Category: Klinsmann

The State of US Soccer: A Report Card on the USSF based on an Analysis of the USMNT’s International Tournament Results from 1990 until Today

By @k2thedubs

 

In light of the USMNT’s dismal defeat to Trinidad & Tobago, which knocked them out of the World Cup and gave rise to a plethora of opinions on the state of the USMNT, I decided to perform a rigorous data-driven analysis of the USMNT’s results to crystallize my evaluation of the national team and the USSF.

I’ve undergone a painstaking process to analyze and catalog key data on match details, such as date, location, opponent, manager, line-up, result, and score, from the last 27 years of international tournament competition which included 144 matches across five competitions – World Cup, Confederations Cup, Copa America, Gold Cup, and the Olympics – to assess any trends, good, bad, or indifferent, in USMNT performance.

Without much further ado, let’s dive into the findings and lessons learned, which are as follows.

Many Key USMNT Players Participated in the Olympics and Confederations Cups

The 1999 Confederations Cup team, which finished 4th, featured 8 players who competed in the 2002 World Cup (Friedel, Keller, Agoos, Berhalter, Hejduk, Lewis, Stewart, McBride), and the 2000 Olympics team, which also finished 4th, featured 5 starters from the 2002 World Cup opening game win over Portugal (Friedel, Agoos, Hejduk, O’Brien, Donovan) in addition to Tim Howard and Josh Wolff who started on the bench.

The 2008 Olympics team, which did not advance from the group stages, featured many key players in the 2009 Confederations Cup (Guzan, Bradley, Feilhaber, Kljestan, Altidore, Davies) and 2010 World Cup (Guzan, Bradley, Feilhaber, Edu, Altidore). Moreover, the 2009 Confederations Cup team, which finished 2nd, featured 11 of 15 (73%) starters of 2010 World Cup games (Howard, DeMerit, Onyewu, Bocanegra, Bornstein, Bradley, Clark, Donovan, Torres, Dempsey, Altidore).

Look at those names. A majority of the key players from the 2002 and 2010 World Cup teams gained invaluable international experience in the Confederations Cup and the Olympics leading up to the World Cup.

Lesson Learned – It’s critically important to qualify for international tournaments (duh)!

No Discernible Difference in Manager Performance

The table below displays USMNT managerial performance by competition. As the table illustrates, there is startlingly little difference in results amongst the managers. With the exception of Arena’s second stint as manager (where his only international competition was the 2017 Gold Cup), the five most recent managers all won between 57% and 62% of their matches, lost between 29% and 33% of their matches (with the exception of Sampson who lost 44% of his matches as he did not tie any games), and tied between 10% and 12% of their matches.

State of US Soccer Image 1

I utilized another analysis to analyze managerial performance based on difficulty of opponent whereby I assigned each opponent a tier[1], rating 1-5, based upon the strength of the opponent. Tier 1 represents elite teams who regularly compete to win the World Cup (Top 8 teams: Brazil, Germany, Spain, etc…). Tier 2 represents teams that consistently make World Cups and expect to advance out of the group stages (Top 9 – 20 teams: The Netherlands, Uruguay, Portugal, etc…). Tier 3 represents teams that make World Cups but are not regularly expected to advance out of the group stages (Top 20-50 teams: Poland, Paraguay, Ghana, etc…). Tier 4 represents teams that rarely make the World Cup but are not complete push-overs (Top 50-100 teams: Honduras, Jamaica, Algeria). Tier 5 represents teams ranked outside of the top 100 and are very easy to defeat (Cuba, El Salvador, Grenada, etc…).

State of US Soccer Image 2

Several distinct trends stand out after reviewing this table. First, USMNT performance is strongly correlated with the level of the opponent. The USMNT winning percentage and losing percentage goes from 19% and 76% to 35% and 50% to 49% and 33% to 90% and 7% to 100% and 0% as we transition from tier 1 through tier 5. These metrics show that the US has feasted upon CONCACAF minnows who comprise most of its Tier 4 and Tier 5 opponents, played decently against similar caliber components in tier 3 as it has won approximately half of its matches, and played poorly against stronger teams from tier 2 and tier 1 where it was won approximately a third and a fifth of its matches against opponents from those respective tiers.

In assessing overall managerial performance, as mentioned above, there is no meaningful difference to discern between the managers, though there does appear to be a shifting trend in the composition of recent performance, as evidenced both by fewer wins against tier 1 and tier 2 teams and more losses and ties against tier 4 teams. Since 2007 when Bob Bradley became manager, the US has only won two games against tier 1 or 2 opponents with an overall record of 2-11-2. The two wins both came more than eight years ago with Bradley-helmed teams defeating Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup Final and Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup Semi-Final. Offsetting this underperformance against stronger competition, the USMNT has outperformed against tier 3 opponents with Bradley, Klinsmann, and Arena performing better than their predecessors against this subset.

