Sunday 21 June ~
It’s been a torrid week for the USA at the Confederations Cup, but it’s been even worse for their fans back home. It’s rare for US supporters to catch a glimpse of their team against tough opposition outside of the actual World Cup finals, and this week’s games were eagerly anticipated as a measure of the USA’s current quality. Following their usual success in Concacaf qualifying, the team had risen to number 14 in this month’s FIFA rankings. But the conclusive defeats to Italy and Brazil have only confirmed what we all already knew about the world governing body’s stat-generated table – it doesn’t mean a thing when you’re faced with Robinho running at you.
As long as the US is chugging away with victories over Honduras and Jamaica, no one takes much notice of them. So doing well at the Confed Cup this week was not just important from a results point of view. Only when the team performs well against major football nations can the US fan silence the condescending European who still insists the Yanks are second rate, and at the same time make the sceptical majority at home take note of the team’s slow but steady ascendancy on the world stage. That worked well when beating Portugal and Mexico at the 2002 World Cup. The problem now is that the team seems to have taken several steps back. They weren’t just beaten by Italy and Brazil, they were outclassed in every respect, all over the field. What was supposed to be a dry run to warm up for the big occasion next year has instead brutally exposed an outfit that barely looks fit to compete in terms of pace, desire, aggression, flair and basic technical ability.
There are already calls for the sacking of coach Bob Bradley, a cautious man who has stuck to the same formations with the same players and same dour but effective tactics for the past two years. All his work has been blown out of the water by this week’s maulings. And to think we could have been spared those tedious games we sat through, telling ourselves that grinding out 1-0 away wins in Cuba and Guatemala was all for the greater good. A new coach would now have only a year to rebuild confidence, while instilling new ideas and faces before next summer’s World Cup. As a warning shot, the Confed Cup may at least have saved the US from humiliation in a year’s time, but the lack of attacking imagination suggests they will have their work cut out to score more goals than they’ve done here so far (one penalty) and at Germany 2006 (one own goal and one goal from open play).
It’s telling that Ricardo Clark and one-time Celtic target Sacha Kljestan, the two US midfielders red-carded this week for late and reckless challenges, as well as Pablo Mastroeni against Italy in 2006, all play in Major League Soccer. It’s not a bad league, but it certainly doesn’t prepare players for opponents like Italy and Brazil. Their ill-judged tackles not only handicapped the team, they reflected the significant leap needed for MLS players to perform well at international level. But goalkeepers aside, this generation of US players has found it hard to impress while playing abroad. Their best player this week, Landon Donovan, has been unable to establish himself in the Bundesliga and returned to MLS after all three attempts. Young hopes such as Jozy Altidore (Villarreal, then loaned out to Spanish second division team Xerez) and Freddy Adu (Benfica, then Monaco) haven’t been able to get off the bench. But then Fulham regular Clint Dempsey has been awful in South Africa too. Perhaps he’s just plain tired. He certainly looked it.
You might be asking, why should we care? It’s because the US should be much better than this by now. There is a massive footballing infrastructure, albeit one in need of serious reform as long as it’s hampered by the obsolete college system. It boasts a wealthy federation, an emerging and expanding league, and the potential to produce a team that ought to feature regularly in the latter stages of the World Cup. In short, a team that could justify that high FIFA ranking. With the right leadership, the evolution of the US into a major football nation is not merely possible, it’s inevitable. However, this week has proven that news of its progress has been much exaggerated. Just like a decade ago, the USA still merely merits being graded as one of the best two teams in Concacaf. Ian Plenderleith