Spend enough time in American soccer circles, and a casual fan will inevitably ask why the United States hasn't produced its own Lionel Messi. Which, of course, is an absurd question. The little Argentine followed a truly unique path to his otherworldly greatness, one that no country's soccer program could hope to replicate. If they could, Spain and France and England and Germany and North Korea and everyone else would have done so.
A better question, perhaps, is why a nation with the most youth soccer players on the planet has not produced another Landon Donovan. Or, expanding the scope a bit, why no youth class has matched the 1999 one that included Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, and Oguchi Onyewu, which finished fourth at the 1999 U-17 World Championship. Add Clint Dempsey, who is roughly the same age but was not a part of the initial Residency class, to the list, and you get the most prolific group in American soccer history.
Part of the issue is the cyclical nature of soccer development. "There was something special about that class," Tony Lepore, the Under-15 coach (not the Dancing Cop), says, adding that their early success did give some much-needed momentum to the fledgling program. Still, while the Bradenton, Florida–based group has expanded from 20 to 40 players, and has seen teenagers like Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu, and Michael Bradley pass through, it hasn't produced the same level of quality as that initial Donovan-led class.
When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the United States men's national team in the summer of 2011, United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati tasked the former German star with two objectives: (1) qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and (2) remake the American program in an effort to turn a middling soccer nation into something resembling a world power.
Twenty months into the experiment, Klinsmann has succeeded in some areas and failed in others. It's been a battle, partly because those two goals come into conflict with each other. The need to win now butts against the development of players for the future. The head coach talks about imposing a system of high-pressure soccer, complete with skillful, one-touch passing. But changing a style and a culture while raising the overall level of talent takes time. And time is a luxury the squad doesn't have if it plans to reach Brazil '14.
The fly-in, fly-out nature of international soccer creates a scenario in which an entire season's worth of emotional highs and lows can take place within the span of a week. (In that regard, the whiplash emotional condition of the collective American fan base doesn't help matters.) Eight days ago, the United States national team found itself desperately in need of a victory, down a no. 1 goalkeeper (Tim Howard) and its top four fullbacks, and reeling from revelations of possible dissension in the ranks. Fast-forward to Wednesday morning, and the Americans sit in fine form, perhaps the highest they've been since last August.
Panic is mostly a matter of perception. The situation before the United States men's national team took the field at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Friday night was this: With eight matches remaining in a 10-game tournament, the Americans — who hadn't lost a home World Cup qualifier since 2001 — were a single point out of second place in the six-team Hexagonal. They were playing at home in front of nearly 20,000 pro–Stars and Stripes supporters including 2,000 American Outlaws, the largest contingent ever. Jurgen Klinsmann's team was favored. Hardly a dire predicament.
And yet, the general mood in the reactionary, overblown world of U.S. soccer was that it was time to freak out. The sky was falling, ever faster after a midweek article in the Sporting News cited 22 anonymous sources who spoke about the coach's lack of, well, coaching, and factions within the squad. The mood was tense. The red, white, and blue — down four fullbacks and their no. 1 goalkeeper, no less — were in trouble.
On Wednesday, Bayern Munich and Málaga joined six other clubs in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Watching the games made me wonder how the United States national team would do if it were dropped into the group stage of the tournament. Would the Americans be able to finish in the top two of a four-team group featuring the Continent’s strongest sides?
I asked Earnie Stewart, former American midfielder and current technical director of Jozy Altidore's AZ club. Quite fairly, he more or less told me it was a ridiculous query. "They are not a club team. It's so very hard to compare international teams to club teams," he said. "It's totally different. The way you play. The responsibilities are different. Plus, there's the fact that it's something that's never going to happen. We're never going to have a national team in a club tournament."
Fair enough. Stewart — who has an actual, important job in soccer — has better things to do with his time than speculate about hypothetical tournaments. You know, like run a team. I, however, do not. So I set out to find an answer with the help of a couple of soccer journalist friends. (See: That thing about not having real jobs.)
The initial response was that the Stars and Stripes would struggle. "If you dropped the U.S. in and they hadn't trained together, they would get destroyed," says Zac Lee Rigg. "I think most national teams would. The World Cup is not as good quality as the Champions League is."
