‘All Hell Breaks Loose’ for Stagnant U.S.

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

US logoThe United States men’s national team has lived in purgatory for three years. Now, as its coach put it, “all hell is breaks loose.”

Before Friday night’s game, the prevailing thought had been that since the U.S. was unbeaten under Bruce Arena then it was on the way toward purging the Jurgen Klinsmann memories en route to another World Cup. Then came an impotent, mistake-riddled performance that not only put automatic qualification in jeopardy but revealed the team’s stagnation.

The Americans played Costa Rica, the World Cup quarterfinalists, twice and lost twice allowing six goals while failing to score. They faced a Mexican team that has gone as far they have in the last two World Cups, and collected a single point. They are almost certain to finish below both teams for the first time since the 2002 cycle and must not lose their next game in Honduras or else fall behind a third team and into the playoff place.

The national team’s continued commitment to prestigious veterans at the expense of youth has left it in a position where neither set of players is in a position to cope with the challenges of international soccer. Geoff Cameron’s turnover led to Marco Ureña’s second goal sealing the result, but it was Tim Howard who lost his angle on Ureña’s first that sent the U.S. on its way to defeat. Both players were essential to the 2014 World Cup squad but neither had his place on the squad threatened by younger prospects.

As a result, the American supporters were left to chant “We want Dempsey” when Christian Pulisic was in the midst of being kicked out of the game. The problem was that Clint Dempsey’s most significant contributions to the evening was a meme and dive. Although Bobby Wood has been integrated into the senior team for much of the cycle, but he lacked the composure to make and execute the right decision on the ball.

The mismanagement and poor replenishment of the U.S. team was ultimately felt strongest in defense and particularly in goal. Pulisic will get used to CONCACAF opposition shading multiple defenders his way with more experience, but the next crop of American defenders and goalkeepers remain untested. It was already difficult to integrate younger players like Matt Miazga and Bill Hamid into the senior team when they were failing to perform well or even qualify for major tournaments at their age level.

A reliance on the veterans during the 2015 Gold Cup and 2016 Copa América Centenario failed to produce trophies and we just witnessed how meaningless the 2017 Gold Cup title was to the World Cup qualification effort. Of those three tournaments, the only defenders 24 or younger at the time to be included were Miazga, DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado. Yedlin and Brooks would have been included in this roster and would probably have started Friday night if they were healthy.

Those three tournaments could have provided the experience Miazga, Hamid, Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe needed to handle qualifiers, such as last night’s. Instead they passed the time on the bench or were on vacation that time. Nagbe, along with Michael Bradley, were singled out by Arena for having solid games but he admitted it was difficult to break down a Costa Rican team that deployed eight men behind the ball after taking the first half lead.

“There’s not much space that’s the thing,” Nagbe said. “There’s cover everywhere. I thought overall we got some good looks and we did break them down a couple of times, we just need to be sharper.”

The reality of CONCACAF and international soccer is that sharpness and composure in specific moments will determine whether a team wins or loses. CONCACAF will happen in every World Cup qualifier and it happened Friday night as it claimed Jozy Altidore who will be suspended for Tuesday’s game after theatrics from a Costa Rican player. Altidore stated his innocence but it will fall on deaf ears.

“He kicked out at me after the ball and I thought it was really soft,” Altidore said. “I just went up to him and I didn’t touch his face. I didn’t put my hands up. It’s just CONCACAF and it’s stupid things like that. It’s pretty disgraceful. I didn’t put my hands up and he goes down grabbing something … it is what it is.”

With Altidore unavailable, the burden will likely fall on Wood to lead the attack and undergo a baptism by Honduran humidity. Wood will endure sweltering heat, an uneven field and an atmosphere livelier than anything the Bundesliga has to offer. As will Pulisic and possibly Jordan Morris. All the while knowing that a loss against Honduras sends the U.S. to fourth or worse heading into the final two rounds of qualifying. Arena said we will all find out if the team has the character to handle the challenges ahead.

“We lost to a team that played better than us tonight,” Arena said. “We’re not going to get this game back. It’s over with. We have to regroup and get our team ready for Tuesday.”

At the moment, the United States is behind both Mexico and Costa Rica in quality, cohesion and tactical understanding. Rodney Wallace said that Costa Rica doesn’t have to explain its success to anyone and he’s right, it’s been clear and should be clearer now. Mexico stuck with one coach and his plan in the face of embarrassment and Los Ticos replenished their squad from the 2014 World Cup while retaining their resolute identity.

These are the progressions that ambitious national teams make each cycle. Instead, we have spent the past three years caught in between winning trophies for mass appeal and preparing the next generation for the challenges ahead. All there is to show for it is a B team Gold Cup and only five or six players fully up to speed on what it means to play in CONCACAF. They will have to learn and succeed quickly or the U.S. could fail to automatically qualify for a World Cup for the first time since 1986.

The days when American men’s soccer was truly in hell.