CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Sunday, October 16, 2011
Whenever there's a regime change, the tendency is to expect quick and positive results, despite logic indicating that there will be a steep learning curve and necessary time lapse for the adjustments.
If a country can't be changed in a new direction overnight, then we surely can't expect a soccer team to be any different.
It has taken Manchester City three seasons of trial and error to finally get firing on all cylinders and become the powerhouse that they, on paper, should have been the moment they were purchased by the Abu Dhabi Group. Each season they have gotten better and better, until they became at present, one of the most dangerous teams in the world.
The United States National Team isn't Manchester City. Few of the American players generate a comparable paycheck to City's bench, let alone their starters. Transfer fees of the best American players are dwarfed by the sums that are paid for mediocre European players, for whatever reasons that we won't get into here.
Despite the U.S. not being Manchester City, there's similarity in the change of styles that are being produced in England and are being practiced here: A transition from defensive minded, counter-attack soccer into a dynamic, fluid possession based attack. It was not an easy transition for City, and it's proving not to be an easy transition for Jurgen Klinsmann's team either. Three losses, a draw, and an unconvincing win over an habitual mid-pack CONCACAF team is not an impressive beginning for a new regime. Despite the lack of winning results however, it's not time to panic.
Keep in mind, this truly is a change in the regime of the U.S. National Team. When Bob Bradley took the reins from Bruce Arena, there was no real change in philosophy. Same when Arena took the reins from Steve Sampson, and when Sampson took the reins from Bora Milutinovic. The quality of players has, for the most part, improved, but for two decades of modern American soccer, or two entire generations of international players, the prevailing philosophy in U.S. soccer was to defend, counter, and in the earlier years just hope for the best.
That philosophy isn't going to change overnight, over the course of one camp, three camps, five friendlies, and probably not over a several month period. But it will eventually. The quality of players is there, and the U.S. National Team pool has something that All Star teams produced by overwhelming amounts of money can hardly ever replicate: Chemistry.
Chemistry should never be underestimated; it can be the decisive factor between what should, on paper, be a blow out loss, and an underdog victory. There's a certain amount of luck to be found in those results, but as the saying goes, we make our own luck, and a team that has chemistry can seemingly manufacture luck and good fortune out of thin air at times.
Team chemistry will ultimately be what allows the National Team to conquer the steep learning curve of a new system in a more timely fashion. There were already flashes of it on display over the past two games against Honduras and Ecuador, with nice buildups from defenders resulting in goal scoring opportunities. The team played much better than it did against Costa Rica, and especially against Belgium. Even without Romelu Lukaku and company playing up to their ability, that game was a fiasco with the Americans ultimately looking like they took a wrong turn in Albuquerque.
It's always irking to hear that these early tenure results don't matter, because they clearly do. If they didn't matter, then Klinsmann and company wouldn't be under the scrutiny, however small it may be for now, that they currently find themselves under. Every game is a piece of the big picture puzzle, and every player needs to be evaluated to see how they fit into the system that's being employed by Klinsmann. That said, these early losses definitely matter, but not in the sense that Klinsmann's head should be on the chopping block if they don't turn around by last week. They matter as a yard stick to see how quickly and efficiently the team is progressing under the new philosophy.
It has taken Manchester City three seasons of cleaning out their player pool and changing their philosophy, and also dealing with the locker room poisons of temperamental divas Robinho, Carlos Tevez and the most recent headcase, Mario Ballotelli. It won't take the United States nearly that long to get things on track. The one major positive that they have had through the years is that they fight for each other, and they share the underdog mentality that, when used correctly, can result in very impressive performances.
The recent results are a cause for concern if looking singularly at them as being under Klinsmann's watch, but the string of bad results goes back much further. During 2011, the U.S. has been shut out five times, lost to Panama for the first time ever, and scored only 13 goals in 15 games. Four of those goals came from strikers, and one of those was a Teal Bunbury penalty kick.
Like offense, defense has also been a huge issue in the past but actually seems to be looking better, especially now that Oguchi Onyewu is back in top form. It can be safely said that Michael Orozco cannot play at the international level, and Tim Ream still has miles to go before he can be trusted to single handedly defend an opposing forward. Those are lessons that needed to be learned the hard way to prevent any ‘what if' scenarios.
Onyewu's return is the most welcome news that the American defense has had in years, and aside from a few brief lapses from failed player experiments, it's not been a catastrophe under Klinsmann. The current defensive form has been improving on the lapses that lead to so many early goals in the past two years.
In the 10 games that Bradley coached in 2011, the opposing team scored three times within the first 20 minutes of the game. The U.S. went on to lose each of those games. Similarly, in 2010, Bradley's defense gave up five early goals in 14 games. It doesn't seem like a lot, but falling behind in the first 20 minutes 33% of the time is not a good stat. In comparison, Klinsmann's defense has only given up one goal in the first 20 minutes of the five games that he has had. That goal, coincidentally, is the only first half goal given up. It may not mean much right now at this early stage, but it will be a stat to keep an eye on.
It takes time to reverse a slide like the one that has been going on, and the new regime's philosophy is to not just stop the slide, but to completely change the playground. It takes belief in the system and a new cadre of players, which Brek Shea is leading the charge with. Klinsmann will one day be able to throw the two best American field players together at once, in Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Come Qualifying, Stuart Holden should also be in the mix, barring another catastrophic injury. With those three pieces playing together, alongside a reinvigorated Michael Bradley, the results will come.
The next slate of friendlies will be in Europe, with a date in Paris on November 11 with France as the first confirmed. Those will be important games to see how much progress has been made from now to then, and judging by the way things have been going, there will be yet more improvement. Maybe we'll even see a few goals. It's not time to panic. Yet.