i need to get this off my chest

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Landon DonovanLet me start this off by saying that, without a doubt, few people have had a more profound impact on the American soccer landscape than Landon Timothy Donovan.

Well before Freddy Adu ever graced the cover of Sports Illustrated or had his face splashed all over ESPN, Landon was this country’s first soccer prodigy. No other American player has garnered more success. Too, few other footballers from the United States have attained his level of fame and fortune.

And because of all of that, he’s also been the sport’s biggest target for criticism — particularly from this corner of the internet.

But with Donovan announcing yesterday that he’ll be hanging up his boots for good at the end of the 2014 Major League Soccer season, I felt it necessary to explain myself and my thoughts and criticisms a bit further.

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you wanna talk about progress?

Jurgen-KlinsmannThree years ago this week, the hiring of Jürgen Klinsmann as the new US men’s national team head coach was to be a watershed moment in US soccer history. The German legend was charged with taking a plucky, overachieving American side and turning us into a dominant force in world football.

In his introductory press conference, Klinsmann took the bull by the horns. He pledged not only to help take US soccer to new heights, but also promised to help define and proliferate a new style of American soccer.

“[We want to play] a more proactive style of play where you would like to impose a little bit the game on your opponent instead of sitting back and waiting for what your opponent is doing and react to it… We want to start to keep possession, we want to start to dictate the pace of the game, we want to challenge our players to improve technically in order to keep the ball”

But despite helping the US to escape a Group of Death containing the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portagal, long-time nemesis Ghana and tournament champions Germany, not to mention pushing a Belgian side many fancied as Brazil 2014’s dark horse to the brink… those words have proven to be the noose by which many have tried to hang Klinsmann.

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With Jürgen’s three year anniversary of taking charge of the national team passing this week, the US Soccer Facebook page asked fans to weigh in on the German’s progress thus far.

As of the time of publication, nearly 2600 responses had been fielded. A decent number of them were positive and supportive. But an overwhelming majority of them weren’t.

It was an echoing of the sentiments expressed by many in the wake of the elimination by Belgium in the Round of 16. Too, many of the complaints submitted actually were hollered after the original roster announcement prior to the World Cup when Landon Donovan was cast out in the cold.

“We aren’t any better or worse than when he got here.”

“What happened to the offensive game he promised?”

“He is the reason we didn’t go farther in the [World Cup].”

“There has been no progress.”

A veteran internet user, I should have known better than to go to the comments. While there will always be grains of truth among the mire, it was mostly filled with naive and baseless drivel. Those complaints would be easier to ignore if it weren’t for the fact that they were inescapable. Anti-Klinsmann tirades were voiced on my favorite podcasts, Reddit posts were littered with the same thing, and of course they were all over Twitter, too.

And while I understand everyone’s frustrations at not advancing further, believing that Klinsmann has done a poor job during his tenure in charge is just way too far off base to let go unchallenged.

Where to start? How about with the noose of a quote that everyone keeps trying to hang Klinsmann with.

Yes, he committed to attempting to bring in and define a new American style. It was to be an offensive style of play based on possession. But while everyone is willing to hem and haw over how his side at the World Cup decidedly did not play in that fashion — thus “breaking his promise” — they also outright ignore entire portions of that very same press conference. For example:

“If you play Brazil or Argentina, you might [have to] play differently than maybe a country in CONCACAF.”

What Jürgen so clearly stated here was that, depending on the opponent, it might not be possible to play the way he desires to. If you try to play possession-oriented football against Spain, they’ll likely boss you off the pitch. If you try to take it to the Italians and fail to finish, they’ll probably exploit the one mistake you make on the counter. Even the best sides adjust their standard game plans against top opponents; the Netherlands did so three times in this tournament alone.

Furthermore, adopting a new identity isn’t something that will happen overnight. In fact, doing so in the three years Klinsmann has been at the reins is pretty much implausible as well. And low and behold, he even addressed that point in that press conference as well:

“Barcelona was not born in the last couple of years. It was born, the style of play now, in the early 90’s through Johan Cruyff. It took 20 years for that moment today that we see and all admire. Expectations are always based on what was built over the last 10-15 years.”

