Assessing US Soccer After the World Cup – Our Floor is Higher Now on the Field, We Turned a Corner Off

Every four years a presidential election allows us to take stock of the state of the nation – where the country stands on issues, its demographic shifts, and its cultural views. The World Cup does the same for same; it allows us to take stock of the state of the American soccer nation.
So what did we learn about U.S. soccer after Brazil? On the field, the team looked a lot like the ones before, but the we now have a better foundation for which to build due to MLS. Off the field, we turned a real corner off the field, and shocked the world with the level of our support.

The 2010 Team was better, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t progressing. When looking to judge the progress of American soccer, we usually ask is this team better than the last? But in many ways this last cycle was going to be one of transition. We changed coaches a year in and our two best attacking players Donovan and Dempsey were now over 30.

Not only were Donovan and Dempsey both in their prime in 2010, but often forgotten about the 2010 cycle was that three massive injuries devastated the squad prior to the tournament. In September 2010, Charlie Davies almost died, Oguchi Onyewu the next day tore his ACL, and Stuart Holden got DeJunged with a broken leg right after moving to Bolton in a March friendly. It is safe to say that if those injuries didn’t happen those three players would have been among our best 10 outfield players. Holden and Onyewu still made the 23 man roster but clearly weren’t ready. With those three players a starting 11 of Altidore and Davies, Dempsey and Donovan wide, Holden and Bradley in midfield, and a Bocanegra-Onyewu-Demerit-Cherundolo (the back line that anchored the 09 Confederations Cup) would have been formidable. Instead, our depth was challenged and Bradley had to tinker to find replacements. This cycle we were actually quite fortunate with injuries until the Great Hamstring Outbreak struck during the tournament (…not to mention Klinsmann’s own-goal of leaving Donovan behind). But based on the collection of players it is fairly apparent that the quality in the 2014 cycle just was not quite as good as the 2010 cycle.

…But that doesn’t mean we aren’t progressing. While the 2010 squad was probably better, it was also heavily Euro-based. This is why we can feel pretty good about the progression of American soccer. This team was an MLS based team. Against Germany seven of our starters played in MLS and showed throughout the tournament that they were in the same class as their opposition. That players like Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, and Kyle Beckerman showed so well on the world stage after playing their whole careers in MLS is something that should make us optimistic about the future, as MLS has shown it can produce quality players. This doesn’t mean players shouldn’t still look to challenge themselves in better leagues. But for many, like Kyle Beckerman, that opportunity may just never materialize. Yet Beckerman’s career shows that you don’t have to leave MLS to develop and to be a key cog in the UMNT. That’s very very good news for US soccer.

With the progress in MLS, we can now expect going forward to have a much deeper USMNT player pool, which should help ensure that we are always competitive. In other words, the ceiling for the 2010 team may have been higher than 2014, but the floor was also probably lower. Due to MLS, the floor for the USMNT is now much higher than it was.

But there’s some reason to be a little nervous… Continue reading

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Heidbrink’s Hitters World Cup Awards

article-2689740-1F3F521A00000578-398_634x435Yes I know Germany was victorious and James Rodriguez scored the most goals, but there are many other awards that should have been handed out at the conclusion of this incredible World Cup:

 1. Best Defender, Javier Mascherano.

It was a shame that Javier Mascherano did not win any sort of award, his play certainly merited it. Mascherano’s World Cup campaign was incredible. The stout defender’s willingness to risk life and limb on each challenge, most noticeably against Robben in the semi-final, was the primary reason Argentina found themselves and their wildly drunk caravanning fans in the final.

2. Best Thing to Come out of England since Harry Potter, Daniel Sturridge.

Sturridge proved that he belongs at the very highest level of football. The striker was easily the most dangerous player for England in all three games, well, except for Leighton Banes if “dangerous” is evaluated negatively. Btw, I still think it is hilarious to say that England only played three games… Anyhow, Sturridge’s awareness of the goal and newfound maturity to see his teammates (a skill that forsook him at Chelsea) was on display during the group stages. England, if they are smart, should make him the focal point of what could be a very potent offense just in time for the Euros.

