Profiling the USMNT 2018 October Roster

The real work begins for the US Men’s national team to start figuring out how it will avoid the disappointments of a year ago the next time World Cup Qualification roles around. The USMNT have two friendlies this month against Columbia (Thursday 7:30 PM on FS1) and Peru (Tuesday 7:30 PM on ESPN2). Interim Coach Dave Sarachan has bucked the youth trend a little and called in some familiar names for better or worse. Also some minor injuries to big players sour the mood going into this one. I’m going to run through the roster and give you my thoughts and then give you the Starting XI I would like to see.

The below roster information is from ussoccer.com’s official roster announcement

DETAILED ROSTER BY POSITION (Club; Caps/Goals):
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC; 58/0), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge/BEL; 2/0), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew SC; 6/0)

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Guzan is one of the veteran leaders in this camp at 34 years old.

As far as I am concerned the race for the No. 1 shirt is between incumbent Brad Guzan and challenger Zac Steffen. The third goalkeeper called in for this camp, and likely future camps, might as well be a dart throw.

Since last year’s World Cup Qualifying snafu, Zac Steffen has been the presumed top option as the best young goalkeeper for the U.S. Tim Howard is essentially taking a victory lap in 2019 with the Colorado Rapids, which really only leaves Guzan when it comes to older keepers with national team experience. Over the long term, I expect Steffen to takeover fully, but I would not mind Guzan being the starter for the next year or so, especially if he’s one of only a few veterans to stick around.

DEFENDERS (8): John Brooks (Wolfsburg/GER; 34/3), Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas; 0/0), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Swansea City/WAL; 5/0), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls; 0/0), Matt Miazga (Nantes/FRA; 9/1), Antonee Robinson (Wigan Athletic/ENG; 4/0), Ben Sweat (New York City FC; 0/0), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United/ENG; 54/0)

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Miazga is on loan from Chelsea to Nantes and developing into a fiery presences on the US team. (Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone should be happy Miazga and Brooks are both getting called in again. I think they are the clear starters going forward, and that they need to build chemistry. Meaningless friendlies are a good place for that. As a Red Bulls fan its nice to see Aaron Long get called back in and I hope he gets his first cap. As for Cameron Carter-Vickers, it seems that he is a favorite of Sarachan’s. I think he’s in the mix to be a back-up behind Brooks and Miazga, but I would not mind if other prospects got opportunities.

Similar to Brooks and Miazga, I think most of us agree that Yedlin and Robinson are the starting fullbacks for the time being. Yedlin is more solidified than Robinson but Robinson is younger so he has more time to develop. Again, friendlies are a great time for this entire back line to build chemistry. The backup fullbacks are both new to the national team. I think Reggie Cannon has definitely deserved his call-up, starting all season for FC Dallas at 20 years old. Ben Sweat is NYCFC’s starter but he’s older (27), and so I do not fully understand his inclusion over Jorge Villafana who’s the same age but was the USMNT starter this time last year. The friendlies are being played in Tampa and Sweat is a Tampa native so maybe its to help the attendance? Either way, there’s no use in crying over who our back-up left back is in a friendly under an interim head coach.

MIDFIELDERS (10): Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids; 19/1), Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls; 7/1), Jonathan Amon (Nordsjælland/DEN; 0/0), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC/CAN; 140/17), Julian Green (Greuther Fürth/GER; 12/4), Weston McKennie (Schalke/GER; 6/1), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund/GER; 21/9), Kenny Saief (Anderlecht/BEL; 2/0), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC; 8/0), Tim Weah (Paris Saint-Germain; 5/1), Fafa Picault (Philadelphia Union; 1/0), Marky Delgado (Toronto FC; 2/0).

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The expectations on Wil Trapp are much higher with Pulisic, Adams and McKinnie all missing due to injury. (Wikimedia Commons)

This is where stuff gets interesting, especially with recent injuries to Adams, McKennie, and Pulisic. Honestly, those are the only three midfielders whose names I had written in pen on the team sheet. Their absences totally changes how I view this camp. Marky Delgado and Fafa Picault were brought in as replacements. Similarly to what I said above about Brooks and Miazga, I wanted to see Adams and McKennie get more reps together to build chemistry. Its unfortunate we won’t get to see that this time.

