FOX Soccer Exclusive
Questions outnumber answers for USA
Performance at the World Cup is the ultimate and only truth in international soccer. This summer’s tournament in Brazil is the zero-sum end game to Team USA’s efforts and aspirations. How they do there will vindicate or invalidate all else. Fair or not, the merits of their body of work over the last four years will be judged against three games or maybe four -- or, in a dream-scenario, five? -- against unforgiving opposition.
With about five months remaining until the USA’s World Cup opener against Ghana, however, the questions facing the Americans far outnumber the answers.
In Germany, Portugal and the aforementioned Ghanaians, Jurgen Klinsmann's side has drawn just about the toughest group it could. The Germans are serious title contenders -- favorites even, along with Spain, Argentina and the hosts. Portugal are an experienced and talented team spearheaded by the freshly minted Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo. Ghana, meanwhile, is easily Africa’s deepest side and the Black Stars knocked the Americans out of the last two World Cups -- in the 2006 group stage and 2010 round of 16.
In terms of travel, the USA has it worse than anybody. Hopping cross-country from their base in Sao Paulo to Natal (to play Ghana), Manaus (Portugal) and Recife (Germany), they will traverse nearly 8,900 miles. To put that in perspective, Belgium, drawn into Group H, which will cross over with the USA’s Group G in the Round of 16, is only looking at 1,200 miles. And, unlike the Americans, they will avoid the heat of the north and the malarial tropics of Manaus. But these problems inherent to a country that is ill-suited and frightfully underprepared for this tournament are hardly all of it.
There are other challenges, most of which are self-made. When head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was appointed in July 2011, he was tasked with lifting the program to a higher plane. He has dutifully strived and pushed and experimented. Trouble is: he hasn’t really stopped.
Klinsmann has employed so many personnel that continuity has become an issue. In 2012 and 2013, his two full years in charge, he used 49 and 48 different players, respectively. The annual January camp for domestically-based players and its traditional bookending friendly skew those numbers a tad. But the fact is that the back line has been a revolving door for much of the cycle. And the team’s spine of Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard has never started together under Klinsmann, often for reasons outside Klinsmann’s control; yet sometimes on account of his choices.
In fact, those six have shared the field for just 41 cumulative minutes, all of them coming back in June 2012, when Altidore came on as a substitute in three consecutive games. This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself. They have 537 US appearances between them and know each other well. But it underscores a culture of incessant change. Klinsmann called up 26 players to his ongoing January camp, nine of whom have never made a US appearance.
When others might be whittling down their World Cup roster candidates, Klinsmann is trying out a fresh batch of new ones. And while his concern for the future is justifiable, the time for fine-tuning the side that will have to deliver the goods this summer is dwindling. Only the 48-hour international window ahead of the March 5 friendly date remains to pull together his first string before the preparatory camp for the World Cup convenes sometime in late May.
The playing style, meanwhile, still feels muddled -- perhaps because of the rampant turnover. Klinsmann has talked frequently and elaborately of the more modern and assertive high-pressure style he’d like to see -- as opposed to the Americans’ traditional bunker-and-counter -- but the current product has felt like a hedged hodgepodge of both the old and the new. It’s been plenty successful continentally, helping the USA set wins and winning streak records, reclaim the CONCACAF Gold Cup and qualify for the World Cup with some ease, but how it will hold up at soccer’s big dance is hard to project.
Several players have come back to the stateside Major League Soccer from Europe in recent months, either cashing in on well-above-market-rate contract offers or taking refuge there after their careers stagnated abroad. Dempsey and Bradley did the former; Clarence Goodson, Carlos Bocanegra and Michael Parkhurst the latter. Maurice Edu is reportedly on the verge of doing the same. With nine potential starters and a slew of backups and fringe players now active in MLS, the age-old question of whether the level of domestic competition they will face week to week will prepare them to share the field with Ronaldo must be re-litigated.
A few days after the Dec. 6 draw, Klinsmann signed an extension to his contract, due to expire after the World Cup. He was inked through the 2018 edition of the tournament. The United States Soccer Federation insisted that the deal had been verbally struck before the US was stuck in a brutal group. But the message gleaned is that a searching US program might not yet be ready to compete on the world stage. That Klinsmann’s performance was being couched in mitigating factors pre-emptively so as to avoid difficult questions about his position later.
And given what the answers to the team’s many questions might be, that seems wise.
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