Lesson Learned – US Managers have performed roughly the same since 1990 based on overall results. Over the past ten years (with Bradley, Klinsmann, and Arena in charge), the USMNT’s underperformance against stronger opponents (tier 1 and tier 2) was offset by improved performance against similar quality opponents (tier 3).

USMNT Performance (and Quality) Has Been Slipping Against CONCACAF Foes

The table below displays Gold Cup results by decade and reveals a sobering trend.

State of US Soccer Image 3

As evidenced by the table above, the USMNT’s performance in the Gold Cup has declined over the past three decades. In the 1990’s, the USMNT won every match besides two finals defeats to Mexico and a semi-final loss to Brazil, none of which can be viewed as a bad result.

In the 2000’s, the USMNT fared well winning three Gold Cups (’02, ’05, and ’07) and 84% of its matches but started to show cracks against CONCACAF foes who previously could not earn a result against the US with ties against Costa Rica and Haiti.

In the 2010’s, the USMNT officially shed its veneer of invincibility against CONCACAF opponents. In a decade where the US faced no CONMEBOL teams in the Gold Cup, the USMNT performed its worse with its lowest winning percentage despite not facing any nations from South America who are more challenging than their CONCACAF counterparts. Additionally, the US struggled mightily with Panama, losing twice and tying twice, and lost to Jamaica.

Lesson Learned – The US is falling behind and losing ground to its CONCACAF opponents.

Some Stereotypes are True (Even Resoundingly So)

The following tables, while informative and revealing, do not demand in-depth analysis so I will keep my discussion brief.

State of US Soccer Image 4

Lesson Learned – Where games are played matter. The US performs best on its home continent (74% winning percentage) and wins less than half of its games on every other continent with particularly miserable results in Europe (7% winning percentage, 1-11-3 record) and South America (27% winning percentage).

State of US Soccer Image 5

Lesson Learned – The confederation of the opponent matters. Similar to playing in Europe or South America, the USMNT struggles tremendously against teams from UEFA (11% winning percentage, 3-15-9 record) and CONMEBOL (26% winning percentage). The US has performed well (though to a lesser extent recently) against CONCACAF (83% winning percentage). The US has a slight advantage in matches against African (5-3-2 record) and Asian (5-2-1) opponents, though the 4-0 Olympic record against Asian teams slightly distorts the record against Asia.

State of US Soccer Image 6

Lesson Learned – There is a stark contrast in performance relative to the level of competition. Said differently, the level of competition, rather than USMNT performance / quality, has been key determinant of results. The table displays a woeful record against tier 1 and tier 2 opponents in all competitions with the exception of tier 2 opponents in World Cups where the USMNT has defeated Colombia in 1994 and Portugal and Mexico in 2002 (more on that later). Overall, the USMT has a good record against tier 3-5 opponents besides tier 3 opponents in World Cups where the US has been dominated (mainly by UEFA teams as well Ghana, South Korea, and Iran) to a pitiful 1-9-3 record.

In terms of the competitions themselves, the US has performed approximately the same in Confederations Cups and Copa Americas, winning approximately 37% of matches, losing 57% of matches, and tying 6% of matches. In the World Cup, results are more dire. The US has won less than 20% of its matches and has lost nearly 60% of its matches. In addition, the US has won only 5 World Cup matches total and will have just 2 World Cup victories to show for the 20-year period following the 2002 World Cup leading up to the 2022 World Cup.

Now that we have discussed the data, let’s interpret the information and draw conclusions.

The Failure to Qualify for Recent Tournaments Prevented Vital Opportunities for Development and Experience

The failure to qualify for 3 of the last 4 Olympics (including 2 consecutive) and 3 of the last 4 Confederations Cup (including 2 consecutive) is an underdiscussed topic and a significant disappointment as many key players were deprived of invaluable tournament experience against international competition. Virtually every key player in the modern era of the USMNT benefited from participation in one or both of these tournaments. The list includes Keller, Friedel, Howard, Agoos, Lalas, Hejduk, Beasley, Reyna, Bradley, Harkes, Donovan, Dempsey, Stewart, McBride, and Altidore and encompasses each member of the top 27 all-time cap leaders.

Pay attention to the age of those players. Only Howard, Bradley, Dempsey, and Altidore have played in one of those tournaments since 2002. It’s no surprise that they have been the backbone of the USMNT over the past decade. There has been a notable void of key players in the shadow of these failures, and the USMNT has lost multiple generations of players through lack of qualification for these tournaments.

The evidence corroborates this conclusion. Besides the 2014 World Cup, the US qualified for the Olympics and experienced Confederations Cup success before each of the World Cups (’94, ’02, and ’10) it advanced out of the group stage. In contrast, with the exception of the 1996 Olympics, the US did not qualify for the Olympics or the Confederations Cup prior to each of the World Cups (’98, ’06, and ’18) it failed to advance out of the group stages.

