Archive for August, 2011

Will talent and skill finally trump politics and egos on U.S. men’s national soccer team?

Having covered American soccer for more than 30 years, I’m not inclined to jump on bandwagons – especially the next attempt to jump-start our men’s national team. But make no mistake, the U.S. men’s program made a quantum leap toward respectability in only 30 minutes this week.

It wasn’t just its 1-1 tie with Mexico in front of 30,183 fans in Philadelphia, after an embarrassing 4-2 loss to El Tri in the Gold Cup final earlier this summer. More important, the addition to this week’s U.S. game roster of some key athletes pushed to the sideline by former coach Bob Bradley was an infusion of fresh air for the stale program. To be more specific, it was a welcome lack of politics.

Commentators carefully avoided criticizing Bradley, who had some fine moments leading the men’s program to a 43-25-12 record. But he made the one mistake a coach cannot afford – he left some of his best athletes and top performers off the squad. As a result, the program was in a not-so-slow slide down world rankings (#30 and down six places since June).

That won’t happen under new coach Jurgen Klinsmann, if this week’s tie with Mexico is any indication. After 60 minutes of business-as-usual U.S. soccer – a decent defense and goalie with a predictable offense unable to finish – Klinsmann apparently had seen enough. The substitutions he made in the final 30 minutes represented a welcome new direction. Three replacements combined on the equalizing goal. All were active and aggressive, opening up room for Landon Donovan to work in space. Most important, the youngsters can flat-out fly.

Though Mexico was missing some key players – especially Javier Hernández  (“Chicharito”) – it’s still an explosive, talented team. With the U.S. missing underrated stalwart Clint Dempsey, things could have gotten ugly in the midfield for the Americans. And for the 60 minutes, it was.

The U.S. men didn’t have a single shot on goal or corner kick the first half. Ouch. That changed when Klinsmann brought in midfielders Brek Shea and Robbie Rogers along with 18-year-old striker Juan Agudelo.  Only one minute after entering the game, Rogers scored the tying goal on a perfect cross from Shea set up by Agudelo. From that point on, Mexico was the team on its heels as the U.S. challenged balls aggressively, pushed up-field with pace and finally took some shots (6).

In 30 minutes, a one-dimensional team seemingly built on drawing offsides penalties transformed into a well-balanced squad continually pressuring its opponent. Granted it’s just one-game, but style of play isn’t what encouraged me most. It’s the style difference between Klinsmann and the last two men’s coaches – the bland Bradley and arrogant Bruce Arena.

Case in point: On Tuesday morning, Klinsmann invited coach Bradley’s son – midfielder Michael Bradley – to coffee in their hotel café to ask his thoughts.  What a classy and intelligent move. Michael Bradley, only 24, already has 59 international appearances and has played in European club soccer more than five years. Klinsmann clearly can set aside politics and work with a variety of personality types. He’ll need that skill to mix veterans like Dempsey, Donovan and goalie Tim Howard with the next generation. Most important, the U.S. clearly must add speed to succeed in the faster game of international soccer.

That opens the door for players like former U.S. phenom Freddy Adu, who announced on Friday he’s returning from exile in Turkey to join the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer. Adu made his nationally-televised professional debut for the DC United at age 14 in 2004, but he has bounced around second-tier European clubs since 2007. Like a number of other top-quality offensive players, Adu never quite fit into Bradley’s conservative approach – and was played too infrequently to make a serious impact.  He was even left off the team for two years.

Now, all things seem possible.

“He (Klinsmann) told me: ‘You know what? If you’re playing and you’re doing well, you will get a chance,” Adu said in his first press conference with the Union today. “That really helped me obviously to make my decision, because … your ultimate goal is to be on the national team and represent your country.”

Adu and others will get their opportunity. And don’t be surprised if it happens by the team’s Sept. 2 game with Costa Rica. Klinsmann – a fine player, manager and World Cup winner himself for Germany – is a seasoned pro who will field the best athletes, hardest workers and proven performers. And he’ll do it soon.

That may be the most encouraging news for the U.S. men’s soccer team in decades.

— New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

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