Well, most U.S. soccer fans have their man. Jürgen Klinsmann is the coach.
But now what?
To me, that’s a question that U.S. soccer fans need to answer. Now what do you expect? More specifically, what is a reasonable expectation for the U.S. national team?
Should it eventually be a contender for each World Cup title? A threat to make the quarterfinals? Happy just to be at the World Cup?
I wasn’t a Bob Bradley supporter, but the U.S. did advance to the round of 16 at the last World Cup. To me, that’s about the best you can expect from a U.S. team. Certainly, the bar was set with the 2002 team making the quarterfinals, but that’s probably an aberration for the United States.
So why is the coaching change good for the United States?
Because the U.S. has not performed like the CONCACAF superpower it should be.
While the U.S. won its group at last year’s World Cup, it was an incredibly easy draw. Certainly England is a powerhouse, but Slovenia and Algeria are nowhere near the level of the United States. Going into the World Cup in South Africa, the U.S. would have underachieved had it not advanced from its group.
And yet, that’s what nearly happened. A Landon Donovan wonder goal against Algeria saved the U.S. from an embarrassingly early exit. Instead, it won the group, thanks in large part to a terrible showing by England.
That’s been story of American soccer for way too long: glimpses of brilliance, the occasional awful game and a lot of mediocre play.
Consider the 2009 Confederations Cup. The U.S. only got out of its group because Italy suffered a horrible 3-0 defeat to Brazil. If that game ends 2-0, the U.S. never upsets Spain in the semifinals, and that was the signature moment of Bradley’s tenure as U.S. coach.
In the span of 10 days at that tournament, the U.S. was crushed by Italy 3-1 and Brazil 3-0 in group play, then found its mojo and beat Egypt 3-0 before ending Spain’s unbeaten streak at 35 games.
The Jekyll-and-Hyde play carried through to World Cup qualifying. The U.S. was thumped 3-1 at Costa Rica, needed a very late equalizer just to tie Costa Rica at home, tied at El Salvador and only won at Honduras when it missed a penalty.
That inconsistent play in CONCACAF is why Bradley had to go. It wasn’t an anomaly. At this year’s Gold Cup, the U.S. lost at home to Panama, and that’s unacceptable.
The United States has far too many resources not to be a dominant team in the region. It’s understandable that Mexico will challenge the U.S. for supremacy, but the rest of the nations are minnows. They lack the finances and/or pedigree to be a serious challenger in CONCACAF. And if you are truly a soccer power, you don’t struggle against those lesser teams, regardless of where the game is played.
So that’s Klinsmann charge: take U.S. soccer to that next level, where making the World Cup is assumed and any CONCACAF game that’s not against Mexico is an expected victory. (This likely means improving the coaching staff, upgrading the youth system in this country and instituting a new philosophy on the game; but that’s for another time).
Then when the U.S. gets to the World Cup, a reasonable expectation is advancing from group play. I’m not saying it has to happen every time, because you never know how the draw is going to turn out. Hey, a “Group of Death” can happen to any team.
But when the U.S. gets a favorable draw as it did last summer in South Africa, we should anticipate advancement and not hope for a goal at the death against a weak African opponent.
U.S. soccer is better than that, and it’s time to show it.
| Pete Grathoff, firstname.lastname@example.org