Though Olympic qualification out of CONCACAF should be a slam dunk for the United States, it has demonstrated a repeated inability to do so, and while it is more difficult to qualify for the Confederations Cup, it is telling that the USMNT’s struggles in Confederations Cup qualification have coincided with declining performance during the same periods. I can’t help but wonder if the USMNT’s failure to qualify for World Cup 2018 would have occurred if they had the experience of playing in the 2017 Confederations Cup, which, lest we forget, was the result of two separate failures – losing the 2015 Gold Cup and losing the 2015 CONCACAF Cup playoff, each to Mexico. Missing these tournaments is a big deal and should not be taken lightly. The USMNT’s recurring failures in qualification illustrate the USSF’s systematic breakdowns in all facets of the game over many years.

The Player Pool Has Weakened Over Time

Contrary to popular opinion, I believe the findings of my analysis demonstrate that the player pool has weakened over time. I will concede that the pool has more depth (with more players in contention for roster spots), but the top 15 players has absolutely weakened. Please refer to the table below which shows the starters by positional group for matches at the 2002 World Cup, 2010 World Cup, 2014 World Cup, and 2017 World Cup qualification loss to Trinidad & Tobago.

State of US Soccer Image 7

Let’s first evaluate each positional group before delving into discussion on the teams by vintage. In terms of goalkeeper, it’s mostly a wash as Friedel compares similarly to Howard in 2010 and Howard in 2014, though 2017 Howard is clearly the weakest of the bunch. In terms of defenders, there’s not a huge disparity amongst the four groups, though I’d contend there’s a declining trend from 2002 to 2017 (though it’s arguable that the 2014 group is superior to the 2010 group).

In terms of midfielders, the 2002 group is clearly the class of the bunch with Reyna in his prime, a healthy O’Brien and in-form Mastroeni, Stewart, Lewis, and Beasley.  The 2010, 2014, and 2017 renditions all feature players who epitomize the weakness of the top-end of the player pool. Clark, Torres, Edu, Davis, Zusi, and Arriola are all well below the standard internationally. Also, note the lack of quality wingers and 1-v-1 ability in the 2010, 2014, and 2017 (besides Pulisic) midfielder groups.

In terms of forwards, the 2002 group is once again the top group. McBride, Donovan, and Mathis formed a potent trio and provided three unique scoring threats with Wolff adding some verve off the bench.  The 2010 and 2014 groups are particularly dire. In hindsight, Findley and Gomez were nowhere near the level required for a World Cup, and Altidore was goalless in four starts in 2010. In 2014, Altidore was injured in game one and Dempsey was left as a lone forward, further illustrating the lack of reliable attacking options. 2017 Wood and Altidore were mercurial more than dependable but they comprise the second strongest group of forwards.

This analysis is quite revealing. The 2002 World Cup team is clearly the strongest, boasting the best group of forwards and midfielders with arguably the best goalkeeper and defenders of the bunch. Moreover, this group was far more balanced, well-rounded, and devoid of glaring weaknesses that beset the 2010, 2014, and 2017 teams. 2002 had strong center defenders, up-and-down outside backs, box-to-box midfielders, wide midfielders, and multiple forward options. The 2010 team lacked speed, width, and dynamism in attack. The 2014 team lacked creativity in the midfield and struggled to generate quality attacking chances. The 2017 team combined many of these flaws with the addition of overreliance on Pulisic to create and score goals.

Opportunism (Rather Than Any Material Uptick in Performance) is the Basis of Greatest Successes

I discussed in greater length here, but I will provide a quick overview of the opportunism that went the USMNT’s way in each of its greatest successes of the past 27 years.

1994 World Cup (Advanced to R16) – The US i) won 1 game (2-1 over Colombia), ii) played as the host nation, and iii) advanced despite finishing third place in its group.

2002 World Cup (Advanced to QF) – The US i) won 1 game (3-2 over Portugal, which nearly blew 3-0 lead) in the group stages and ii) laid an egg in its final game (1-3 loss to Poland, who was already eliminated from the tournament) only to be saved by a late South Korea goal vs Portugal.

2009 Confederations Cup (Runner-Up) – The US i) won 1 game (3-0 over Egypt) in the group stages, ii) lost twice badly in the group stages (1-3 to Italy and 0-3 to Brazil), and iii) advanced on the heels of an extremely favorable result (Brazil 3-0 over Italy).

2010 World Cup (Advanced to R16) – The US i) won 1 game (1-0 over Algeria with Donovan goal in stoppage time) and ii) secured a vital point vs England where a Dempsey shot from distance fell through the goalie’s hands.

2014 World Cup (Advanced to R16) – The US i) won 1 game (2-1 over Ghana) and ii) was thoroughly dominated in games against Germany and Belgium.

I wrote the following in the article linked above.

