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.
With Michael Davies away, Rog goes solo, welcoming USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann to the pod. Fresh from the March of the Penguins win against Costa Rica, and a gutsy draw in the Azteca thunderdome, Klinsmann candidly discusses his own identity, management style, change strategy, and vision for American soccer's future. He is also willing to broach the big topics, including the heroic role Kyle Beckerman could play for the U.S. team at World Cup 2014 in Rio.
Normal suboptimal Men in Blazers service will be resumed next week.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Landon Donovan. It was March 28, and the most famous American soccer player in the world was speaking to reporters on a conference call, his first contact with the media since retreating from the soccer world in December 2012. Earlier last week, he had rejoined the Los Angeles Galaxy, training with the team and accompanying the MLS Cup champions on their visit to the White House. President Obama had jokingly offered to let him take Air Force One down to Mexico to join the U.S. Men's National Team at Azteca. But while he didn't take the president up on his offer, he was, for all intents and purposes, back. On the phone, his voice was its familiar soft monotone, at once seemingly passive and yet entirely sincere.
Listening to the conference call, I was struck with how long Donovan had been playing professional soccer, how long he had been part of my soccer world. It was fourteen years ago, 1999, when I’d first heard of him. I was 18 — on my way to play soccer at Wake Forest University with all the glory of a “recruited walk-on” — when I heard about this 17-year-old phenom at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, scoring goals and running the "Beep Test" like Edgar Davids.
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.
The unpredictable predictably happened again over the weekend. Manchester United marched on ever closer to its 20th league title, Everton came back to life against Manchester City, and Liverpool's momentum came to a grinding halt thanks to surprising Southampton. Welcome to the Premier League. In this week's pod, Michael and Davies recap all the happenings, answer telegrams, and welcome U.S. forward and digital philosopher Herculez Gomez for an inclusive interview on the eve of two crucial World Cup qualifiers. The Las Vegas native opines on Twitter, team chemistry, and Mrs. Guzan blow-up dolls.
Viel Glück to the Von Trapps as they enter the uncompromising bear pit that is Azteca Stadium.
The FA Cup, a.k.a. the Budweiser Cup featuring the Football Association, made headlines again over the weekend; there hasn't been such a resounding return to relevancy since Betty White bit into a Snickers. In this week's pod, the Men in Blazers review Chelsea's game of two halves against Manchester United, touch on Everton's alarming slide, and discuss what Tim Howard's injury means for the U.S. men's national team's World Cup qualification chances. Plus, Michael and Roger answer telegrams on home/away tactics, MLS's intrusion into the South, and "Car Talk." And after announcing the winner of the Great Becker, Man Hair Swap, they double down with a new competition to find "America's Next Top Soccer Fan."
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.)
For the past three days, we've been told repeatedly that San Pedro Sula, a city of almost 900,000, is the most dangerous place in the world. The United States Soccer Federation informed journalists who were covering the Americans' first game of the final round of World Cup qualifying of this fact before we arrived. A Monday-night briefing by the State Department reiterated the point, citing a 2011 murder rate that was the highest in the world.
But it was hard to agree with that thesis Wednesday afternoon at Estadio Olimpico. An hour before the home side opened its quest for the 2014 World Cup, the stands were two-thirds full and bouncing with the reverberations of blasting Latin music. The audience consisted of many men, but also plenty of wives and girlfriends (but not WAGs), families, hand-holding, and smiles. Eventually, a reported attendance of 37,000 would fill the venue for the 3 p.m. game. It likely wasn't quite that many — there were more than 3,000 empty spots among the 40,000 seats — but still, more than .004 percent of the country's population turned out to cheer on their Catrachos. It felt like a party, not at all like a war zone.
In truth, the cracks in the SPS-as-Beirut-circa–Spy Game narrative started to show earlier in the week. The city is dangerous, especially at night, but there's a good will here toward visiting tourists. Half a dozen fans from the States offered tales of walking down the streets and getting assaulted by nothing more than good-natured jeers at their red, white, and blue jerseys. They found an excellent local restaurant the previous night. They took cabs, but they were fine. That is admittedly a small sample size, but it's nothing like the horror stories we were told, or the ones that pop up in the papers.
The Men in Blazers go global in this week's pod as Roger Bennett reports live from the most violent city in the world (in 2011) ahead of the United States' World Cup qualifier against Honduras. Merry Hexmas one and all!
Meanwhile, over on the other continent, the Blazers recap a weekend of Premier League football marred by dropped points for Manchester City, Chelsea, and Everton. The pod's dual attractions include an update on the Men in Blazers National Team, and a no-holds-barred interview with one of football's most powerful men, a representative of football park staple Pukka Pies. Michael and Roger then offer listeners a chance to win their very own case of pies — the last obstacle to America becoming a true football nation will soon be a thing of the past.
American soccer fans battling the Black Dog after last night's eye-acher against Canada can find solace in the one thing our nation does astonishingly — producing a pipeline of the world's finest follicularly challenged goalkeepers. In this week's pod, the Men in Blazers sit down with USMNT and Everton's Tim Howard for an expansive interview. The New Jersey native reflects on the American style of goalkeeping, shares how he first journeyed to England via Manchester United, and pegs Fabian Johnson as a young Von Trapp to watch. His confidence will be the perfect remedy on this day of midwinter discontent.
On happier matters, Michael and Roger mourn the passing of Lady Sybil and delve deep into the resurgence of their beloved FA Cup as the likes of Brentford, Luton, Oldham, and Leeds finally have their day of glory on the pod.
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.
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.