A Second Beginning

Its been awhile ( OK, a long while) since The Soccer Yoda has written a post. But recently some major events have occurred in the world of soccer, especially in the United States. A number of soccer fans surprised the Soccer Yoda by asking what were his views on the change in national coach and the events which led to that change. Frankly, I was somewhat surprised and flattered that there were those out there in the soccer world who remembered this blog, so I dusted off the computer and relearned to hunt and peck with more than just my thumbs. It’s a second beginning for our new ( sort of) national coach and a second beginning for the Soccer Yoda and this blog. So……lets take a look at the recent national team results and their effect on our national coach position.

On November 8 of this year the USA played Mexico in Columbus, Ohio in the first game of the “Hexagonal”. This is the final qualifying round of matches to decide who goes to Russia in 2018 to represent our region in the World Cup. There are 6 nations left , hence the name. There are 42 countries with teams in the Confederation of North,Central American and Caribbean Association Football or CONCACAF, so it would seem that it is an accomplishment just to get through the several preliminary rounds to reach the final six. And if our region was like Europe or South America it would be exactly that. But, given that the majority of those 42 nations have a population about the size of New Haven, Connecticut, the USA is absolutely expected to make the top six . As a matter of fact, finishing in the top two (along with Mexico) has become absolutely expected ever since the soccer boom in this country started producing decent  players in greater numbers than somebody like say… Bermuda. In order to make it to the World Cup without an additional playoff game, we need to finish in the top three of the six. In light of our international results in this century, this should not be a challenge.

Although playing Mexico in the first game would seem a tough task, the fact that the game was a home match for the USA created an expectation of victory and not just by any score either. The last 4 matches against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio had all been 2-0 wins for the Americans, so cheers of “Dos a Cero” rang throughout the stadium before the start of the game.Then the USA came out in a 3-5-2 formation and the game took on a tone very different from those notable American victories.

One of the knocks on Jurgen Klinsmann during his tenure as our national coach had been that he tended to put players in positions for which they are unsuited. One rational for this is that he had a formation that works best and into which he must fit his players. During the 2014 World Cup cycle he used a 4-2-3-1 system very effectively and although all players were not the best fit for the formation, they grew familiar with it – they learned to play it – they knew who was where and how their teammates would react to the game in that formation. But since then Klinsmann had tinkered with several different formations and didn’t settle on anything in particular. The 3-5-2 was very different from anything the team had played before and they had only practiced it for a few days prior to the Mexico match.

3-5-2-formation-tactics

It has been said that the wing-backs are the key to the 3-5-2. When advancing the ball in possession from the back line the wing-backs must get wide and be available for outlet passes that start the attack. When the team gets the ball near the opposing goal the wing-backs must be in advanced wing positions, ready to provide width to the attack and both supply and receive crosses. On defense the wing-backs must cover the deep wide spaces to prevent the opposition from exploiting the narrow positioning of the centerbacks, in effect providing 5 back defenders at that moment. The American wing-backs vs Mexico were Tim Chandler on the right and Fabian Johnson on the left. These guys are decent players when positioned correctly ( especially Johnson), but against Mexico, in this formation, they were lost. They didn’t provide for outlet passes which forced the USA centerbacks into central passes and long balls which lost possession. They were not in wide offensive areas very often and when they were the balls they played in were mostly misplaced. And they disappeared in those wide deep defensive spaces which allowed the Mexicans to play from those spaces without pressure. Mexico grabbed the momentum from the start and it was only a matter of time before they scored and not that much time either…..like 20 minutes. At the 26 minute mark Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones , the American central midfielders, took advantage of a break in the play and asked Klinsmann to change the formation. He did and the US got back into the game playing a much more familiar 4-4-2. The score was equal late in the game when another tactical mistake cost the USA a chance to gain at least a draw.