“It’s interesting to note that both highs (2002 World Cup and 2009 Confederations Cup) were only made possible by extremely fortuitous occurrences in the group stages. Had South Korea not beaten Portugal or had Brazil not beaten Italy 3-0, the United States’ two shining moments would never have occurred and the United States tournament results would appear quite bleak. “

“…the U.S. did not play two, let alone three, complete matches in any of the group stages of the five tournaments analyzed (World Cups in 1990, 1994, 1998, 2006, and 2010), proving two key points. One, these tournaments are tough, grueling affairs that are as much about survival as playing perfect soccer. It is rare for any team, aside from the superpowers, to play three complete games in the group stages of any major international tournament. Two, the U.S. has been nothing more than a slightly-above-average team, capable of beating great teams but equally capable of struggling against weaker teams.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I’d like to revise and clarify the aforementioned statements. Related to the first paragraph, I think it’s vital to emphasize that the USMNT’s two shining moments would never have happened if not for two extremely fortuitous results outside of the USMNT’s control. Related to the second paragraph, I would revise slightly above-average team to average team and reframe the closing point. The USMNT can beat a great team (in the sense that it has happened occasionally in the past) but there is no evidence to support the notion that the USMNT is capable of consistently competing with the best teams or is making up ground against the top 20 teams in the world.

In contrast, the evidence points more convincingly in the other direction. The US has yet to play an international tournament where it has single-handedly earned advancement. Let that sink in. Sure, the US has advanced in past tournaments but it’s entirely plausible (as outlined above) that the US could stand in 2017 with never having advanced from the group stages of an international tournament if not for a few surprising (to say the least), fortuitous results and one or two lucky bounces.

Takeaway / Parting Thoughts

While I have limited my discussion in the preceding sections to the empirical evidence, my findings, and conclusions drawn, I will allow myself to editorialize in my closing paragraphs.

The consensus punditry and media opinion that the US is improving is specious and divorced from reality. The USMNT has yet to play three complete performances in the group stages of any international tournament in the modern era. Given the sample size, this is not a fluke. This is a pattern. This is indicative of the quality of US soccer and an indictment of the program and the notion of “progress”. I think this is unacceptable. We should not be content with the past 27 years of results and the current path the ship of US soccer is on. The potential in our country is enormous and it is being squandered by the USSF.

While I recognize the loss to Trinidad & Tobago and failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup has served as a wakeup call for the common fan, in reality, the writing has been on the wall for years. The underlying issues have persisted under the reign of multiple managers and scores of different players so the common denominator is the powers to be at the USSF.

Based on the findings, the USSF deserves significant criticism. The USMNT has failed to qualify for the most recent World Cup, 3 of the last 4 Confederations Cups, 3 of the last 4 Olympics, and multiple youth national team tournaments in the past decade and a half. Furthermore, the USMNT has only beaten two top 20 teams in the world in a competitive tournament in the past fifteen years and has demonstrated a deterioration in performance against regional opponents in the Gold Cup. This article and these damning statistics focus solely on the results and do not delve into the style of play, which can best be characterized as pragmatic, rudimentary, and unimaginative, or the inability to produce international-caliber players.

For a country of our size, resources, and interest in soccer, these results are indefensible, especially when considering the strength (or lack thereof) of our region relative to the rest of the world. For Gulati and the USSF to claim growth and progress is inaccurate (our growth trails the rest of the world so by growing more slowly we are falling behind) and misses the big picture.

The potential in this country is immense and has been artificially stifled by the monopoly that is the USSF who are denying and turning away billions of dollars (literally!) of investment to preserve the exclusionary, closed system that has stifled any meaningful progress relative to the rest of the world.

We have often been told to “build a better mousetrap” (here and here). Without dwelling on the inauthenticity or disingenuousness of that remark, I’d respond no. The USSF has monopolized soccer in this country for too long and actively prohibits someone from building a better mousetrap. We need to open the soccer ecosystem (yes this means promotion and relegation) in this country. Exponential growth will only come from opening the soccer pyramid where billions of dollars of investment and true market incentives will spur actual change. We should demand so much more from our country. We should demand more than a fluke ability to defeat top teams. We should demand an equitable market that allows access to everyone and permits the cream to rise to the top.

[1] The full breakdown of opponents by tier is available and can be provided if requested. Moreover, I put in a significant amount of time compiling this data and am happy to share with anyone who would like to use it. This information is all factual, and, frankly, the dialogue surrounding the USMNT and the USSF can be enhanced if more people are exposed to and digest the data.

 

Follow @k2thedubs for more

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World Cup on the Horizon

Came across this promo for the World Cup today and it reminded me of the atmosphere at the Gold Cup of Summer 2013.

Let’s set the scene.  It was an overcast Baltimore day, hot and humid in late July.  On the docket was a Gold Cup quarterfinal doubleheader with the US of A to play second.  There was a sea of red, white and blue adorning the streets leading to the stadium, but mostly because the other teams playing that day were Honduras (blue and white), Costa Rica (red, white, and you guessed it…blue), and El Salvador (blue and white).  The CONCACAF region clearly does not recognize other colors.

The gates of the stadium were opened and a sea of people rushed to find their seats for the 4-5 hours of soccer to come.  The American Outlaws had reserved three sections right behind the West goal.  Aside from a few other US fans scattered throughout the stadium, that was the entire cheering section for the Yanks.  It took until about halfway through the first game for all three sections to be filled with US fans, it took quite a few police officers to explain (in Spanish I assume) that if your ticket says nosebleed section you need to leave.  Most of them didn’t leave, as if they could hide amongst a bevy of Uncle Sam hats.

