By: COLIN REESE
The goal of American soccer has always been to close the gap with soccer’s giants by having more technically-skilled American players on the club and international level.
Americans have seen drastic improvement in Major League Soccer since it started, but MLS still displays not enough quality collective play from teams, which stems from a lack of a critical mass of technical and athletic players on each team that can allow MLS teams to really keep possession, display excellent skill on the ball, showcase quality passing, create enough scoring chances, and score.
Without a doubt, the number of technical players that produce something close to high-level soccer has dramatically increased in MLS, and the 2013 MLS season showed a big influx of exciting defenders like DeAnde Yedlin, Chris Klute, Shane O’Neill, and Andrew Farrell. They were exciting not only for their play, but for the prospect of the United States having defenders that could defend well while also possessing good technical ability that allowed them to keep possession and work the ball out of the defense.
There are also skilled American players of various positions plying their trade in Mexico and in Europe.
MLS now has quite a sizeable number of quality American players that are without a doubt international-caliber, but the problem is still that there are not enough of them on each team to allow each team to display the skill needed to deliver games that showcase quality soccer from both teams where the passing isn’t chaotic and somewhat out of control.
Without taking anything away from the players that came before Landon Donovan, Landon Donovan represented the first American soccer player that was born and raised in the United States that actually had the skill-level to deliver soccer that was recognized outside of the United States as technical soccer.
Clint Dempsey was a revelation when he arrived on the scene, and to this day, the United States has never seen an American that can play with the same level of advanced technical ability that truly translates to being effective even against truly elite national teams and club teams.
The problem for Dempsey has been not having enough technically-skilled players on the national team for him to play the brand of one-to-two touch passing that he wants to play. Dempsey often gets stranded in the attack, or he is forced to try to drop back too deep to collect the ball.
The other problem for Dempsey is that at the club level he never really got to play on a team that played the quick-passing style of soccer where he thrives.
Michael Bradley came soon after Clint Dempsey, and Bradley represented the arrival of a very complete defensive midfielder that added a needed midfield piece to the American puzzle that already contained Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan.
Other players such as Geoff Cameron, Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo, and Benny Feilhaber represent the possibility of fielding a Starting XI comprised almost entirely of players of various positions with a high level of skill on the ball.
The key for the United States Men’s National Team going forward will be playing enough of these skilled players together and continuing to incorporate new talents into the national team.
Juan Agudelo, Joe Corona, and Benji Joya are the three most exciting new or young players to arrive on the American soccer scene, and they can be useful on the 2014 World Cup team, if they are selected.
Despite the number of quality players that the United States now has (and many of them weren’t even listed), the United States Men’s National Team is still not demonstrating that it can defend well, keep possession, and consistently score with the current starting line-ups being used, but many of the players now featuring regularly are not the reason for this problem.
The hiring of Jürgen Klinsmann as the coach of the United States seemed to promise an improvement over Bob Bradley who was someone who insisted on starting two defensive midfielders in the center of the midfield with Donovan and Dempsey out wide and with no playmaker, unless he was substituted on at halftime or later.
Bob Bradley never seemed to accept the reality that the United States couldn’t pass well enough and create enough scoring chances when the midfield was comprised of just Landon Donovan, Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey with no creative playmaker to link Edu and Bradley to Donovan and Dempsey and to help Donovan and Dempsey perform better and have enough support in the attack.
An ex-player of Klinsmann’s resumé offered the hope of a USMNT that placed a higher premium on technical ability, and this writer thought that this insistence on not starting a playmaker, which was something that Bradley insisted upon, would be corrected by Klinsmann.
Unfortunately, it was not corrected, and as an American, this really disappointed this writer because before Klinsmann this writer saw the United States steadily improving with more and more quality players needed to fill certain roles.
Even though Klinsmann switched the United States’s formation to a 4-2-3-1, he was more resistant to using an additional creative midfielder to improve the possession and goal-scoring ability of the United States, despite having the space to use two defensive midfielders deeper in the midfield with a playmaker lining up in between Donovan and Dempsey farther up the field.
This coaching decision was a let down because all of the progress that the United States had made in regards to the quality of its possession and passing had faded away as many of the mediocre MLS players by international standards continued to see call up after call up without any attempt to really improve the American Back Four or the passing and attacking ability of the United States.
Although he had John O’Brien’s creativity for the 2002 World Cup and until around 2006, Bruce Arena didn’t really have any true playmakers at his disposal for the 2006 World Cup (O’Brien was on the team but too injured), but Klinsmann does have playmakers that can link the defensive midfielders to the more attack-minded players – but he refuses to use them.
As an American, this writer wants MLS to be a quality league, and this writer wants the United States Men’s National Team to be a national team that is considered technically-skilled and capable of beating top national teams.
At a time when there are a greater number of American players that are skilled on the ball, the United States is capable of producing better soccer in MLS and better soccer at the international level than it currently produces.
The skill-level of American soccer players and the number of quality players has been increasing regardless of the various national team coaches over the years, but MLS and the USMNT must place a greater premium on technical players so there are enough of them on MLS teams and on the national team to produce a level of play that is recognized domestically and abroad as quality soccer.
When this type of soccer is produced, MLS will be a much better and more respected league, and the United States will be able to beat top national teams on a more-consistent basis because the players needed to do both of these things are coming through the American pipeline and being produced in the United States.