The common method of defending corner kicks is to place a defender on each post thus reducing the area of the goal that the keeper needs to protect. Some coaches prefer to leave one post or both posts without a defender which adds to the number of players which can cover attackers in front of the goal. Obviously, if an offensive player can still get his head on a corner kick against a goal defended with open posts then the open-post strategy is worthless. This is one of those times so common in sports when an uncommon tactic is a genius idea if it works and a goat idea if it doesn’t. So coach Klinsmann had the USA leave the far post open on a Mexican corner in the 89th minute and Rafael Marquez hit a brilliant shot with the side of his head into the open post area to win the game. So it was another mark against Jurgen’s coaching which cost the US the game and ended an unbeaten-at-home world cup qualifying streak that started in 2001. After the game Jurgen blamed the failure of the 3-5-2 on his midfield, particularly Bradley and Jones. This certainly did not go over well with those two or the team as a whole. It wasn’t very smart on Klinsmanns part, especially considering the caliber of the next opponent and the motivation needed by the team for that game, coming only 4 days after the loss to Mexico.

marquez-corner Mexico scores a corner against an undefended post to beat the USA.

The next game in the Hex was against Costa Rica and in this match our role was reversed when compared to playing Mexico in Ohio. This time the USA was the visitor playing away to a nation that we have not had any success with when playing in their home stadium. Given the loss to Mexico, one would think that the Americans would be sky high to both A) break the Costa Rica away game jinx and B) get our first win in this round so as to put us in a good position going into the rest of the games. Instead the Americans came out slow, again unable to maintain possession and almost lackadaisical on defense even in the preferred 4-4-2 setup. The result was a 4-0 shellacking by a team that, while competitive with the USA, certainly is not four goals better than our team under most any other circumstance. It was very obvious that Klinsmann was not able to motivate this team to play their best AND added to the tactical and psychological mistakes made in and after the Mexico match AND the controversial stances that Jurgen has taken during the last couple years including the Landon Donovan World Cup Drama, his comments about MLS vs European experience, his seeming preference for dual-citizen players trained in Europe over USA developed players ………well..the writing was on the proverbial wall.

With the change of national coach coming in the middle of the Hexagonal round, the job of replacing coach Klinsmann took on some definite prerequisites. The next matches are in March and , to be sure, the new coach has one specific goal……to get the United States into the 2018 World Cup. It would be nice if the USA could also have a decent performance at that World Cup, but first things must be first. Given the short preparation time before March the new coach should    1. Be familiar with our present players and prospective players.   2.Be familiar ( being experienced would be even better) with our competition in CONCACAF and the challenges of playing away in their home stadiums.   3.Have experience coaching a national team with its unique circumstances.   4.(Optional but preferred) Know the soccer culture of our country and its ups and downs.                                   This list narrows the number of candidates down to a very few ( like maybe 3) and one just signed a contract to coach in the English Premier League. So that left former USA coach Bruce Arena as the most obvious and possibly only choice. Bruce was the national coach from 1998 to 2006. His record of 78-28-27 , a quarterfinal finish in the 2002 World Cup and an American #4 FIFA ranking makes him the most successful American national coach ever. Arena has a much more subdued character than Jurgen Klinsmann and is known for his seriousness about his craft. He has had overall success at every coaching position he has pursued , but a poor performance in the 2006 World Cup cost him his spot with the national team. He has until March to gain the confidence of the USA team and to put together enough wins to get us to Russia. Lets hope his 2nd beginning as USA coach is successful in accomplishing his singular goal of an American presence at the World Cup in 2018.

arena

 


We’re Better Than We Think We Are : Part 2

Last post, we talked about the formation of our country and our connection with the British and the English language. We related that when the “soccer boom” started in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s most Americans involved in the sport looked to international “football” people as being more knowledgeable and experienced than they were themselves. At that time an American who wanted to learn more about the game almost always used resources from outside our country. Books, seminars, clinics, coaching courses- you name it- they were available and almost always written or conducted by someone from elsewhere. This was understandable, after all the USA had virtually no history in the sport internally and except for one inexplicable victory over England in the 1950 World Cup, no moments to brag about externally. So we read and attended and traveled. Because of our language and culture, most of our learning came from the British. This was ok, after all they invented the game. AND they had won the 1966 World Cup didn’t they? AND they did it with a flair for the unexpected! They ignored traditional formations and tactics and adopting a strategy without wingers and with lots of passing and movement and players coming from behind. It was the soccer equivalent of climbing the cliff at Quebec and beating the French! So they were the best to learn from, at least at that time.