The first game was boring and muted.  Honduras won 1-0 over Costa Rica, and the Honduran fans celebrated like they both won the World Cup that day, and had somehow defeated the United States.  Neither was true, but kudos to their enthusiasm, albeit a little misguided.

The second game was magnificent.  The US took a 2-1 lead into halftime and it felt as though the game was being held in El Salvador.  Roughly 10-15% of the fans were cheering for the US, and 5% of those fans were Honduran good guys.  If you want to experience being a USMNT fan, I suggest you experience the Gold Cup in 2015.  The Gold Cup is the best competitive international soccer tournament that the USMNT plays on U.S. soil with the exception of World Cup qualifiers.

The second half: a unique experience.The lead held in the second half thanks to some fantastic work from a rejuvenated Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson.  It started to rain, and the USA rumbling got louder and louder.  The Central American fans, unhappy that capitalism (#MURICA) was raining on their parade, tossed every drink and bit of food/garbage down from the cheap seats.  The chants got louder.  The rain fell harder.  The goals kept coming. 5-1 America.

Eventually the disgruntled El Salvador fans ran out of 8 dollar beers to throw, and the final whistle blew.  Everyone was soaked and began to exit the stadium, but the American Outlaws kept chanting.  They sang songs, shouted chants, and eventually they did a roll call as the USMNT players thanked them for their support.  They stayed until the stadium was uncomfortably empty, and then proceeded to sing as they exited the stadium.

If you are an American soccer fan that wants soccer to succeed in America, then you should find your local AO chapter and join.  Every member helps, and it’s the first step to enjoying a truly American soccer experience at the next USMNT game.  Well worth it the next time you see the USMNT play and get to lose your voice with fellow soccer lovers.

http://www.theamericanoutlaws.com/

https://www.facebook.com/americanoutlaws

 

CONCACAF Match Day 5: USMNT Recap and Other Ruminations

USMNT

First and foremost, let’s talk about that impressive, dominating 90-minute performance from the Americans. It’s difficult to recall a match where the ‘Nats took control of the game from start to finish and squeezed their opponent into submission so exhaustively. The Panamanians, aside from one or two chances against the run of play, did not pose any consistent threat to Tim Howard and the U.S. defense.

From a tactical perspective, the Canaleros (“the Canal Men”) came out putting numbers behind the ball, as expected, and looked to catch the U.S. on the counterattack. The U.S. were well-prepared and confident, exercising patience as they probed the defense and picked their spots in making the incisive pass to break down Panama. For the first 25 minutes or so, the U.S. was a bit sloppy and off rhythm in the final third, unable to connect on their final penetrating passes. However, as the ‘Nats worked themselves into the game and as their confidence built, they grew sharper and more clinical around goal. Both goals, and DaMarcus Beasley’s shot off the post, left the Panamanian defense helpless and showcased the potency of a free-flowing U.S. attack. Moreover, do not understate the importance of scoring the first goal early because the goal forced Panama out of their shell and opened up the game for the Americans. In the second half, the Americans controlled the game and choose the right moments to attack and build their lead against the overextended Panamanian defense.

While USMNT fans should be nothing short of ecstatic after witnessing a thorough take-down of a pesky opponent, I think it should be noted that a performance like this raises the bar, both for better and worse. For better, this games illustrates that the U.S. can play in the proactive approach, predicated upon keeping possession and attacking the defense for 90 minutes, that Klinsmann promised to implement upon his hiring. For worse, however, the collective expectations of all USMNT fans has risen, and rightfully so. While the U.S. is not going to transform into Spain overnight and a gulf still exists among the U.S. and other soccer powers, this game proves that the U.S. does not have to rely on counterattacking and exploiting set pieces when playing top teams around the world (though these strategies are still useful). Do not expect the USMNT to perform at this level in every match, as the team will undoubtedly face ups and downs during its ascension, but a match like this is a critical step in raising the level of play for the USMNT.

From a Panamanian perspective, they sorely missed Blas Perez, their mercurial, prolific striker, who could have tested the U.S. backline. With the exception of Alberto Quintero, no Panamanian player consistently threatened the U.S. defense, and Quintero seemed more interested in drawing a penalty than scoring or setting up a goal for himself. USMNT fans, note that this Panama team had not previously lost in the Hexagonal round and is no slouch. All in all, the key takeaways from the match are the many superb individual performances, the phenomenal, uplifting Seattle crowd, and the continued strong decision-making of Jurgen Klinsmann. Now, here are my player grades.

Tim Howard – 6.0 – While I believe the whispers of Brad Guzan being ready to assume the #1 Goalkeeper spot are premature and unfounded, Tim Howard has not been his dominant self the last few games. While he earned the clean sheet and made one strong save, Howard looked indecisive in not coming off his line on the Panamanian goal that was narrowly offside.

