In many ways US soccer remains a bastard child. Unwanted by many sports fans in the states, and scoffed at by much of the rest of the world as second class. I generally try to ignore my countrymen who hate soccer. For the rest of the soccer world, I try to present a realistic picture of the current state of things to show they may not be as right as they think they are. This is my attempt, in writing, to show that US soccer may not be there yet, but is heading in the right direction.
I’ll start with the bad news. We still have a long way to go. These are the areas where I think the US is still lacking.
The most obvious and problematic is the lack of dangerous attack. I believe sub-par attacking can be attributed to a few key things. We don’t have a pure scorer to run up top for us. None of the strikers that we’ve run up front in the last couple of years have shown a consistent ability to get into or around the box and create quality shots on goal. Although, we’ve had some strikers that showed a great deal of promise, such as Eddie Johnson, they are still a long way away from being considered a favorable strike option at the international level. We have at least one prospect the US can be hopeful about in Jozy Altidore, but he still fits into the “loads of potential” category until he establishes himself with the full national side and scores some goals for us.
Altidore’s ability to prove himself is going to be hindered by the other two things that I feel are leading to a less than dangerous attack. The first is that we still don’t have someone that consistently adds creativity to the attack. Landon Donovan has gained a lot of attention for his attacking dynamism, but I have to be honest and say I don’t see it. He has shown the ability to be dangerous and create build-up to an attack, but he’s too inconsistent. He disappears from games too often. We need need a player who will make his presence felt every time he steps on the field. Something akin to a quarterback or a point guard. We need a player who controls the middle of the field and has the soccer IQ to know when to break quickly on a counter and when to slow the ball down and possess and build to an attack. In either instance, that player needs to have the surgical precision to play the killer pass that puts the defense in real danger.
The second thing is pretty a simple one. Our service into the box from the wings is too often lacking. We don’t do well enough at finding players in the box to take advantage of good effort getting down the wings or the efforts of strikers or backside wingers who have made their way into the box. Not much more to say than that; its just bad.
There are other holes that need to be filled, but for the most part I think those are the biggest shortcomings right now. Moving on to the positives I see in the direction of US soccer.
The primary thing that gives me hope for the future is the change of mentality that I’ve seen in US soccer since the conclusion of the debacle known as World Cup 2006 for us yanks. I don’t know how much credit should be given to Bob Bradley, but I definitely think he deserves some. I also think some of the folks behind the scenes running the program should get some credit as well.
I think Bradley was very smart to start off his tenure with the MNT by trying out everyone he had available in the player pool to see what he had to work with. His willingness to try new players, unusual combinations of players, or players in unusual positions helped to shake things up enough that it breathed a new life into the program.
There is a new, more assertive mentality about the program in general, as well. We have made a real effort to go out and find competition that is going to make us work for wins, and make us improve. Instead of beating up on CONCACAF teams, we’ve sought out matches with much stronger teams in general, and have scheduled matches in Europe, where we’ve had serious problems in the past, against respectable European countries. Our past FIFA rankings have been inflated by consistently winning against weaker nations. Any positive moves in the rankings will have been more well-earned than in the past.
In addition to the more aggressive schedule, Bradley has also changed the team’s mentality on the field. Against stronger competition we would often bunker in defense and try to win on counter attacks. The Mexican national team fell victim to that on more than one occasion. The last two years, Bradley and the other staff have instilled a belief in the team that we are good enough to play with some of these stronger countries and we don’t have to try to win through counterattacks. Though it may have been a bit brazen at the outset, I think the success we’ve found through playing more aggressively will build even more confidence for us going forward. A bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in the positive sense that belief in ourselves will lead to better play.
My last thought is one that is both a drawback and a positive. There are a good number of positions that are unsettled and the team is relatively green at some key positions. Bocanegra and Onyewu bring seasoned leadership at the center back position and seem to have found a good chemistry between them, and Tim Howard is a standout at goalkeeper. Beyond that, there are a number of questions regarding who will play what position. Donovan and Dempsey seem to be a lock to play whenever they’re available, but its hard to say in what capacity. The center of midfield is chocked full of young talent in Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, and Maurice Edu who show a great deal of promise for the future, but can’t be considered seasoned international veterans yet. Besides those already mentioned, Beasley seems to be the only position lock on the left wing when he’s healthy. This will allow for a great deal of competition at each position, hopefully bringing out the best in each player, but it will likely make for some growing pains until we figure out who is going to play where.
As I stated at the outset, the US isn’t there yet. Given the sports culture in this country, we may never make it to the top of the mountain. That being said, the program is doing the right things to move us in a positive direction to gain more respect and more success in the soccer world.
Written by Erik Anderson.