3. Best Goal, Jermaine Jones versus Portugal.

Best goal lists are easy to make, but for me, the greatest goals have the biggest impact on a team, a tournament, or a season. Call me a homer but Jermaine Jones goal was great, if not life-changing, for a variety reasons. First, it changed the course of the US World Cup Campaign, only James Rodriguez’s wunderstrike can stake such a claim, but even that goal was coming as Colombia dominated for long stretches against a Suarez-less Uruguay. Jones’s goal capped off the United States’ best period of play in the entire cup and gave the team belief they could progress to the next round. Second, the goalie didn’t even move! Rui Patricio’s feet appeared bolted to the ground such was the magnitude of Jones’ shot. Finally, the goal validated Jermaine Jones’s career as a US player. A touch hyperbolic? Maybe, but it is easy to forget how maligned Jones was as a central midfielder for the US. For me, Jones was our most important player at this World Cup as his effort pulsed through the rest of the team at the most crucial times. Here it is again, ahhhhhh goosbumps!

http://futbol.univision.com/video/474231/2014-06-22/fifa-copa-mundial/videos/jugadas/goooolll-jermaine-jones-mete-el

4. Best Tackle, Manual Neuer against Gonzalo Higuain.

Not only was this not a foul on either player, this was easily the best tackle I have seen in years. The final was full of physicality, which is a good thing. Goalies have the right to defend their box come hell or high water and forwards should be leery of challenges made in and around the penalty area. Association Football is strongly against the double penalty for last -man fouls and penalty kicks awarded on the same challenge, so kudos to a keeper like Neuer who makes unsuspecting passengers pay a price for lingering too long. For more Neuer time, watch this,

5. Best Coach, Herrera.

Let’s move on.

6. Biggest Money Maker, Deandre Yedlin and Men in Blazers.

First let’s start with Yedlin. Other than the conception of my first child, never has a short performance cost so much money. Yedlin’s marauding runs down the right flank against Belgium could have been just that, but the young dynamo finished his 75 -yard scampers with quality service delivered into the Belgium penalty area. Oh, did I mention he shut down Europe’s next best thing, Eden Hazard? Yedlin was a revelation, do you still want Brad Evans as your right back folks? Yedlin has been linked to Roma and Liverpool, whether either pans out remains to be seen. Not in doubt is that his next paycheck will exceed his current. The Men in Blazers were well-known to many hard-core US supporters prior to Brazil, but ESPN’s full embrace of the two gifted commentators brought them to another level. Whether the duo will be able to maintain their shtick as more executives line up to pay them will be a challenge, but one they will likely overcome.

 7. Best City to Watch a US Game, Chicago and Kansas City.

These Midwest towns appeared to attract the largest watch parties, could they serve as capable hosts to a large US men’s fixture next qualifying campaign? Let’s hope. To be a footballing nation we should not have to every game in Seattle.

 8. Best TV Coverage, ESPN.

This is more of a lifetime achievement award than anything else. ESPN’s coverage was masterful. It just goes to show you what that network can do when they buy in completely. Fox and BeIN have some big shoes to fill. Let’s hope they do not try to reinvent the wheel on their respective coverage of the 2018 World Cup and 2016 Super Copa America.

9. Best Game, USA v. Belgium.

Imagine how good this game would have been had Wando finished? Actually, it would have been a crap game just like the Ghana game but who cares!!!!!!!!!

10. Best Goal Celebration, Miguel Herrara.

This was a tough one, my heart says John Brooks. The look of astonishment over what he just achieved will live on in the pantheon of great World Cup moments, but Miguel Herrera is the master. I cannot stand the Mexican national team. Their tactics are questionable and their players disgrace themselves when the team struggles, e.g. Cobi Jones 2006. But after witnessing one Herrera celebration I wanted another, and another and another. After the second Mexico game I almost found myself rooting for Mexico, all because I wanted to see the little man commence another drunken-like tackle celebration Chris Farley style.

US Choses Stability Over Change In Keeping Bob Bradley

Change can be difficult. But sometimes change is needed. In the decision to keep Bob Bradley I was one in favor of change. This is not because of some ingrained Bob Bradley hate. I have defended him throughout the last World Cup cycle and think he would have done a good job at Aston Villa. Keeping Bob Bradley is no disaster and was likely the right decision for US soccer after US soccer likely failed to get Juergen Klinsmann for a second time. But the real question now is whether Bradley can move the team forward and take them to the next level.