Brad Evans – 5.0 – I am still a fan of Brad Evans, but I think this game brought him down to Earth, especially coming off the heroic stoppage time goal versus Jamaica. Alberto Quintero gave Evans fits down the left side before switching over to the right side, and Evans was a step slow in stepping to his man on the pass that sprung Panama’s offsides goal. Evans had some nice moments distributing the ball, but, overall, his match was up and down.

Omar Gonzalez – 5.5 – Omar Gonzalez was mostly absent from the match, which is always a good sign for a defender, but, on one of the few plays where he was challenged, he completely lost his man who was streaking into the open space in the box behind him. While Gonzalez continues to grow and develop, it is vital that he learns to eliminate these mental lapses that seem to happen 1-2 times a match.

Matt Besler – 7.0 – For the third consecutive match, I believe Matt Besler outshined his centerback partner, Omar Gonzalez. Besler is rock-solid and plays with the poise of a defender who has been through the qualifying gauntlet numerous times. Besler made several strong tackles in the box to break up crosses and distributed the ball well from the backline.

DaMarcus Beasley – 6.5 – Making his sixth consecutive start, Beasley put in another strong, sturdy performance for the ‘Nats. While Beasley was beat badly by Quintero on one play when he switched over to the right side of the field, Beasley played very well otherwise and nearly scored a goal on a surging run forward, reminiscent of the Beasley of old.

Eddie Johnson – 6.25 – The hometown hero made a terrific run to time Geoff Cameron’s pass and calmly finished past the Panamanian goalkeeper. Besides his well-taken goal, I thought Eddie played decently but slowed the ball down on a few U.S. attacks, which broke up potential goal scoring sequences. I don’t think he played well enough to displace Graham Zusi from his position on the right side of the midfield.

Michael Bradley – 8.0 – My man-of-the-match. Bradley’s continued growth and development has been extremely satisfying to watch. Already one of the best midfielders in CONCACAF, Bradley is still improving and showed his class all night. Bradley worked tirelessly and sprayed the ball all over the field. His beautiful cross field pass to Dempsey catalyzed the Beasley near-goal, and his booming runs forward, including the one that started the first goal, consistently created dangerous chances for the U.S.

Geoff Cameron – 7.5 – Alongside Jozy Altidore, Cameron was the second most impressive player for the U.S. Cameron and Bradley completely controlled the midfield and owned their Panamanian counterparts in every capacity. Cameron tackled extremely well and was a calming influence in the center of the park, demonstrating surprising comfort despite his somewhat limited experience in that role. His pass to spring Eddie Johnson was perfect. Klinsmann must love the versatility that Cameron provides.

Fabian Johnson – 6.5 – Fabian Johnson showed marked improvement over his previous performance versus Jamaica. Johnson worked the left wing for the U.S. all game and delivered a perfect cross for the first U.S. goal of the game. I still think Johnson can be more consistent and impose himself on the game more frequently, but he is a promising player that showed his talent versus Panama.

Clint Dempsey – 6.0 – This rating shows the high standard Dempsey has set for himself. While Dempsey displayed glimpses of brilliance and showcased budding chemistry between him and Altidore, he was a bit out of sync the whole game. However, it should be noted that his surging near-post run pulled the defense apart to allow Jozy to finish the first goal.

Josy Altidore – 7.5 – How about scoring a few goals to boost your confidence? Altidore was a beast last night, getting involved often and providing excellent hold-up play. Altidore appears to have an insatiable appetite for scoring goals and extended his consecutive scoring streak to three games. While Altidore did a good job of getting involved, I still think the U.S. can do a better job of finding him, which is a scary thought for the rest of CONCACAF.

Seattle Crowd – Seattle USMNT fans, you were absolutely incredible last night and deserve to host many more matches as soon as possible. It was truly breathtaking to hear every chant of the raucous crowd through our TV sets, and I think I speak on behalf of every American soccer fan when I say that hearing the “We’re going to Brazil” chant emanating throughout my living room was my favorite USMNT crowd moment of the past decade.

Hexagonal Thoughts

After the completion of the first five matches, the Hexagonal is beginning to take shape. Having lost to Honduras, Jamaica is essentially all but eliminated and has reduced the competition to five teams competing for 3 (potentially) 4 spots. Following the loss to the U.S., Panama faces an uphill climb to qualify for its first World Cup, as it has three remaining matches on the road and faces group leaders, the U.S., at home. The U.S. has put itself in very good position, leading the group with 10 points after the first 5 games (3 of which were on the road), and can extend its lead with a win over Honduras next week, which would avenge its opening loss to Honduras in the first game of its Hexagonal campaign.