I was also really excited for Pulisic to be rolled into this young core. We’ve all had him there in our heads but he hasn’t been in camp with everyone else yet. He can elevate this group from “giving people hope” to “getting people excited.” I cannot wait to see him Adams, and McKennie all on the field together and now I’ll have to wait at least one more month.

Green, Acosta, and Delgado have been called in before by Sarachan and I think all of them will figure into the national team in the current World Cup cycle. However, I do not know how prominently any of them will figure. If Adams, McKennie, Pulisic, Miazga, and Brooks were a first tier of players, where I want/expect them to start as many games as possible, Green and Acosta would be in the second tier. Delgado hasn’t played as much and is probably just behind them for minutes. All three should be in the rotation for now but I won’t be upset if any of them don’t start. Perhaps they can elevate themselves into that first tier, or perhaps they will set the floor for our national team.

After that we have some new additions for Sarachan including Jonathan Amon, Kenny Saief, and now Picault. Saief has been injured since the 2017 Gold Cup. He’s a starter for the Belgian giants Anderlecht and is one of our few left wing options. If he stays healthy, he could be a dangerous attacking piece. Jonathan Amon is coming in for his first ever camp and he’s definitely earned it, scoring half a dozen goals so far in the Danish League. Similar to Saief, Amon is a left winger. However, Saief is a more technical player with good passes, a nice touch, and he can curl a nice cross. Amon, on the other hand, uses his speed to get past defenders. It works in the Danish League, we’ll see if he can make it work at a higher level. Picault is a starter for a Philadelphia Union team that is having it’s best season ever. He is 27 so he could play a role over the next few years. I think he sets a nice floor for us on the wing.

Lastly, there is the inclusion of Michael Bradley. When I saw his name on the roster my gut reaction was negative. I’m trying to go into these friendlies with an open-mind but there are two main reasons I don’t like that he’s on the roster.

  1. There have been recent reports that his personality can be toxic in the locker room. That link will take you to former USMNTer Jimmy Conrad dropping some truths on everyone, calling Bradley “a super alpha male know-it-all.” There was also Bradley’s recent interaction with Zlatan on the field. Afterwards Zlatan said “[Bradley] thinks he is the philosopher of football”. Then there was the scrum outside the Toronto FC locker rooms in the 2017 playoffs where Bradley and Jesse Marsch exchanged some heated words (around the 30 second mark of that video, you can see Bradley, number 4, pushing Marsch away from the scrum). Overall, the common thread is Michael Bradley. I don’t want his toxic personality to infect the young core who have both thoroughly enjoyed these camps and played with some mental toughness up to this point. 
  2. Bradley has been bad in MLS this year. To be fair he’s been played out of position for much of the season in order to cover for injuries, but he is giving the other team the ball waaaayyy too often. To put it simply, he’s lost a step. There are other MLS defensive midfielders who could have been called in who are playing better than him right now (e.g. Russell Canouse of DC United).

Like I said though, I’m going in with an open mind. I hope he provides some veteran leadership in some way. This is admittedly more needed now that many of the natural leaders (Adams, McKennie, and Pulisic) are out injured.

FORWARDS (3): Andrija Novakovich (Fortuna Sittard/NED; 2/0), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen/GER; 3/1), Bobby Wood (Hannover 96/GER; 41/12)

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Wood needs to make an impact for a group of forwards that have struggled to find the back of the net with consistency. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nice to see Novakovich back again as he’s youngish (22) and still scoring in the Dutch league. I’d put him in that second tier with the likes of Green and Acosta: he’s been called-up frequently, but hasn’t wowed us yet. One could argue the same for Bobby Wood. He’s older (25), but he’s getting starting minutes in the Bundesliga for Hannover and scored two goals last week. Both goals were headers in the box. Watching those goals confirmed by opinions on Wood: he’s a good player when he has the service. I would not expect him to create many opportunities on his own. But when we have a player like Pulisic on the field, he won’t have to.

I’m glad Sargent is here too. Still in his teens, he has yet to breakthrough into Werder Bremen’s game day plans. Despite that, he’s likely to get minutes at some point this year and he has the highest ceiling of these three forwards. I wouldn’t be surprised if he started, but I also wouldn’t be disappointed if he came off the bench.