Our chief problem as a national team in my view, is that we have no third gear. We seem to have just two gears 1st or 5th. As we saw in the World Cup the US team would too frequently start like zombies in 1st gear but would kick it into 5th gear when their backs were against the world. But teams in a 90 minute game need a 3rd gear. They need to develop a way of playing that can be sustained over 90 minutes, that puts teams on the back foot through skill, guile, and possession, instead of sweat. To instill this new gear I felt the US men’s national team was in need of fresh eyes and of refining its style of play. And I am not sure Bradley is the man for that job.

How This Likely Went Down

What looked to have happened here is both US soccer and Bob Bradley essentially broke up their marriage for a brief period and went looking for something better. Bradley was trying to throw his hat in the ring in England, first with Fulham than with Aston Villa. Sunil Gulati of US soccer examined what other possible candidates were out there and went back for Juergen Klinsmann. In the end, both these flings didn’t materialize.

For US soccer the pursuit of Klinsmann again made sense. But it is likely that Klinsmann again wanted too much control over the direction of player development – a big issue in 2006 when Gulati went after him then. Perhaps that is both a small price to pay and something that is sorely needed. But I think in the eyes of Gulati, US soccer player development is already moving in a new direction and continues to produce better players and as a result better national teams. In other words, it ain’t broke. So handing over substantial control to a foreign coach who we know thinks the US development system is crap and that college athletics is no way to develop talent, could rock the boat so much that it capsizes. Furthermore, for US soccer there really aren’t that many great coaches out there. They all have jobs – except for Sven Goran Erickson.
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No Need To Rush On Bob Bradley

Frankly, people need to chill. The mantra coming from bloggers, fans, and the press to “just get it figured out already” or “to do something” is wrong. US soccer and Sunil Gulati is right to be methodical about this.

We are not in some race against the clock here. This isn’t 2006 where the US had a bad world cup and had fired Bruce Arena and was left rudderless and directionless for six months when the team was in desperate need of an overhaul and was facing 2 tough tournaments in June of 2007. And despite the supposed “fiasco” that was the 06 process, it is not like that worked out poorly.

US soccer can totally take their time here.

First, they have a good coach in place for the next 4 months. Let’s say that no one new is hired in the next month, Bradley doesn’t get another job and remains at the helm for the October friendlies, even though US soccer has no intention of keeping him on. So what. One of Bradley’s strongest attributes was his ability to bring in young talent. Frankly, I would probably rather have Bradley manage that game than a new manager that isn’t familiar with the player pool. It is not like he is going to slack off and phone it in – and anyone who thinks so isn’t giving Bradley any credit. Would this be a missed opportunity for a new manager to work with the team? Perhaps, but guys, we have 3 years until the next really meaningful competition.
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Thoughts on USA vs. Brazil

Normally in a US-Brazil match up we would be the team with something to prove. But in a bizarre twist the shoe was on the other foot last night in New York. With a new manager and an entirely new young squad, Brazil – in their first game after their early exit from the World Cup – wanted to impress. For the US, they had already proven themselves to the world and to their country a month earlier on the world’s stage. A good performance would be a nice bonus, but as the heat set in and Brazil got to work, the drive to impress for the US just wasn’t there. And to challenge Brazil that has to be there.

Kudos to Bob Bradley for picking a solid squad yet finding a way to include some young players. The inclusion of Alejandro Bedoya and Omar Gonzalez, as well as giving Edson Buddle the start made this an interesting team to observe. But frankly the US was rusty and Brazil, well they don’t get rusty, and looked much fresher having not played through a grueling World Cup.

The question of whether this is Bob Bradley’s last match hung over the match. It looks as though it may very well be. The US didn’t win one for the gipper, but after a good run and a solid cycle Bradley really didn’t need a symbolic send off. His status as a solid steward of the USA has already been assured.

Here are some other thoughts:

Brazil are better than us – So what. This wasn’t going to be the game in which the US slayed the giants. It was too hot, the players were too rusty and out of shape, and the intensity needed for 90 minutes of total focus wasn’t ever going to be there. That isn’t the coach’s fault, it is just the reality of a game a month after the World Cup.
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