Translating that, it would be foolish to think that Jürgen could simply declare “WE’RE PLAYING OFFENSIVE FOOTBALL STARTING NOW!” and then do so with this current crop of players. They were all brought up in the old systems that played to various different ethos and mentalities. This World Cup was evidence of that fact.

Now, I would argue that Klinsmann was attempting to make small tweaks in the direction he wants to take the national team in the lead up to this World Cup. We saw the US men playing in more of a 4-3-3 set up in the tune-up matches, a formation geared towards offensive, possession-oriented play. But as I explained in my defense of Michael Bradley immediately after they were knocked out, that entire Plan A went out the window when Altidore went down because there was no like-for-like in the US pool of players who could slot in to those shoes. Plan B had to be different because of the tools Klinsmann then had at his disposal.

So really, the man’s commitment to changing the US style of play is one that is a more of a long-term goal. Klinsmann spoke at length in that press conference of the need to make vast changes in the youth game to achieve that goal — both at academies across the country and in the youth national team system. At the earliest, 2018 in Russia is where we should see the fruits of those labors start to come to fruition.

Klinsmann and Julian Green

julian green’s presence in brazil helped to lay the groundwork for what could come in the future.

Perhaps ironically, before the first ball was even kicked in Brazil this summer, people were already complaining that Klinsmann was focusing on 2018 too much.

Based on the youthful selections he made, the masses were enraged how the manager appeared to be writing off 2014. Which was a bit harsh. Given the hand we were dealt in the first round, most fans had written them off too. Few supporters or pundits actually believed we had the talent to make it out of a group that featured heavyweights like Germany, Ghana and Portugal.

And yet we did.

However, when Klinsmann “abandoned” the new philosophy of attacking and possession to make a run at actually getting out of the group — a tactic that achieved that feat and proved the doubters wrong, no less — everyone hung him out to dry. Once out and no longer just satisfied with the prospects of “just” advancing out of the Group of Death, many went and moved the goal posts on him.

Did they prefer he stick to his guns and get battered, or did they want him to play to this squad’s strengths and a chance to advance? Style over success? Aesthetics over glory? It was a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario for the German.

Ultimately, Klinsmann chose the later of those variables. And luckily, it worked out.

We advanced out of a group most countries wouldn’t have, we bled in youngsters who will likely feature in four and eight years time in a system likely to be more offensively-oriented, gained a larger following, and gave the sport a boost it wouldn’t have obtained otherwise.

If you ask me, that’s absolutely progress.

And that’s ignoring that Klinsmann and his staff have also instituted a massive change in our youth set up. Working with — and identifying — the 15, 16 and 17-year-old kids to imprint with the new style of thinking that is necessary to achieve a stylistic change require a total rethink of our approach. They’re the kind of changes necessary for changing the team’s style over a period of time that is far more viable. He’s pushed through a new national training center in Kansas City that heavily focuses on coaching this new style. The new training center also helps to lay the groundwork for the technical skills necessary in that system with a slew of futsal courts. He’s also helped to establish a broader and more comprehensive youth academy system that will implement them as well.

That’s progress, too.

And yet still, a sizable chunk of American fans think Klinsmann has done nothing for our national team, running him through the ringer for a partial quote. They choose to ignore the level of difficulty of the things he’s achieved. And they only care to look at a portion of the bigger picture.

So if you’re one of those throwing the man under the bus for a perceived lack of progress, make sure you open your eyes a little wider and remember that progress isn’t always a matter of wins. And just in case you’ve forgotten, there have been plenty of those, too.

get off his back

US midfielder Michael Bradley

Like most US soccer fans, I can still feel the sting of yesterday’s 2-1 knockout round loss to Belgium.