It’s worth noting Sarachan’s comments that Jozy Altidore would have been in camp if it were not for recent injury concerns (leaving his last two game early with muscle strains). I feel more comfortable with Jozy returning than Bradley in terms of his personality (although it is worth noting that Jozy was the one who ended up with a red card at the end of the above-linked Toronto-New York scrum; he also had en epic stare down with Tyler Adams in that game). Additionally, Bradley is currently 31 years old, and Jozy about to turn 29 in November. Therefore, I’d expect Jozy to be more useful for this team over the next few years, especially since we don’t have a clear first choice striker right now. Meanwhile Adams and McKennie look ready to man the midfield in place of Bradley.

My Starting XI: 4-2-2

Steffen/Guzan

Yedlin – Miazga – Brooks – Robinson

Picault – Trapp – Acosta – Saief

Weah – Wood

Subs I would bring on: Sargent for Wood, Green on for Picault, Amon for Saief, Cannon on for Yedlin, Delgado for Acosta

Steffen/Guzan is really a coin-flip at this point. I hope one starts the first game and the other starts the second. The defensive four name themselves. The midfield is weird without Adams and McKennie, you could talk me into something else. I’d prefer if Bradley didn’t take minutes away from Acosta. The real question mark in attack is who plays well with Pulisic, but we can’t answer that with this lineup. We haven’t see Weah as a true striker yet so I’m curious if he and Wood could play off of each other well. As for Saief, I think he’s the most skilled of the left wing options, but I could see Amon getting the start over him as well.

Worth noting: this is the line-up I would LIKE to see, not necessarily the roster I EXPECT to see. Honestly, I’d be okay with most any line-up Sarachan throws out there, because these friendlies are still close to meaningless. Again, I just don’t want to see Bradley out there. We can’t and shouldn’t be relying on him any more. He should be appearing in a cameo role at most.

Fingers crossed this is Sarachan’s last month in charge and the rumors are true that the USMNT will have a full time head coach come November! You all know my pick, only time will tell if I am right.

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Gregg Berhalter should be the Next USMNT Head Coach

Last week, I revisited my thoughts on the USMNT crashing out of World Cup Qualifying. Now it’s time to assess the recovery and answer the question on everyone’s lips: who should be the next USMNT coach? Word on the street is that we may know as soon as November 1st.

In order to answer this question I’ll give a quick recap of what the interim coach Dave Sarachan has done and I’ll list the qualities I would like the next USMNT coach to have. I have someone in mind, so I’ll make my pitch for one coach in particular.

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Whoever the next coach is for the USMNT will have a young star to work with in Christian Pulisic. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dave Sarachan was announced as the interim head coach for the USMNT within days of the team’s loss to Trinidad & Tobago. So far, Sarachan has lead the team in half a dozen friendlies with a mixed bag of results. Generally, he has done a good job of calling in youth who will play a large role in years to come, namely, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Matt Miazga, and Timothy Weah. They have earned multiple caps over the last year and each will certainly be part of the team’s core going forward. It’s unfortunate Christian Pulisic has yet to join them, but I am excited to see him in the upcoming friendlies against Columbia and Peru. Sarachan has built a solid foundation of players for this team going forward.

Something that is often overlooked is what he has done for the mentality of this team. These young players are hungry when they are playing, despite these games meaning next to nothing. It’s something which has been sorely missed on the team over the last few years. I credit Sarachan here even if he has passively allowed the players to set the tone. The truth is past head coaches haven’t fostered the same environment where players want to fight for all 90 minutes.

That being said, Sarachan’s tenure hasn’t been all roses. Tactically, he suffers from some of the same ills that plagued Bruce Arena’s team. That is, his tactics are outdated, and his 4-1-4-1 formation probably won’t maximize our best XI’s talent. For an interim head coach, that’s fine. None of this should make the USMNT worse for the wear by the time competitive games come around. By that point, the permanent head coach will establish their system. Fingers crossed it’s a good one.

