Thursday, March 21, 2013

The USMNT: Double, Double Toil and Trouble

Let's set the record straight on something before we even get started. Brian Straus's article on the United States Men's National Team, which appeared earlier this week on the Sporting News website, was a well written, relevant, timely, and pertinent piece of journalism. The only way I can be convinced otherwise is if someone steps forward with evidence that Straus fabricated all of those anonymous quotes and has a secret voodoo shrine above his fireplace dedicated to the professional ruination of Jurgen Klinsmann. To all the rabid fans out there calling for blood, the team isn't going to win or lose based on an article written by a responsible journalist. The story was there. He reported it.

It's the intervening days since the article was published - the actions of the players and Klinsmann himself - and the looming dates with Costa Rica and Mexico that are the real stories now. So what do we have?

Well, unless, as I said before, Straus pulled all of those anonymous quotes from thin air, the USMNT has a legitimate chemistry issue. Klinsmann, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, and Herculez Gomez have all stepped forward in the last 48 hours and engaged in the time honored tradition of athletes everywhere by saying the right things to the media about team spirit, mutual support, and focusing on the task at hand, ostensibly the match against Costa Rica.

Back to the wall. Klinsmann's theories need to become results.
 Reading between the lines a bit, and given that none of the aforementioned players suggested that there was no substance to the quotes in the Straus article, one can assume that the chemistry issues are being addressed in the locker room. Unfortunately, the likes of Dempsey, Bradley, and Gomez will have to handle this issue themselves as elder statesmen and universally respected leaders Bocanegra and Howard are not in Denver through injury and form respectively.

Which leads to another strange and troubling chapter in this rapidly developing saga. What's the deal with Carlos Bocanegra? He was given an entirely unexpected spot on the bench for the loss to Honduras in a match that was crying out for senior leadership and experience in the defensive third. This week he was stripped of his captaincy and dropped from the squad altogether. To his credit, Bocanegra has been his usual classy, well-spoken, and mature self when addressing these issues to the media, but one has to wonder what is going on behind the scenes.

Bocanegra is no spring chicken and Klinsmann is right to be vetting viable alternatives in the US defense, but there has to be a middle ground between ignoring the problem and Klinsmann's chosen hell-bent-for-leather path of throwing the spring lambs to the wolves. Klinsmann has suggested that Bocanegra's lack of form with his club is the reason for his recent exclusion from the squad, but time and again Klinsmann has strayed from this guiding principle by either including an out-of-form player or excluding a player on a hot streak.

This sort of inconsistent decision making and incongruity between speech and action is exactly the sort of behavior for which Straus's article criticizes Klinsmann and it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that he and Bocanegra had some sort of disagreement regarding the direction of the team. That's purely conjecture and I could be totally off base, but the treatment of Bocanegra seems to have everyone doing that little sideways, ear pricked head tilt Golden Retrievers do when they hear an unfamiliar sound.

Thrown into all of this is the embryonic backfiring of the Germans-as-Americans experiment begun under Bob Bradley and taken to Weapon X proportions by Klinsmann. Again, everyone is saying the right things. Klinsmann has said, "I believe Americans are Americans no matter if they grow up in Japan, South Africa, or Buenos Aires." While this is a politically correct thing to say, true for the American diaspora, and generally a good thing, what the USMNT is dealing with right now is in no way general. It's very, very, very specific and it involves importing players who may be American in paperwork only to be lynchpins on a national team that has seen its greatest successes come through the emotional unity of being an American underdog.

Yes, the USMNT has fielded players in the past - Thomas Dooley, David Regis, Ernie Stewart - who essentially became American by donning the national team jersey, but those players came into the squad as individuals and were quickly assimilated into the team ethos. By contrast, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams, Terrance Boyd, and to a lesser extent Jermain Jones, have all come into the USMNT at the same time. It's tough to see how they could not not form a clique, if not out of perceived superiority then certainly out of common experience and a language barrier.

And now Klinsmann has named Clint Dempsey captain for the next two qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico. This is another Golden Retriever decision for me. It's not that I don't think Dempsey is deserving of this sort of honor, but that, given his form and recent injury issues at Tottenham (again with the club form thing) and Michael Bradley's emergence as a vocal, world class midfield motor, I would have thought Bradley would be a shoe in. Dempsey is more of a get on with it, silent, chip-on-the-shoulder type and perhaps Klinsmann is hoping this will rub off on the rest of the team, but I can't help but think those anonymous sources of Straus might be throwing their hands up at this decision as further proof that Klinsmann is a master tinkerer with very little end product.

So now it's do or die time. At the bare minimum, the USMNT has to get at least a point from these next two matches. Realistically, they have to get three. I don't see the current state of the side remaining unclear after the Costa Rica and Mexico matches. The Straus article and the panicked attention it has brought to the team will result in either a backs-to-the-wall, us-against-them stand that sees the USMNT through these next two fixtures and well on the way to a galvanizing qualification campaign, or the Yanks will implode in a spectacular show of underachievement and caustic finger pointing clouded in a haze of ambiguous and impotent Klinsmann platitudes.

When will we know?

When the hurlyburly's done, when the battle's lost and won.      

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