Despite clearly being the inferior side in a technical sense, the match was there for the taking. Tim Howard’s incredible performance in goal and a clever tactical plan laid out by coach Jurgen Klinsmann made that possible. Though when I close my eyes, I can still see Chris Wondolowski skying the ball over Thibaut Courtois’s gaping goal from the edge of the goal box in the dying seconds of regular time. And while it was a valiant performance from our boys, that result was inevitable if we were going to concede so many chances to an extremely talented Belgian side.

And in the disappointment, we’ve been subjected to a glut of articles raining criticism down on the players, the manager and the US soccer federation from both professionals and armchair pundits alike. Some complaints have merit. But quite a few are downright absurd.

One of the most common — and accurate — critiques levied against the US team deals with what this side was really capable of in the first place: were we even deserving of the quarterfinal spot that was denied to us?

From a technical standpoint: hardly.

It’s clear that the US national team still has a long way to go when it comes to producing the talent to compete at the next level. Our opponents yesterday featured a side rich with world-class talent. We might have two players that can be classified in that way. When Belgian manager Marc Wilmots decided Belgium needed to make a change up front, he was able to bring on the $37-million-rated, 21-year-old Romelu Lukaku — a player coveted by many of the top sides in Europe. However, when Klinsmann decided he needed to make a similar change, he had to make do with $2-million-rated, 31-year-old Chris Wondolowski — a man coveted at best by a few MLS clubs.

But there’s another popular theory about the US’s performances during the World Cup that doesn’t make any sense yet seems to be pouring out of every corner of the internet. That theory: Michael Bradley had a bad World Cup.

And I’m here to pour cold water all over that claim.

Before I get started, I’ll first concede that Bradley was not at his best offensively. For a guy that we’ve seen dominate in the Bundesliga, Serie A and at the international level, he didn’t exactly dictate produce in the way we all hoped he might. And against Ghana and Portugal in the first two Group G matches, he certainly made some critical mistakes.

But even in those first matches, it wasn’t as if he had bad games. They just weren’t what we’ve come to expect of him.

That said, there are quite a few important factors to keep in mind when evaluating his performances that many lambasting Michael are either ignoring or aren’t considering.

First and foremost, he’s being played out of position. While playing in the hole behind the single striker is something he’s capable of, Bradley is much better playing a deeper role. When he was at his best in Italy and Germany, he was deployed as a deep lying playmaker. Instead, he was stationed in an offensive midfield position that — while potentially beneficial to the US — didn’t exactly play to his strengths.

On that same point, he was posted up behind a player for a majority of the tournament that was himself being played out of position. Clint Dempsey, like Bradley, is capable of playing up top by himself, but is actually much better in the role that Michael was forced to play. And as such, he wasn’t as used to playing it the way that someone like Jozy Altidore would be more used to working. As such, it left Bradley to try and hold up play a bit more than someone would be asked to do when playing in the apex of the three-man midfield. Bob’s kid was left with few outlets to play to, with Bedoya and Zusi often pinched in and expected to track back on the opposing wingers.

Secondly, for an offensive midfielder, Bradley was expected to and needed to put in a lot of defensive effort. While he might have been sloppier in his distribution than we’re used to, he was expending a lot more of his energy covering ground defensively than should be expected of an offensive center mid. In fact, no player in the tournament has run as far as he has. And that will absolutely take its toll on his ability to make decisions and play precise passes..

As for those who needs stats to lean on, why not compare other players who have played similar roles. I’ve picked four players below who that have not only made it as far as the US did this World Cup, but have actually helped their teams reach the next round too. Influential players, much like Bradley. What you’ll find might actually surprise you.

Statistic Michael Bradley Oscar (BRA) Juan Cuadrado (COL) Eden Hazard (BEL)
Minutes 390 367 306 293
Passes (Accuracy) 252 (86.1%) 137 (73.3%) 97 (87.4%) 142 (83.8%)
% Pass Forward 34.9% 31.4% 18.0% 19.7%
% Pass Back/Side 65.1% 68.6% 82.0% 80.3%
Pass % Opp Half  76.6% 70.6% 87.5% 83.9%
Pass % Def Half 96.6% 82.9% 87.0% 83.3%
Chances Created 4 6 7 12
Tackles Won (%) 6 (75%) 16 (76.2%) 4 (66.7%) 3 (100%)
Interceptions 3 5 5 0
Distance Covered 54.7 km 40.4 km 33.8 km 33.9 km

The two stats that really stand out here are distance covered and passes/pass accuracy. Despite being burdened with the need to run more, he still managed to complete more passes than all of his counterparts. Not only that, but Bradley completed his passes at a better rate and more passes forward than the rest of them as well.