Before the United States men's national team starts each formal practice, the players warm up in little groups. They juggle, getting touches, and chatting with each other. On one portion of the green pitch, you might see youngsters Juan Agudelo, Josh Gatt, Terrence Boyd, and Joe Gyau sharing a multicolored Nike ball. Fifteen yards away, German Americans Timothy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, and Danny Williams pass and speak in their native tongue, while the Mexican American contingent — Herculez Gomez, Jose Torres, and Edgar Castillo — one-touch in a triangle. Elsewhere, Mix Diskerud, Jozy Altidore, and Maurice Edu chat about life in Europe. It's a relaxed environment, one you would expect to see on soccer fields across the country and the rest of the world, a place where friends play with friends and young men with similar life experiences gravitate toward each other.
The question is how, if at all, the varied backgrounds, languages, and experiences affect the American team. Is there a danger that the cliques will present problems on the field? I asked Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi, who parlayed a breakout performance during the 2012 January camp into a few World Cup qualifier starts and a leadership role during the '13 traditional session. "In my experience, it's been alright," he says. "All the guys are from all different areas, but we are a group that gets together pretty well. I think it's a very good thing to have a mix of youth and veteran leadership."
Eight days ago, the United States men's national soccer team fell, 2-1, in Honduras to open the final round of 2014 World Cup qualification. The defeat was notable for a few reasons, one being the fact that it was the first meaningful Hexagonal round match that Landon Donovan's missed in more than a decade. The tepid performance on the field, which saw the Americans lack the spark of creativity so often brought by the team's all-time leading scorer, renewed calls for Donovan to once again don the Stars and Stripes. Someone even started a White House petition calling for President Obama's intervention in the matter. (The initiative looks destined to fail. As of this writing, it had 36 signatures, 99,964 short of the number needed to spur action from the Oval Office.)
The first United States men's national team friendly of every new year is a predictably strange affair. It comes at the end of a long training camp and features roughly two dozen tired guys, the vast majority of whom are not first-choice players for the USMNT. Many of them are not even second or third on the positional depth charts. The group traditionally consists mostly of players in between Major League Soccer seasons, as well as a few assorted refugees from teams in one of the Scandinavian leagues that take a long winter break so their fans don't freeze while watching a mid-January match. It’s a moment to make impressions — sometimes first, sometimes final.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann called the typical gathering of players this year but attempted to add some gravitas to the month-long affair that culminated with Tuesday night's abysmal 0-0 draw against Canada. His reasons for doing so were both practical and ideological. For one, the Americans are in a slow transition at a few key positions, as both the in-flux center back situation and the uncertain status of Landon Donovan are creating a number of problems.
The United States national team finished 2012 with a record of 9-2-3, tying the best calendar year showing in the modern era. They qualified for the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification. They beat Italy and Mexico on the road, and tied Russia in Russia. They found some talent — Graham Zusi, Geoff Cameron, and Danny Williams, especially — and brought back some more (hey, Eddie Johnson). Jurgen Klinsmann's troops suffered setbacks, as well, notably a loss in Jamaica and an inability to "play pretty" consistently, but it was a successful 12-month period. On to 2013, one more year until the World Cup in Brazil. Here are 20 things the team needs to accomplish in its centennial season.
When the United States men's national team plays home World Cup qualifying matches in stadiums around America, they pass the ball around pristine surfaces that have only ever been trodden by soccer cleats. When the squad travels abroad, however, they frequently find themselves dealing with less-than-ideal conditions. Jamaica’s Independence Park boasts long grass in some spots, and barely any cover on other patches. Costa Rica's Estadio Ricardo Saprissa features an ancient synthetic surface that's closer to concrete than the field turf common in new stadiums. Antigua and Barbuda's Sir Vivian Richards Stadium is a cricket oval, complete with a worn-down patch in the middle where the wickets are placed.
Playing abroad in CONCACAF, a region in which supporters hurl a constant barrage of insults and worse, is difficult enough without trying to pass on fields that barely pass FIFA muster. But as the Americans improve — becoming definitively more skilled than their smaller regional opponents — they can expect to continue seeing poor conditions. It's one of the best ways to slow down a superior squad, and the U.S. has struggled when facing these adverse conditions.
