US v. Canada: A Contrarian’s View

I am not a coach.  Nor am I an astute follower of tactics like at Zonal Marking.  I have not followed the sport since I was little, and I cannot remember the last time I kicked a football.  I am not an esteemed sports journalist or even an unesteemed one.  Therefore, take my opinion with as many grains of salt as you wish.

Despite the praise now being heaped upon the United States squad following its 2-0 win over Canada, the team was incredibly mediocre.  Canada was not very good; if the US had lost, or even drawn, it would have been a tremendous upset.  Although the US dominated most of the match, the performance was nevertheless underwhelming.

First and foremost, I blame Bob Bradley.  I am not a Bob Bradley fan, although I give him credit for a respectable World Cup.  Respectable, mind you, not great.  Bradley is a coach of limited ability, and USSF should have hired a new coach to take the national team forward.  Bradley is fanatically devoted to 4-4-2 to the point where it’s like no other formation exists.  This is especially egregious because the US does not have the personnel for a 4-4-2.  That requires two strikers.  (Not mention that the world has passed 4-4-2 by.)

That brings me to my next point: limited options.  First and foremost, why is Jozy Altidore still there?  The commentary following the Canada match was about how he rediscovered his goal-scoring ability.  After the disappointment of South Africa and his near-absence from club play, Altidore should not even be on the national team bench.  The problem is that the US does not really produce good strikers, and hasn’t since Brian McBride (Juan Agudelo did not exactly set the world afire.)

In contrast to the forwards, the midfield is decent.  Clint Dempsey is the best US player, and his goal was spectacular (as was his near goal), unlike Altidore’s which cam as a result of a howler from the Canadian keeper rather than Altidore’s skill.  For all the noise about Landon Donovan, Dempsey is probably the most talented active US player (although his desire to leave Fulham for a side that plays in the Champions League will only do his career harm–he is not good enough to play for a side that can consistently make it out of the group stages.)  Michael Bradley rubs many the wrong way for reasons I do not understand, but he always shows up when he plays, which makes his disappointing loan to Aston Villa all the more puzzling.

The US defense performed well against Canada, but is very touch-and-go.  The US always produces good goalies.  The recent improvement of the midfield is a pleasant surprise.  Having said that though, the US midfield is not world-class.  Spain are world-class.  Admittedly Spain are the gold standard for national teams, the US midfield is nowhere close to that.  And that brings me to my final point.  Spain are world champions.  Logic would dictate that any side that wants to be successful should try to figure out either (a) how to play like Spain or (b) how to play like a team that can consistently beat Spain.  The US however, are trying to be the second coming of England.

For as long as I can remember the US have tried to be like England: very physical, but lacking in skill.  The truth is that England are not very good, and, except for one tournament in 1966 (at home), have never done anything of importance on the World stage.  4-4-2, long balls, physicality but a lack of top class technique; this has England written all over it.  The main difference right now is that England refuses to adjust for players who do not fit that model (e.g. Paul Scholes who was suspect in England but worshiped by the Spanish players.)  Unlike England, the US has the excuse of not having produced world-class players, but the signs are ominous.  I doubt Bradley would know what to do with world-class players.  If the US go down England’s road, expect the same disappointment.

Sadly, the brass ring for Americans aiming to succeed abroad is the English Premier League.  Perhaps part of this Anglophilia is cultural.  The US and England share a common language and an intertwined history.  Americans media teaches that England produces the high culture of the English language, while America is a backwater (false for so many reasons.)  The EPL is the favored European league among US soccer fans.  And then there is David Beckham.

None of this excuses the US national team’s aspirations to sink into England’s abyss of mediocrity.  Although the English press always builds up the England team as the greatest ever (until they inevitably fail, and then become the shame of the nation), the US does not have to buy into that hype.

One can argue that my critique is a little unfair.  It is based on the opening match against a weak team in a tournament that the United States is almost guaranteed to either win or place second (anything less is a humiliation.)  Qualification for Brazil 2014 is equally certain.  The only benefits of a Gold Cup victory are bragging rights and a berth for the Confederations Cup, a tournament that should be discontinued.

Nevertheless, this is Bob Bradley’s second term as national team coach.  His first term was respectable but not stellar.  There is recent history (Bruce Arena) that indicates giving such a coach a second term is harmful in the long run, because the USSF does not replace coaches in between World Cups even when the results scream that the coach needs replacing.  Already the stars do not look good, and this is not counting the recent 4-0 drubbing by Spain.  I hope I am wrong, but I fear the next three years are going to be a very long, unhappy ride.