When you consider that Bradley was one of two players that opposing sides absolutely prepared for ahead of facing us — alongside Dempsey — those stats become even more impressive. The Toronto FC midfielder nearly always had two men pressuring him when he received the ball, meaning he had to be precise if he didn’t want to cough it up.

Now, I know he did cough it up at times when we hoped he might not. But I’m not going to skewer a guy for a few mistakes. While he wasn’t the second coming of Andrea Pirlo, Michael was far from being the next Jermaine Jenas.

But we do need to all consider what kind of expectations we placed on him. If you expected to see Bradley lift the trophy this summer, you’re probably on the wrong bandwagon.

The he helped us get out of the Group of Death should be enough for everyone, but many still aren’t satisfied. And they never will be.

But I am, Michael. You’ve done more than enough for me.

 

this ain’t no cake walk

USMNT players celebrate John Anthony Brooks' winner against Ghana

it wasn’t pretty, but the win against ghana was played out nearly exactly as the US had planned it to.

Monday was an emotional roller coaster ride. The US men’s national team win over Ghana had more ups and downs than is probably healthy.

We barely had time to sit down and watch the action before Captain Deuce dropped a bomb on us. Then Jozy went down, clutching his hamstring. Boots to the face followed, as did an hour of gut wrenching and nail-biting as the US seemingly allowed Ghana to shoot at will. When André Ayew scored in the 84th minute, it seemed like the inevitable had happened. But substitute John Anthony Brooks — a man few had expected or wanted to make the roster just weeks before — nodded home a goal that will forever be etched into our memories. Six minutes of added time and more nail biting later, we survived. Somehow with three points.

But after the euphoria ended, a weird narrative seemed to sweep over the national media coverage: the US are a bad side that were incredibly lucky to come out of that match winners.

If Ghana, a team ranked 37th in the world, were capable of manhandling the US like they did, there’s no way we would ever be able to stand up to the mighty Portuguese ranked 4th or the demigod Germans ranked 2nd. We were out shot by the “measly” Africans 21 to 8, and surrendered 60% of the possession. If we give Cristiano Ronaldo that many chances, there’s no way he won’t put at least three past a hapless Tim Howard. Should we really expect anything better from a side that has ten players from the lowly MLS? And that Klinsmann guy: he’s in way over his head.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t a pretty win. But last time I checked, playing pretty wasn’t a prerequisite for achieving success. Furthermore, most of those shouting from the rooftops about our inferiority have a pretty poor understanding of what actually happened that game.

The last two times the US played Ghana in the World Cup, we actually outplayed them. We saw more of the ball and had more scoring opportunities. But in both matches, they waited for us to break our shape as we continued to push forward, then countered us and were able to nip victories on their very limited chances.

 

There was no way Jurgen was going to let that happen again.  Continue reading

color me surprised

Cincinnati Celebrates Brooks' GoalI have to give it to you, Cincinnati: you really surprised me yesterday.

We’re a city that’s often forced to divide our attention and pick a side. East or west side. Gold Star or Skyline. Xavier or UC. Cincinnati Saints or that other team that we won’t speak of. And when it comes to the watching the US team during the World Cup, things have been no different.

The American Outlaws Cincinnati Chapter were back at their usual stomping grounds at Molly Malone’s in Covington, with those who attended saying the place was jammed full of American supporters like sardines in a can. My favorite soccer pub, Rhinehaus in OTR, was packed in a way that only Lil Jon could appreciate. There were some who chose to stay further out in Hyde Park, with events being held at Cock & Bull, Hap’s, and The Pub at Rookwood. And those are just the soccer hangouts: numerous other establishments around town also have spoken of larger influxes of patrons in to watch the game.