I would be remiss if I neglected to speak about Mexico. Firstly, what is happening to Mexico? They have yet to score in three home matches, much to the frustration of their fans, which boiled over into complete chaos when Bryan Ruiz, the Costa Rican captain, was hit in the head with an unidentified object as he attempted to take a corner kick.  It goes without saying, but there is absolutely no place in the game for actions like this. Players’ safety should not be endangered while they are playing. While I encourage each and every nation’s fans to cheer as loudly as possible to create a hostile environment, Mexico has taken it too far. On a similar note, Mexican fans’ affinity for shooting laser pointers into the eyes of opposing players is disgraceful. Perhaps if their team was playing better, they would not have to resort to such immature behavior. Finally, FIFA is planning to review this game and may prohibit Mexico from hosting future games at their storied stadium, the Azteca, so keep an eye on that development.

Looking Forward to Honduras

The U.S. has worked itself into excellent position as it heads to Salt Lake City to take on a Honduras team that handed them an opening loss at the start of their Hexagonal campaign. USMNT fans will be eager to see the U.S. build upon their sterling performance versus Panama and avenge their opening match loss to Honduras. With a week’s rest and no known injuries, Klinsmann should have a full squad at his disposal, leaving him with some interesting decisions to make.

Will Klinsmann:

1. Rest any regulars to offer a chance to other players and/or prevent suspension from yellow card accumulation?

I believe Klinsmann will field the strongest lineup possible and look to earn three points at home to cap off an excellent three match qualifying series.

2. Continue to use the backline of Evans, Gonzalez, Besler, and Beasley for the fourth consecutive game?

I believe Klinsmann will maintain his backline, despite an uneven performance from Evans versus Panama.

3. Replace Cameron and Johnson with their predecessors, Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi?

I believe that Zusi will reclaim his spot in right midfield over Eddie Johnson. The Geoff Cameron situation is more uncertain. He played well enough in Jones’ stead that Klinsmann may elect to keep him in as Jones recovers from the concussion he suffered versus Jamaica. Another possibility, although more unlikely, is Klinsmann replacing Evans with Cameron at right back.

That’s all from me today. Add any comments below if you’d like to discuss any of my thoughts in more detail.

America Needs a Holden Midfielder

         When Jurgen Klinsmann arrived he came riding a wave of hope and good favor. After the reign of Bob Bradley, Jurgen managed to say all the right things to uplift the US soccer fans. According to him, his coaching style would promote possession-based soccer and a sustained attack, not the hard-nosed defense and counter-attacking that Bob Bradley had favored. US soccer fans, most of which have become enamored with the style of soccer promoted by Barcelona in recent years, saw this as an opportunity for the US to change the make-up of its ingrained style of play. If Jurgen was successful, then the US could finally compete regularly with the rest of the world.
         It’s been about two years and there are varying opinions on whether Jurgen is on the right path to achieving his goal. None would agree he has come close to achieving it, but there are those who think he was given too much credit when he was hired while Bob Bradley has not given enough credit for the US successes achieved during his tenure. At some point the wave of hope Jurgen has been riding will crash onto the shore and recede into the ocean and there are those who wonder whether it will leave anything of importance in its wake?
         Making excuses for Jurgen has become a habit for US soccer fans to excuse the USMNT failures during his time in command. However a lot of these excuses have a basis in fact. The small-talent pool of the US is a big factor into why Jurgen has had, and will have, trouble changing the style of soccer the US plays. Not every soccer player is capable of playing the style of soccer Jurgen wishes to implement so he will not have a wealth of choices. The possession based, attacking-style type of soccer Jurgen wishes to build must be implemented from the ground-up and the only way to replicate it at the senior level is to be able to utilize those players who can fit into his system. Club coaches like Brendan Rodgers can acquire players such as Joe Allen and Phillipe Coutinho to fit into his system but Jurgen cannot. The loss of one or more skilled players can be impossible to replace. Fans have seen what the loss of Landon Donovan has done but very few have been able to notice how the loss of Stuart Holden has affected the USMNT.
         Stuart Holden was one of America’s fastest rising stars. He rose through the ranks of MLS to earn a spot on the Bolton Wanderers who were playing in the Premier League at the time. During his second year he was an integral part of the team and helped them earn 7th place in the Premier League. Unfortunately, he suffered a nasty injury from a tackle by Manchester United’s Johnny Evans that caused an anterior crucial ligament injury that would rule him out for 6 months. However, even though Holden would miss the final two months of the season he was still awarded Bolton’s 2011 Player of the Year, such was his importance to the team. Stuart Holden would arrive back for the 2012 season before aggravating the injury in his first game back and missing the rest of the season. Bolton would then get relegated and there were many who believed Bolton’s relegation was due in large part to Holden’s absence.
          Stuart Holden has had terrible luck with injuries. In addition to his knee complications from the Johnny Evans tackle, he also suffered a  broken leg before the 2010 World Cup. Although he was on the roster for the World Cup in South Africa, it was clear he had not fully regained match fitness and thus only featured in one game as a substitute. Holden was already starting to gain a reputation that rivaled Dempsey in the Premier League before his rising career was tragically stunted. As a result, not only has Jurgen been deprived of his talent, but Bob Bradley had been as well. Michael Bradley is an extremely talented center midfielder but the US has no one else of his quality in their central midfield depth chart. Torres and Kljestan are skilled technical players but they are not explosive players while Danny Williams and Jermaine Jones are not technical enough. Stuart Holden at his peak was a technically gifted player, who contained great vision and composure which gave him a great knack for igniting an offense. His combination with Michael Bradley would have provided the base on which the USMNT offense could be built. They would have been the distributors who provided the link between the defense and the offense.
         A soccer team that wants to rely on a possession-based offense needs players that are skilled enough to make the right passes and hold onto the ball. The US has a small pool of technical players on the pitch who need to do a large part of the organizing of the possession-style of play by moving across the pitch to collect the ball and redistributing it. These players are essential to the flow of the attack. Similar to how a general would strategize during a war the central midfielders in this speicfic type of offense must dictate when and where the ball must go depending on the placement of the opposing player personnel. In fact, this is part of the reason Michael Bradley earned his nickname “The General” while playing in Italy because he was so adept at organizing the offense. His importance for the USMNT has become more and more apparent these past few years where his composure on the ball has helped maintain an offense that has struggled mightily at times. He is no longer just the defensive midfielder he was during his early years. Unfortunately, the US has no one to pair with him.  Dempsey is not the answer because his offensive skill set cannot be wasted by running around the pitch looking for the ball while Landon Donovan is better suited on the wing. Every good general needs a second-in-command. If Stuart Holden can recover from his injury and regain his form then our general can finally have his second-in-command. That missing cog could revolutionize the American attack right before the 2014 World Cup. In other words, Stuart Holden needs to regain match fitness and form as soon as possible because the US attack will make a drastic improvement with his return.

