World Cup Woes

Randy Ollie, Sports Editor

While the next World Cup is more than two years away, the United States is in desperate need for a team identity, as well as a consistent starting lineup.

After a disappointing 2–0 loss to Guatemala last week by the United States Men’s National Team, American soccer fans were left scratching their heads in a state of utter bewil­derment. Even disregard­ing that Guatemala was ranked 95th in the world in comparison to the US­MNT’s ranking at 32nd, the United States looked completely out of sorts. Playing an unconventional lineup with only two mid­fielders and starting two players who see little to no time on their respec­tive professional teams, the USMNT showcased all the symptoms of a team lacking any kind of core identity.

On Tuesday, the US­MNT responded with a commanding 4–0 win against the same Guate­mala squad who had put their World Cup aspira­tions into question less than a week ago. But while American soccer fans can breathe easy for the mo­ment — the USMNT’s next World Cup qualifiers are against two teams they have already beaten and won’t be scheduled for months — there are still many questions that re­main unanswered for the future of America’s male national squad.

Namely, what is the identity of USMNT? The last two matches against Guatemala should serve as template for what works versus what doesn’t. For example, opting for a ques­tionable midfield scheme and an aging goalkeeper wasn’t nearly as effective as having three midfielders — including a defensive mid­fielder — and a goalie in relatively bet­ter form. Criticisms of the inconsistent lineups have been at the core of the dis­satisfaction for Head Coach Jurgen Klins­mann, who took the helm in 2011.

During his tenure, USMNT has changed its lineup 80 times in 82 games. Granted, iconic USMNT Head Coach Bruce Arena changed lineups 129 in 130 contests during his career, and Klins­mann’s predecessor Bob Bradley simi­larly changed his lineup 77 times in the 80 matches he coached. While lineup changes are nothing new for U.S. soc­cer, the difference lies in that past teams have had a much more identifiable core group of players whose consistent play necessitated only minor lineup changes at the weaker positions. Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Oneywu, Steve Cherundolo, Michael Bradely, Landon Donavan and Clint Dempsey were all household names during the 2010 cycle before Klinsmann got the top job. Looking ahead to the 2018 World Cup, Dempsey will be 36 and Bradley will be 31, and most other significant players will be around 30 or older.

For all of Klinsmann’s talk of finding the right formations, tactics and person­nel to deliver results, the real problems lie not in the current stock of players but rather in the future of USMNT. On Tues­day, the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team was defeated by Colombia 2–1, the latter claiming the last spot in the Summer Olympics in Rio, Brazil. This marks the second straight Olympics in which the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team will not participate, their last ap­pearance having been in Beijing in 2008. This, more than anything, should be what concerns people the most about U.S. soccer under the Klinsmann regime. Scarier than an exit in the first knockout round of the 2014 World Cup or an em­barrassing loss to Guatemala is the fact that the future of the USMNT will rely heavily on a group of untested, underde­veloped and undertalented players.

Klinsmann has invested a lot in the idea that there is a great surge of young talent coming up through the youth pro­grams that he implemented, but com­paring the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team to their Colombian counterparts tells a different story. Almost every starter on the Colombian side had made over 50 professional appearances in South America’s top leagues, in compar­ison to the U.S. lineup in which only two starters have made more than 50 club appearances. Both of these players did so in Major League Soccer — a league whose talent pool is severely lacking in comparison to the average European or South American competition — so their professional experience is minimal at best.

USMNT has the 2016 Centennial Copa America Tournament to look forward to this summer, as well as World Cup quali­fiers against St. Vincent and the Grena­dines and Trinidad and Tobago. With only a handful of matches left, the squad is in a race against the clock to figure out what kind of team will compete in the 2018 World Cup. More pressing than aging players and an inconsistent coach is the severely lacking developmental league. If the USMNT wants to go from just another beatable team to a team to beat on the world stage, then it’s imper­ative that the youth program is heavily scrutinized and corrected immediately.