And as such, I was a little concerned that the watch party I was helping to plan — the Cincinnati Saints and Hoists’ Big Game on the Square at Fountain Square — would suffer a lower than expected turnout due to litany of choices available to the city’s soccer fans. If I’m being totally honest, I thought we would be lucky to get 500 people out to the city center to watch the US’ opening game against Ghana.

Boy, was I wrong… and happily so.

The Cincinnati downtown commission, 3CDC, estimated that there were upwards of 5000 fans in attendance. Five thousand! Even if that was a little generous, that’s ten times the amount I had hoped for. Considering this match took place on Monday night on a day where the local meteorologists were warning of pop-up storms in a place that had never hosted a soccer event before, that is freaking incredible.

Too, the atmosphere was absolutely incredible. I’d fielded some concerns that it wouldn’t “be as good as at a pub” and that the AO party “would blow it out of the water”. Those concerns, much like my own earlier, proved unwarranted.

Flags, ridiculous outfits, painted faces, a bounty of bomb pop and Waldo jerseys. There were chants of “I believe that we can win” and “I Love Ya”. The energy and noise after the goals, particularly Brook’s equalizer, was a deafening madhouse. I’m pretty sure I saw someone jump in the fountain in jubilation. There’s a zero percent chance the AO party provided anything better. And the reaction around town, even from non-soccer types, has been nothing short of astounding.

I feel incredibly privileged to have been a part of the experience and to help put on the event. WSOTP Podcast co-host Jeremy Lance and I kept turning to one another and wide-eyed saying to one another, “I can’t believe this is happening in Cincinnati!” Never mind the 30 followers I’ve picked up on Twitter and 20 new Facebook likes since then… it was an honor even without the windfall of new exposure for this site.

We’ll of course be doing this all again on Sunday, and fully expect that the crowd will grow as word gets out that Fountain Square will be the place to watch. So if you didn’t join us yesterday, give us a try this weekend. And for those of you who did, thank you for making this such an awe-inspiring experience.

Here’s hoping we’ll catch you out there again, Cincinnati.

Also, be sure to check out this awesome video of the event from local Ricky Fairrow. It really captured the vibe of the crowd.
http://youtu.be/TUGG1ad1sMM

All pictures courtesy of the Cincinnati Saints. See the full album here.

revisiting “who is going to brazil?”

Predicting the 2014 World Cup USMNT RosterNot only has it been over seven months since the US qualified for the World Cup on yet another fateful night in Columbus, Ohio, but it’s also been about that long since I made my initial World Cup squad predictions shortly after. And with US Soccer revealing the 23-man squad that’s going to Brazil last night, it’s time to go back and see how accurate my predictions were — just as I did in 2010 for South Africa.

As for the squad as a whole, there were a number of surprises in the 23, and an even bigger surprise outside of it. The outrage pouring out of every corner of the internet with that particular big decision is palpable… if a little off base. With the US player pool far deeper than it’s ever been, Jurgen and his staff had a much harder job than any previous manager. And with many of the previous stars of the team getting on in years, the task became that much harder.

But let’s get on with the real reason behind my post, and see how poorly I did with those selections…

THE “BOOK YOUR TICKETS TODAY” GROUP (8 for 9)

1. CORRECT – Tim Howard (GK – Everton): I, along with others, thought Howard’s form had been slipping back in October. He hadn’t played that great for Everton, and had made some mistakes in a US shirt around that time too. But he really turned his season around, and along with Everton, soared to some pretty impeccable height. And if there was any question whether he was going to lose his #1 spot, nobody is questioning it now.

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i want: hurley phantom national team boardshorts

Hurley Phantom US National Team Boardshorts

With summer fast approaching, many here in the US are turning their thoughts to warmer summer activities: going to the beach, heading to the pool, or catching some waves. But for those of us who are a bit soccer obsessed, the imminent World Cup in Brazil will force us to put many of our summer plans for fun in the sun on hold for our love of football. However, surfwear company Hurley are trying their best to combine the best of both worlds.