England won the 1966 World Cup at Wembley Stadium

England won the 1966 World Cup at Wembley Stadium

This respect for foreign knowledge and experience developed into a kind of hero worship. We talked foreign soccer more than our own soccer, we adopted British “football” terms even though we had plenty of our own words we could use. We even wore our hair like they did……( ok, we had already begun doing that when the Beatles arrived). Crazy, but I knew Americans that suddenly developed English accents when they started talking about “football”! And there is no worse English accent than an American talking in what he/she thinks is an English accent! We started a pro league , the North American Soccer League (NASL) which garnered a TV contract, drew good crowds in some locations and spent way too much money importing internationally known players. Despite the crowds and TV , the league lost money and so had to cut back on the stars which then cost crowd size which eventually cost the tv contract and that cost the league its existence. But the youth leagues continued to grow and the soccer presence in this country continued to increase.

What didn’t increase was the respect that the average world soccer person gave to Americans who were involved in the sport. I personally experienced “soccer discrimination” many times. International players that I played with often refused to pass to the Americans on the team. I was yelled at several times by English players for being in the wrong place and/or making the wrong move with the ball. This was confusing since I was attending national licensing courses and also learning from some fairly knowledgeable people…like the coach of the NASL champion NY Cosmos, for one. Here I was, discussing tactics with Julio Mazzei who was coaching Franz Beckenbauer , Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, etc. but my learning didn’t suit the guys who had moved here 10 years before and “knew” that Americans didn’t know soccer. As it turned out what they didn’t know was what was happening in world soccer strategies. And they couldn’t believe that an American, any American ,could be more caught up on the sport than they were. The lack of respect wasn’t limited to the British. In one case, my team played a team composed of workers from the embassy of a third-world country whose identity I don’t recall ( I wouldn’t name it even if I did remember). We were located in the Washington-Baltimore corridor, so it was easy to pick up games with embassy teams like El Salvador and Greece, to name a couple that we played. On this day we were warming up and the opposition was laughing and carousing around. They certainly weren’t taking the game very seriously. Our team was about 75% American, but one of our group understood what they were saying. “They think we aren’t any good because we have so many Americans!” , he reported. The game began and the laughing and commenting continued along with a propensity to foul us from behind. The fouls produced some yellow cards from the referee, but mostly it produced gales of laughter from our opponents. We kept our cool and just played the game. They continued to joke about the Americans playing soccer, which was pretty surprising since we proceeded to open a gap between us and them on the scoreboard. At the end we won 5-0 and they still were making fun of our game. This prompted one of our group to comment,” Now we know why the undeveloped countries of the world are undeveloped!”

Of course, today times are different……or are they? Last spring I watched Chelsea play Barcelona in the Champions League at an English pub in Orlando, Fl. I was neutral about the game, but I did appreciate Barca’s  passing and control game far more than Chelsea’s ” kick it up field as soon as possible and outrun the opposition” style. The pub was filled with Chelsea fans most of whom originally hailed from Britain. I sat next to a fine English gentleman who actually rooted for Manchester United, so he wasn’t any more emotionally involved in the outcome than I was, but was a fan of the sport. During the game I was engaged in a “conversation” by one of the Chelsea fans about my knowledge of the game. He objected to a comment I made about Barcelona’s refusal to dive after each slight contact from Chelsea. “What would you know about it?” I explained that I followed the sport, had lots of experience, had coached some very good players, etc. This made no impact on him, he became increasingly belligerent, kept referring to my nationality and finally blew me off with,” oh, go play some baseball!”. I responded by referring to HIS nationality in a very unflattering way, and thus almost suffered a repeat of the Boston Massacre. My new English friend saved the day, but it was apparent that the crowd in that pub didn’t respect American soccer any more than the British seemingly respected anything American 250 years ago.

