Witnessing a 4-1 annihilation at the hands of an Irish team starting exactly none of its players from a 1-0 defeat to Scotland in the latter half of November, fans of the United States Men’s National Team saw a year that began full of promise and excitement end in severe disappointment. The team, having inspired a nation and many across the world with its pluck and grit during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, displayed precisely none of the traits that so endeared it to its fans at home and across the globe.
And so, with much more of a dying wheeze than a roar, 2014 ended for the senior men’s team with many more questions than answers for a 2015 highlighted by a Gold Cup which could see automatic qualification to the 2017 Confederations Cup should the United States emerge victorious. That is for the future, however. In 2014, the United States posted results ranging from a Camp Cupcake win over South Korea to an utter demolition via the Irish, resulting in a year marked by hope, promise, disappointment, and ultimately little in the way of progress towards the stated goal of elite status under Juergen Klinsmann’s guidance.
On the field and off the field, 2014 was a year of change in the American soccer sphere, with effects that will have long- and short-term repercussions.
In 15 matches during the 2014 calendar year, the United States managed a mediocre record of 6 wins, 5 losses, and 4 draws, hardly the mark of an elite soccer nation. Were the United States to have accomplished this record against a schedule entailing teams in the upper echelon of the soccer world, a review would be far less grim.
Yet, the United States’ best win in 2014 was a 1-0 nail-biter against the Czech Republic in the first match played after a heart-wrenching extra-time loss in the first knockout round of the World Cup to the Red Devils of Belgium. Its worst loss was the final match of 2014, where defensively the United States was in complete disarray, and the offense remained inconsistent and toothless.
In deploying in yet another 4-4-2 variation, Klinsmann once more refused to commit to his preferred 4-3-3, yet another step back from the progress he has so vociferously touted as being necessary to achieve elite status. As has been discussed earlier, 2015 requires a complete revamp of the American game on the senior level, not a few tweaks to the existing structure. Especially in defense, the American national team is disorganized and struggling to find its way.
The aging of Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu’s unfortunate injury dissolved the most stable and effective centerback pairing the United States had available prior to the 2010 World Cup, and in the years since. Players such as Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, John Anthony Brooks, and others have all been trotted out for a look, only to disappoint. Some, like Brooks, are young and still struggling to become established in the first team of their clubs.
Others, like Gonzalez, are known commodities that, for one reason or another, have been demonstrably unsuited for a leading role in the defense. As it stands, the United States seems to have found its cornerstone at leftback in Greg Garza. Garza is young, talented, playing first-team soccer with his club, and looks set to improve with time, having gone from invisible prior to the World Cup to a multi-game starter in the matches after. Centerback is an area that needs to improve. Dramatically. The aforementioned players have all struggled to seize a starting role, including the club level for some.
Besler has worn down remarkably fast after a solid first half of 2014, showing signs of severe physical fatigue and making mental errors at an alarming rate. Gonzalez dominates the air and little else, and Orozco remains a fringe starter with little chance of achieving a higher ceiling.
In a familiar turn of events, rightback has become a tad unsettled, with Fabian Johnson having missed a large portion of the 2014 season thus far due to injury, while Timothy Chandler continues to be maddeningly inconsistent for club and country. DeAndre Yedlin, the soon to be Hotspur, has shown flair in the attack, but must work on his defending to seize a spot in the starting lineup that seems tantalizingly close. The recent run of late concessions in the latest friendlies are disturbing as well, though that is as much an effect of team effort as individual performance.
In short, the defense under Klinsmann, as under his predecessor, needs to be much stouter.
Offensively, the United States trended down on the whole over the course of 2014. In 15 matches, American players scored 2 goals in a victory or draw 7 times, 1 goal 7 times, and were held scoreless once in the loss to Germany in Brazil. Even when in form, the United States never scored 3 goals in a match in 2014. Not even once.
Against an array of opponents with a wide range in skill, the offense’s only consistently apparent trait has been ineffectiveness. Overall, in 2014, Americans scored 20 goals, which sounds average at best until the realization hits that these were sprinkled across 15 matches. This trend worsened as the year went on, rather than improving.
In the past seven matches, the United States has scored a paltry six goals against competition highlighted by Germany and Colombia, and lowlighted by teams such as Honduras that lack serious status in the soccer pantheon. Juergen Klinsmann has done his team no favors with constant tactical tinkering while essentially waiting on reinforcements to emerge from the U-23 and U-20 ranks. Prior to the World Cup, the United States looked fairly dynamic with an in-form Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey providing the thrust of the attack.
Upon the American ouster from Brazil, however, the United States has suffered remarkably. This year saw the retirement of the most productive, talented, and mercurial figure in American soccer, Landon Donovan. The loss of his creativity, pace, and finishing skill is a blow that will take time to recover from.
