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

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.

U.S. gets win and goals but defense looks porous against Slovenia

Carlos Bocanegra earned his 100th cap in the American's 3-2 win; photo by Paul Blank

Scoring more goals in one half than the team had in Jurgen Klinsmann’s first six games in charge combined was a welcome change, as was the resulting 3-2 victory, only the German’s second as manager. For the first time in his tenure, Klinsmann set out two dedicated strikers and the change in tactics certainly contributed to the increase in chances and goals. Getting the win ended a three-year drought for the US squad in Europe and sends the national team into its January training camp on a high note.

The news wasn’t all good from the Ljubljana, however, as the defense reverted the worst of the Bob Bradley era, poorly organized and conceding chances and goals at an unsustainable rate. A tactical shift also was a factor here, as Klinsmann deployed just one defensive midfielder to screen the back line. But the problems that plagued the U.S. defense in the past, which Klinsmann appeared to have left in the past, returned with a vengeance. The defenders struggled to keep a consistent line and the spacing was terrible, leaving huge gaps which were frequently exploited by the Slovenes. Continue reading

Five lessons from USA v France

Jozy's strong play best thing for US during France game

It is hard to find positives from the dismal performance of the United States during their 1-0 defeat to France in Paris. Yes, it was very disappointing and it would be easy to go the full Lalas and limit analysis to whining incessantly “where is the possession this Jurgen Klinsmann keeps talking about?” But just because it was disappointing doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn from this matchup on the road against a team that has just come through a year of competitive fixtures and is now unbeaten in its last 16 games. Here are five lessons from France pointing towards the next game against Slovenia.

Altidore looks more polished after strong start at AZ Alkmar

Jozy Altidore was excellent and it would be lazy to look at the score line and the minimal chances and say the striker failed to do his job and get a goal. But he was clearly the most threatening American player and more importantly, he displayed skill and class on a number of occasions to fashion the odd half-chance virtually single-handedly. In fact, while it didn’t look like much in real time, the replay clearly showed that Altidore was tripped in the box after a brilliant turn in the 20th minute. That could have been a penalty.

Read the rest of this column at Guardian Sports

 

Five lessons from Klinsmann’s first five games

Klinsmann after USA victory of Honduras; image courtesy of Nathan F

What hope does Jürgen Klinsmann’s USMNT have against France on Friday and Slovenia on Tuesday after mixed fortunes in his first five games in charge?

Progress not Miracles

Just one win and two goals is probably not what Jürgen Klinsmann imagined the return would be through his first five games in charge of the U.S. men’s national team. But, as Amy Lawrence described last month, this is a long-term project on Klinsmann has a great deal of latitude to remake U.S. soccer from youth development through the senior squad.

As the U.S. looks ahead to France this Friday and a World Cup rematch with Slovenia next Tuesday, Klinsmann’s first five games underscore that U.S. fans should be looking for progress not miracles. This U.S. squad, when fully fit and available, is deeper and more talented than any previous iteration with highly skilled veterans and some real potential stars. Klinsmann’s task is to take a U.S. soccer system which has produced uneven results over the last decade and move it into the upper echelon of soccer nations – and that task is more difficult than going from the poor performances of the 1990s to the largely respectable return during the 2000s. Here are some key things we’ve learned so far about that project:

Full column at the new Guardian US website

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.
Continue reading

Time To Panic Over Benny Feilhaber’s Club Future

Lyle Yorks, Benny Feilhaber’s agent, needs to get cracking. Feilhaber is on the cusp of having to stay with his Danish club, who got relegated to the Danish second division. The inability thus far for Feilhaber to secure a move is evidence of an incredibly slow transfer market, in which cash-strapped clubs are unable to get financing to bring in new players. But playing second division Danish soccer should not be in the cards for Feilhaber, who was one of the shining stars for the US in the World Cup.

I have long praised Feilhaber. In my view, he is the best American passer of the ball and is a true play making #10. In the World Cup, he demonstrated his technical quality and was a hugely important attacking influence.

Feilhaber did have an unsuccessful spell at Derby County, who quickly crashed out of the Premier League. One could point to that to say he couldn’t cut it at the highest level. That is nonsense. Derby County not only sacked the manager that brought him in, but Feilhaber was a luxury that a team like Derby county could not afford. Relegation battlers are focused on survival and often adopt negative defensive tactics to eke out draws. Feilhaber is a creative force, not a midfield battler.

The problem now for Benny is that this is the moment where his value should be highest. He proved his quality on the World stage and at 25 he is in his prime. While it is not all doom and gloom as his Aarhus are likely to be promoted this year, playing second division Danish league soccer for a whole year is still a major set back in his development. With just a day left in the transfer window lets hope something happens, but there is thus far little chatter in the rumor mill and the fact that he played 90 minutes over the weekend probably indicates he won’t be sold.

Also, one aspect about having a well connected foreign coach like Klinnsmann, is that they are better able to talk up their players and put them on the radar of European club managers.