A Chelsea player goes down vs Barcelona.

A Chelsea player goes down vs Barcelona.

Well, I am here now to announce that a new day has arrived! We are a much-better-than -average soccer nation. Actually,  as of now, this month, July 2013, it has become apparent…..AND factually verifiable, that American soccer-on the national team level- is equal to that of England! Yes, you read that right.

Consider- the USA currently is in first place in it’s World Cup qualifying group- England is second in theirs although they have played one less game than the leader. Of course, one might argue the strength of the groups…..England is second to ………….Montenegro……………who? Montenegro!………………..who? Their group also contains superlightweights San Marino and Moldova. Look, Jamaica is trailing our group, but Jamaica would thump San Marino! Also, our group contains Mexico, who has made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the last 5 times. None of England’s group competitors can make that claim. The under-20 World Cup just concluded and neither the USA nor England made it out of their group. However, there was a large difference in group strength. Our group contained eventual winner France ( whom we tied) , semifinalist Ghana and Spain- considered#1 in the world going into the competition. England’s group consisted of Iraq, Chile and Egypt. None of these are considered strong soccer nations and yet England couldn’t manage even one win. At the same time, the u-21 European championship was held and England went 3 defeats and out. Of course, the last face to face meeting between the USA and England was in the 2010 World Cup. It resulted in a 1-1 draw and after the group phase was done, we had won the group while England finished second. So, based on these recent results, the USA is at least equal to England at this time.

England goalkeeper Robert Green gave up a bad goal to the USA in the 2010 World Cup

England goalkeeper Robert Green gave up a bad goal to the USA in the 2010 World Cup

Are we yet Spain, Germany, Brazil, Italy, Argentina, France? No, not yet, but we are better than at least 190 out of FIFA’s 209 soccer playing nations. So the time has come to stop looking at anybody who plays or even talks soccer and who hails from outside this country like they are an expert. We know our stuff, we have people who know the game as well as most any other country. It’s time to act like it ……and we can start with our soccer verbiage.

We have adopted many English “football” terms. I say that we should use OUR words- they work as well and they are OURS. Look-we know that in England the TV is a telly and that fries are chips and chips are crisps. But we don’t use those terms ourselves. So first of all: the land where the game is played is a “field”, not a “pitch”. Can you imagine the confusion if the movie had been called “Pitch of Dreams”? On the field we play a soccer “game”. Americans use the term “match” for individual athletic contests: a wrestling match, a boxing match, even a golf match. But it is a basketball “game” because it involves teams. When we play a soccer game, we wear a uniform. A “kit” is a group of utensils used for some purpose. Along with our uniform we wear “soccer shoes” or perhaps “cleats”. We wear “boots” when we ride horses or go Texas two-stepping.  If a soccer game ends with the score even it’s a draw or a tie. A tie is NOT a game or a set of two games, not in this country anyway. When we want to see when we have future soccer games we look on the schedule. There we see the dates of those future games. “Fixtures” are things that water comes out of in our bathrooms. If we want to take the ball away from our opponent during our soccer game, we make a soccer tackle ( different than a football tackle). If we get “stuck in”, it’s usually in our car in mud. We play our professional soccer games in stadiums- our “ground” is the land that our backyard is on. And our fast players have lots of speed, “pace” is the amount of distance covered in a set period of time.

Of course, terminology is just one area in which to develop soccer self-respect ,but it’s a start. We are a better soccer nation than we think. And, remember my antagonist in the Orland pub? It turned out that he wasn’t English, he was Scottish, which is a real distinction in British soccer circles. A few months after our “discussion”, the USA played Scotland and the result was a 5-1 thrashing in which the “hapless Scots handed a footballing lesson by Donovan and co.” according to the Mail Online , May 27, 2012. So he can go play some bagpipe!