There are players in the wings to replace him, yet 2014 featured no goals for the great Donovan. In fact, very few Americans scored at all in 2014. Jozy Altidore led the way with four tallies, Dempsey, Diskerud, and Wondolowski tied with three goals apiece, and no other American scored more than one goal over the course of the year. This is from a team that managed to advance to the first knockout round of the World Cup.
In contrast, England, a team that failed to get out of the group stage at the world cup and is currently mired in qualifying for Euro 2016, is led by 8 goals from Wayne Rooney, closely followed by 5 for Danny Welbeck. Overall, England scored 23 goals in 2014, to the aforementioned 20 of the United States. Hardly a glaring difference in tallies, until one realizes that England played a full three fewer matches than the United States in 2014. Not exactly a resounding endorsement of the American attack.
Exacerbating the lack of balls in the net is the current dearth of emerging attacking talent in the pool. Certainly, there are more than a few prospects who demonstrate promise in the pipeline, yet there are no truly transcendent offensive players in the mix for the senior team or toiling in the youth ranks. Rubio Rubin showed a great deal of promise in his shift against Colombia, yet at 18 still has plenty of obstacles in his path to securing a place in the American starting 11.
His place at FC Utrecht in the Netherlands, however, is a perfect arena to perfect his skills without overwhelming pressure to be the next great hope for American soccer. This, in fact, should be a stepping stone for all American attacking players. Rather than settling for an academy slot in one of the more high-profile clubs in Europe, first-team soccer where playing time and opportunity are abundant should be the first step for aspiring starlets.
Assuredly, first team at Grasshopper Club Zurich is a far cry from any team in the Eredivisie, so players hoping for a spot in Europe should refrain from taking opportunities that do little to truly prepare them for the top European leagues.
Finally, we move into the state of American soccer off the pitch.
Despite the signing of an extraordinarily lucrative television deal that should have far reaching effects, 2014 will be known for the great schism between the manager of the American national team and the rest of the domestic professional community. Or, at the very least, the powers that be in Major League Soccer.
The vociferous lamentations flowing from the mouth of Juergen Klinsmann at the return of several American stars to MLS, from the English Premier League, Serie A, and Turkish Super Lig, provoked an uproar that is still surging through the American establishment. Don Garber, the esteemed commissioner of MLS, took exception with the notion that his charges were fielding an inferior product, as well as the perceived gall of Klinsmann to suggest returning home might not be in the best interest of the development of American professional players.
As it stands, an uneasy détente has settled over the landscape, with small conflicts still erupting from time to time. Looking forward, little in the way of real change seems to be on the horizon. Klinsmann has yet to apologize, and a great portion of the American soccer community remains alienated at his comments, despite protestations to the contrary.
Setting aside the discussion of who might be right, and why, the fact remains that 2015 will be a watershed year as more change is coming for the United States’ men’s national team, not less. The model that Juergen Klinsmann promised has yet to be brought to fruition, and a spate of poor showings such as the final matches of 2014 will make his position as manager much more tenuous, especially with the Gold Cup approaching. Even more troubling than Klinsmann’s spat with MLS as a whole was the folding of Chivas USA as a soccer entity.
The disappearance of Los Angeles’ second club is the direct result of a mismanagement at the highest levels of MLS, and a complete lack of investment by the team’s parent club, Chivas Guadalajara. While expansion is an exciting prospect, the collapse of Chivas USA is a warning against teams relying upon a parent organization for their sporting success. Chivas USA was hardly a threat to be much more than an easy win for opposing clubs on a consistent basis throughout its existence.
MLS must be cautious as it continues to add franchises, since the dilution of an already shallow talent pool will serve to cheapen the American soccer product, not launch it into elite status. On a more positive note, the major development of 2014 comes front and center in the form of $90 million per year in television broadcast rights to Major League Soccer.
To put that sum in perspective, the 2 teams that recently took part in the MLS Cup Final had an estimated combined player payroll of sum $20 million. The importance of television to any sport cannot be overstated, even in an age of increasing online content. Hockey, once a feature of ESPN’s broadcasting schedule, has been relegated to the background, intensely followed by its hardcore fans, yet not attracting new fans in nearly the numbers that soccer has.
Adding more games to the broadcast schedule will only increase the visibility of the league, while the money resulting from these broadcasts has tremendous implications for the development of MLS as a league and American soccer as a whole. Ideally, this will also have a tremendous impact on the development of American players, leading to the production of more international-grade stars, rather than fringe players that display grit in abundance, rather than skill.
Overall, 2014 has been an odd mix of upheaval mingled indistinguishably with the status quo. The effects of 2014 will surely make for an interesting 2015. And, hopefully, an ultimately more successful year as well.