USA Passes Massive HEX Test

This year’s Hexagonal is closer than in year’s past. There is no shot that after three games any of you reading this would have placed Panaman atop the group and Mexico currently out of Brazil 2014.I bet you didn’t have Jamaica at the bottom either. This year’s Hex will have no shortage of drama down the stretch. But that is down the road. I’m here to discuss the masterclass that wasn’t and the pesky Americans that went into the Mexican version of a gladiator arena and came out alive and unscathed.

A point is a point is a point. Expectations going into Estadio Azteca are always hindered by a multitude of factors including projectiles thrown from the crowd, high altitude and a Mexican team that is virtually untouchable at home. But the USA caught them at the right time. Mexico has zero wins and zero losses coming into this game. After a less than impressive performance saw them draw a not overly impressive Honduran that fought back from a 2-0 deficit to take a point at home. The USA found themselves riding high after a spring blizzard found the Colorado air and propelled them to a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica. It was not a pretty victory but it didn’t have to be. Anything to get the USMNT a vital three points.

So move on to match day and three hundred questions remain lingering in the air. Who will the back four be? Who steps in for injured Jermaine Jones? Will the incrdible run of injuries in the USMNT be too much of a challenge? Can Guzan be the man of the hour? When will Jozy Altidore get off the mark for his country? And lastly, will Landon Donovan suddenly parachute into Azteca for the start of the match and score the game winner? (WE ALL HOPED THAT HAPPENED)

And there it is, the whistle blows and off goes the madness. 100,000 screaming fans counting the passes of a Mexican side that enjoyed incredible spells of possession especially in the first half and a USA that looked better. I use such an awful, undescriptive word because that is excellent what they were. The USMNT were organized, they were relatively disciplined and they didn’t try to fight fire with fire. They weathered storm after storm after storm and took solace in whatever possession they were given. I think it was obvious that Mexico was looking to expose Beasley early and often. They might have had success had Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler been out to lunch but they were locked in and smart in their movement. The coverage they provided as a unit was impressive and integral to the USMNT backline suring up any mistakes from the midfield.

Alas, Mexico was clever in the attack and decisive with their movement, something that is difficult to cope with for an inexperienced backline and especially impossible for an inexperienced backline trying to defend the likes of Chicharito and Giovanni Dos Santos. But as of late, Mexico has had trouble finding the all important match winner as in apparent in their recent record. This was largely due to timely interceptions and blocks from my Man of the Match Michael Bradley.

Michael Bradley must have felt that his father was about to win a WCQ with an Egypt national side that has dealt with more adversity than half of the rest of the world’s international teams combined. Bradley’s time at Roma has helped him mature as a player and that is exactly what the USMNT needs. He is mature beyond his years and showed it last night with simple passing that helped keep the US team in possession. He made timely tackles and was the most consistent player on the pitch. His role as a back four buffer and combining midfielder were played to a T. He was a major reason the USMNT found a draw last night.

Lastly, Brad Guzan is on fire. He always seemed to be in excellent position. His feet were quick and his hands even quicker. When called upon he was absolutely stellar.

Even though this was a makeshift squad for the United States, some performances will not help make Mr. Klinsmann’s job any easier. These performances helped the USMNT to a week that they needed, a week that saved Klinsmann’s job and kep the USMNT at the forefront of qualifying for the next world cup.