On a Saturday earlier this month, Tim Howard played 90 minutes and made two saves in Everton's 2-1 victory over Sunderland at Goodison Park. Soon after the win, he hopped on a plane bound for Frankfurt to meet up with his American teammates, who were jetting in from all over the world. A couple quick training sessions later and Howard found himself standing in goal on a cold night in Krasnodar, Russia, brilliantly defending the beleaguered United States net as the Stars and Stripes managed a 2-2 draw. Howard made six saves, a few of them of the spectacular variety that U.S. supporters have come to expect. Four days later, following a charter from Russia to Germany and another flight back to England, the goalkeeper stood between the pipes at Reading's Madejski Stadium, attempting to help Everton earn three more points in their English Premier League campaign. His club lost 2-1 as Howard made a solitary save.
The one-week total: one win, one loss, one draw in three different stadiums, training in three countries, four flights, four goals conceded, 10 saves made, and 270 minutes of soccer played. It's all rather exhausting. Not all international breaks are so quick, but they all add miles and minutes to weary legs. And yet, for a world-class soccer player like Howard, these jumps between club and country are standard.
Krasnodar, Russia, is a gray city. It was founded as a Cossack fortress and now boasts roughly 700,000 citizens, lying about 830 miles due south of Moscow down Highway M4, which skirts the Eastern border of Ukraine. It is 90 miles from the Black Sea port city of Novorossiysk, five hours by dirty Mercedes from Sochi, and 10 from Georgia. Yalta is about 240 miles as the crow flies, but, in classic "ya can't get there from here" fashion, a 600-mile drive around the Sea of Azov. Which is to say, Krasnodar is very much a place you only end up if you go intentionally.
On Wednesday evening, the United States national team plays the Russians in the city's Kuban Stadium, normally home to FC Kuban Krasnodar and FC Krasnodar, as a peace offering. Russia will host the 2018 World Cup (thanks, petrodollars!), but the southern city will not hold any of the matches, a decision that caused 500 protesters to claim FIFA and the Russian Federation were "spitting on the souls of fans."
Good-bye, World Cup; hello, Stars and Stripes. (The cynic in me wonders which is the lesser of two evils.)
In the end, there were plenty of smiles from the United States national team. Tired, relieved smiles, but smiles nonetheless. The Americans, with a huge assist from the enthusiastic home crowd at Kansas City's Livestrong Field, reached the final round of CONCACAF World Cup 2014 qualification with a 3-1 defeat of Guatemala. Jurgen Klinsmann's Stars and Stripes finished on top of Group A with a record of four wins, one tie, and one loss. In the end, that's all that matters. They had to qualify.
Eddie Johnson's first goal for the United States Men's National Team came in the forward's first start on October 10, 2004. Johnson, then 20 years old, netted three more three days later against Panama and finished 2006 World Cup qualifying with seven goals in six games. The Florida-born Johnson was strong, fast, and talented, exactly what the future of U.S. soccer was supposed to look like.
Then, perhaps inevitably, he began to struggle. A combination of injuries, believing the hype, and bad luck plagued Johnson, who played for five clubs between 2006 and 2011. There were occasional highs — a goal for the U.S. against Barbados in 2008, a strong if brief run with Cardiff City in 2009 — but mostly lows. He continued to make money to play soccer, which is not a bad life, but that incredible promise was slipping away. When a deal to play for Puebla in the Mexican League fell apart last winter because Johnson was out of shape, the subsequent conversation didn't revolve around when we would see the forward in the Stars and Stripes again, it focused on whether he would continue to play professionally at all.
In a virtual must-win match for the United States Men's National Team, Jurgen Klinsmann's side did exactly what they needed to do, and nothing else. Herculez Gomez's 55th-minute free kick provided the only score on a beautiful night in Columbus, Ohio, propelling the Americans over a Jamaican squad that defeated them just four days prior in Kingston and to the top of their World Cup qualifying group.
The Stars and Stripes, featuring five new starters after the surprise 2-1 loss, was a different team in front of the 23,881 red-white-and-blue-clad supporters. Specifically, the insertion of Danny Williams as a defensive midfielder and Sporting Kansas City's Graham Zusi — who looks like early-career Roger Federer — helped the U.S. to dominate the ball in the opening 45 minutes. The Americans won the possession battle (80 percent to 20 percent), the distribution war (338 passes to 52), and the shot fight (eight to zero). But they had precisely nothing to show for the effort, other than forcing a few highlight-reel saves from Reggae Boyz netminder Dwayne Miller and three strikes that hit various parts of the goal frame and bounced harmlessly away. (Williams's blast from 25 yards was especially awesome. It nearly exploded the metal pole to Miller's right before shooting back in the direction from whence it came.)