit Guatemala at least partially. They defended with vigor and resolve, particularly after taking the lead a second time. Their goalkeeper, as mentioned, played what had to be the game of his life. That said, even tipping the hat to the opposition can’t escape the necessary self-reflection. The Americans failed, and in the game’s late moments, they didn’t attack so much as they simply threw bodies forward at random, desperately hoping a long ball from any number of players, including MacMath, who was at midfield throughout stoppage time, would find a home. None did, until the game’s last sequence, where a Valentin ball to the center of the area was calmly cleared by a Guatemalan center back. The whistle came before the ensuing American throw-in, and the World Cup dream was dead.
For the first time since 1995, the Americans had failed to qualify for the U-20 World Cup. They failed with a group that was immensely more talented than the last group to participate in 2009, and, though time will bear this out, both at the club and senior team level, a group likely far more talented than the 2007 group. Are there excuses? As always, yes. They failed without at least a trio of players who almost assuredly would have joined them this summer: Juan Agudelo, Josh Gatt and the latest darling of the German-American invasion, Bayern Munich product Fabian Hurzeler. Certainly, the way Agbossoumonde was turned on the winner makes you wonder about how sturdy the knee is as he continues to recover from injury. Still, the group on the field was more than capable of navigating its way to the quarterfinals of this tournament. CONCACAF has come a long way in the last two decades—but let’s not whitewash things. It’s still CONCACAF, and the Americans should be a fixture in the final four of any CONCACAF tournament. That’s why arguments about the qualifying format are rather laughable. No, this was, by any measure, an abject failure on the part of the US Soccer Federation and should not be whitewashed, spun, or presented as anything but just that: abject failure. Viewed through that lens, there is only one concrete thing to do: change coaches. Thomas Rongen failed. His failure was monumentally poor, and he should not be rewarded with another cycle, or the Olympic promotion some were shouting for during group play.
Is this assessment fatalistic? Perhaps. As such, this writer will gradually back off the ledge in the final few paragraphs. But before that’s possible, the case against Rongen must be presented. Mentioned already are last night’s glaring coaching errors: the late substitutions, the failure to grasp that his team was becoming unnerved. Not mentioned, and essential to any call for a change are answers to the “keep him” arguments.
One might argue that Rongen, a product of the AJAX academies that dominated European football throughout the seventies, has done an invaluable service to the US youth national team programs by instilling a “continental” European style of attacking football within the American developmental system. Some of that is fair. Results, however, matter a great deal. Rongen’s sides have always played an attractive brand of football, but underachievement is a defining characteristic. In that respect, the soccer history nerd in this writer couldn’t help but feel a touch of the old Dutch pain last night, as he watched a vastly superior (technically, tactically and physically) side fall short in a match they absolutely had to win. Clearly, a U 20 World Cup qualifying match in a regional tournament is a far cry from a World Cup final—but at least this writer and other American students of soccer history now have experienced a touch of the pain that permeated Holland in 1974, when the largely AJAX-based Dutch National team lost the World Cup final (also on the road) 2-1 to Germany. Certainly, the Dutch of 74 are remembered fondly in the canon of great sides. They are perhaps (probably not even perhaps) the greatest side NOT to win the World Cup. Johan Cruyff remains immortal, and that tournament’s defining moment remains the Cruyff turn. And yet Franz Beckenbauer and Germany won. They notched two goals and Holland one and the Germans played a brand of football that gave them the best opportunity to win when they absolutely could accept no other result. Rongen’s side, like that side, were superior all night—but they scored once and Guatemala scored twice. Results matter, and while attractive football is a gateway to memory, victorious football is a gateway to immortality.
Others might suggest, in a similar vein, that the result is not a reflection of the body of work and that if the Americans want to become a dominating force internationally, they should stand by a manager capable of making them that type of effective, attacking, “continental” force. This argument is a straw man at best, particularly in terms of Rongen, who has seen underachievement corrupt positive results throughout his tenure. It’s all very Dutch, except that the Dutch even seem to have recognized this as a shortcoming—deploying the only style capable of a result this past summer at the World Cup. America can establish an identity of its own without mimicking the glorious failures of other identities. To be sure, the Yanks do not want to be England lite—a gritty, defense-first group of men who rely exclusively on one or two moments of high-level skill—but looking at this talent pool, a happy medium certainly exists. In many ways—grit, hard work and defense are part of the American identity: that should be instilled first before stressing alternative principles.
Finally, you could simply argue missing out on this tournament isn’t detrimental to the overall development of these players. There are two responses to this argument. First, that isn’t a reason to keep Rongen around. As Ryan Rosenblatt compellingly wrote this morning over at The Shin Guardian, yes—from a developmental perspective, things are going exceedingly well. There are several players who appear to be national team fixtures in the future, and one or two who offer skill sets the current national team is lacking—notably Hoffenheim winger Joseph Gyau and box-to-box John Obi Mikel clone Okugo (who is, this writer thinks, essentially Mo Edu on steroids). The future is bright, as Rosenblatt notes, but again, this is no reason to retain a manager who fails to secure results with tremendous talent. This argument can also be answered directly with a simple “Nonsense.” You can point all you want to the fact that sides like Germany, Holland and others have failed to qualify for this tournament. That’s fine and dandy—but keep in mind those teams attempt to qualify in Europe, and losing to say, Croatia, is nothing to be concerned about in the long-term. Losing to Guatemala with such an advanced side, on the other hand, is cause for concern and it bears repeating that qualifying out of CONCACAF should never be an issue for the United States. Seven consecutive qualifications buttress this argument, and when a manager fails to meet that standard—he should be let go.