Through a partnership with Nike, Hurley are dropping three pairs of their cutting edge Phantom boardshorts inspired by the soccer national team kits of three of the Big Swoosh’s most iconic sides: hosts Brazil, one-time winners France and of course, the US Men’s National Team. Accompanying shirts and hats will also debut with the rest of the collection on May 1, 2014. So whether you’ll be on the beaches of Rio this summer or rooting for your side from your favorite seaside tiki bar, you’ll still be able to support your national team in style.

CLICK HERE IF YOU WANT  |  hurley.com

ten words or less #89

DC United forward Chris Rolfe

friend of WSOTP, chris rolfe will find himself in new digs this weekend after being traded from chicago to DC.

It’s been ages since my last links round up piece — okay, so it’s just been over a month. But a month can seem like ages in a house with an infant. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I needed to get this latest Ten Words or Less published before some of the links below become no longer relevant. And with the collection of links below spanning nearly the entire spectrum of professional soccer — from World Cup stories to the Premier League, from the Major Indoor Soccer League to USLPRO to Major League soccer, and from footie gear to soccer broadcasting — this is a links round up not to miss.

To new beginnings. – mlssoccer.com

Ian Darke stars in probably the best ESPN commercial ever. – youtube.com/espn

I really wish Chelsea would stop making kits I like. – footballfashion.org

The MISL is dissolving and it’s getting really ugly. – thebluestatement.com

BeIN Sport have made a vuvezela that changes the channel. – therichest.com

I am 100% behind making this the next MLS rebrand. – thegoatparade.com

Please don’t tell me this is a permanent home. – daytondutchlionsfc.com

Some people prefer Spanish commentary… I’m not one of them. – npr.org

I’m a non believer, but these football Tarot Cards rock. – designfootball.com

Some day… Nike will send me these, too. Some day. – theoriginalwinger.com

is the grass always greener?

Image

USMNT Forward Julian Green

International football has become increasingly murky in recent years. In the good old days, it was simple: you played for the country you were born in, end of story.* But these days, citizenship and country of origin only tell half the story about why a guy plays for the national team he does.

Today we see Argentines playing for Italy (Pablo Osvaldo), Germans playing for Ghana (Kevin-Prince Boateng), a guy from the Central African Republic playing for France (Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa), and Brazilians playing for just about everyone. Thanks to international eligibility now being tied to your family history — as far back as both sets of grandparents — and residency, it allows someone like the talented Manchester United starlet Adnan Januzaj to choose from  up to seven national teams: Albania (paternal and maternal grandparents), Belgium (where he grew up), Croatia (paternal grandparents), England (where he lives now), Turkey (maternal grandparents), Serbia (parents)  and Kosovo (provided they ever get official FIFA sanctioning).

Predictably, this murkiness stirs a lot of emotions among supporters and the federations alike. Particularly in places like Europe, where race and ethnic origin is a prickly topic, fans seem to get up in arms anytime it’s even suggested that a foreign player be naturalized and brought in to the set up.

But it’s the trend these days, and everyone is doing it… even us here in the United States. Continue reading

WSOTP pod: episode 30

WSOTP Podcast - Season 1 Episode 30

when demba ba gets a chance to drop a brace on you, it’s fair to say things aren’t going well.

Though it may have been a truncated weekend schedule for the Premier League, it was a big one here on the podcast with it being the WSOTP Pod Derby — or Spurs versus Chelsea for those not in the know. And for those who know us well, is should come as no surprise that the results in said Derby had D.J. wallowing and Jeremy doing his best to take it easy on his fellow podcast co-host. You’ll also find the full review of the rest of BPL action, FA Cup chatter, reflections on the USMNT’s match against the Ukraine, a rundown of MLS First Kick highlights, a talk on the Crew’s controversial TV deal, and our thoughts on Nike and Adidas’ crazy new knit boots… so a little something for everyone.

Subscribe to the WSOTP Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or search for “Wrong Side of the Pond” in your favorite podcasting app to listen to us on your mobile device!