All in all, it was a night where one couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied and upset, and it was magnified further, in all likelihood, because it came one night after what Jeff Carlisle correctly identified as a historic moment of achievement for US Soccer in general—the qualification of Real Salt Lake for a regional championship final. Development suggests there will be better days, but this is still a failure, and above all, it is a failure that makes one appreciate Bob Bradley a great deal more.
To be blunt and brief, Bradley would have found a way to win that match. Bradley has more than his fair share of detractors. They utilize a variety of arguments to criticize his tenure as national team manger. Among the favorites are his choices against Ghana in the World Cup octofinals, the perception that he plays favorites, the perception of tactical inflexibility and his inability to consistently deliver results against superior opponents (an argument that usually involves an evocation of Bruce Arena’s victories over sides like Brazil and Germany). These arguments are well and good—but for the most part, they are perceptual and they lack any relationship to the suggestion that Bradley would have found a result last night.
Bradley’s work-ethic has always been an area of his tenure that has met praise, even from the most critical voices. What hasn’t been praised, and what resonates with at least this writer after last evening is the ability of Bradley to defeat the teams he should defeat. This is a trademark of any excellent and improving side—and it is one that under Bradley has reached an apex. Bradley simply does not lose matches against sides the United States is definitively better than, which was the case for Rongen’s side last evening. There are several examples of this—notably in Gold Cups but also in the Confederations Cup match against Egypt that sealed the opportunity to face Spain two summers ago—but perhaps no example is more indicative of his ability to find results than the World Cup hexagon campaign, where we find the exception that proves the rule.
Bradley’s men suffered a tough and to a large extent embarrassing defeat at the Saprissa to a Costa Rica side that while certainly competitive is clearly inferior to the United States. Their response was a series of wins interrupted only by losses to superior opponents, or equitable opposition on the road. The two defining matches in this sequence best highlight the disparity: home against El Salvador and on the road against Trinidad and Tobago. The result of these matches: an essential six points. In fairness, many writers, including Grant Wahl, noted that the 1-0 road victory was underwhelming in terms of aesthetic appeal and tactical value. Indeed, I wrote at the time that the result was “three points”, and that’s about all. Was Bradley tactically negative, particularly on the road in Trinidad? Absolutely. Did the Americans struggle to maintain possession and fail (at times miserably) to achieve attacking versatility from width? Also absolutely. Yet Bradley adjusted after a miserable first half in Port of Spain in particular, utilizing his substitutions early to steady the American attack, and he was rewarded when after a sustained run of pressure Ricardo Clark scored on a howitzer from distance. The Americans immediately parked the bus—a fair tactic against an offensively challenged side on the road—and three points were secure. In reality, that match was essentially what sealed qualifying for the United States—and Bradley knew it. Defensive tactics made sense because the risk of opening up, the possibility of putting the whole qualifying campaign in jeopardy from being over-aggressive, made less sense. Were American fans thrilled with the way the US played? Of course not. But three points is three points. And against sides tactically, technically and physically inferior—three points are essential. Bradley finds a way to secure those points and has since he took over permanently for the old Virginia Lacrosse Coach in 2007.
Rongen failed an easy “Bradley” test last night, and his kids will suffer for it. They won’t garner the international tournament experience that can be critical to early success down the road. Anyone who has followed the careers of Landon Donovan and his age-group colleagues would readily tell you how valuable there U-20 experiences were to their success, particularly at the 2002 World Cup, where none of them seemed particularly overwhelmed by the moment. These kids have lost their first chance at that type of experience. One opportunity (the 2012 London Olympics) remains. While it is true that Rongen would not have guided them in that venture, it is time to find a manager to guide the next group that will pass “Bradley tests.” Who that should be is a different question. It will NOT be Jason Kreis—his Real Salt Lake reign is far too successful and that job would and should be viewed as a demotion. Kreis is on the short-list to replace Bob when the time for that comes. Suggesting other names would be self-serving and only wild speculation—and that’s not for this column. That said, one figure who should have a say, given how well development is going for the Federation despite this result, is technical director Claudio Reyna. Reyna is doing a terrific job, and the various individual skill on display the last week and a half in Guatemala vindicates that argument. Reyna would probably be a good place to start when seeking out a replacement. And a replacement is wholly necessary. Abject failures like last evening will not do. As wonderful as Rongen’s teams have been to watch—there is a longing for consistent results, particularly when those results are essential and those results are more than attainable. There’s a longing for a gaffer capable of beating who he ought to beat with impunity. There is a longing, in a lot of ways, for Bob Bradley.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.