What do we want this new head coach to do? Here’s what I would like to see:

  1. Man-Manager/Motivator – Someone who can make any game feel like the World Cup Final. I think a few of our core players (at least Pulisic, Adams, Miazga, and Yedlin) are fairly self-motivated. They won’t need much of a push. Letting those players set an example and rewarding them appropriately will go a long way. The inverse is also true. If a player has a toxic attitude, they should be punished/benched. Similar to Sarachan, perhaps all this coach needs to do is let the players motivate each other.
  2. Tactician – Someone who can create a team identity. Personally, I’d like to see the USMNT play some attractive, possession-based soccer, but I’d be happy if we were a bunker-and-counter team or a pressing team, or any other style so long as we had an identity.
  3. Pragmatist – On the other hand, I think the head coach needs to be practical. If the next head coach wants us to be a pressing team, we can’t run a high press every game, all game. Depending on our opponent, line-up, conditions, etc. it may be more beneficial to play a different style for that one game. 
  4. Scout – Someone who will find talented Americans in all leagues and consider them for national team camps. You could also include winning over dual-nationals under this category. Recently the US lost a great potential player in Jonathan Gonzalez to Mexico because he got called into their camp first. That trend can’t continue. 
  5. Developer of Youth – Someone who knows when to bring in a young player, when to stick with a young player, and when to let go of an older player. The USMNT has sorely missed this over the last decade.
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Berhalter made 44 appearances on the US National team. (Wikimedia Commons)

If we can find a head coach who does all of the above, then we will be in a good position to achieve all of our future goals. With that said, I think Gregg Berhalter checks all of these boxes better than any other candidate. For those unaware, Berhalter is a former center back who currently coaches the Columbus Crew in MLS.  Let me walk you through my thought process:

  1. Man-Manager/Motivator – Berhalter falls under the man-manager heading more than the motivator. The best example is Kei Kamara. In 2015, Kei Kamara lead the league in goals for Berhalter’s Columbus Crew. They lost the MLS Cup to Portland and proceeded to collapse the following year. It was no secret that Kamara was a toxic presence in the locker room when the results weren’t going their way. Soon enough Kei Kamara gets traded to New England. A vocal, bad attitude can ruin a locker room. Despite Kamara being the top goal-scorer, Berhalter wasn’t afraid to move on from him. And like I said before, with vocal guys like Adams, McKennie, and Pulisic in the locker room, a coach may be able to pass these duties onto those guys. 
  2. Tactician – Berhalter’s teams regularly play some of the prettiest soccer in MLS. It’s possession-based, it’s methodical, and Berhalter has been able to plug and play different players into his system. Look at Gyassi Zardes. The LA Galaxy were playing him at right back at the end of last season because he wasn’t scoring goals. He gets traded to Columbus and he has 16 goals on the season. Ola Kamara scored a similar amount after being plucked out of a Scandinavian League, and before him it was Kei Kamara. Plug. And. Play. In the words of Will Trapp, Berhalter is great at “making guys on the field understand the clarity of the picture.” I have no doubts of Berhalter’s tactical know-how.
  3. Pragmatist – In 2015, the New York Red Bulls won their 2nd Supporter’s Shield in 3 years. They were playing a high-press style which was quite new and few teams knew how to counter it. The Red Bulls were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Final by none other than Berhalter’s Columbus Crew. One would expect New York’s high press to rip apart Columbus’ possession-based style. Instead, Columbus sat back, let New York have the ball, and killed them on the counter (a strategy which is effective against New York to this day). Point being: Berhalter wasn’t afraid to deviate from his tactical norm in order to get a result. That’s pragmatic coaching and something the US needs. He did something similar against Atlanta United in the 2017 playoffs, holding Atlanta scoreless and winning on penalties. 
  4. Scout – Not only is Berhalter Columbus’ head coach, but he is also the sporting director, meaning he makes the decisions when it comes to signing, trading and releasing players. With that role, he has brought in players like Artur, Ola Kamara and Milton Valenzuela to Columbus. Artur has become the perfect partner for Will Trapp and Valenzuela is arguably the best left back in the league. Berhalter has also done this on a low-budget team in Columbus. It’s not like he has the money to buy the best players; he had to find the right guy and get him for the right price. It hasn’t been all good for Berhalter in that regard. Pedro Santos is one of Columbus highest paid players and he has one goal over the course of the last year as a winger. Everyone whiffs on a signing from time to time. Despite Pedro Santos’ poor play, I still think Berhalter has more good than bad in this category.  
  5. Developer of Youth – This one is tougher as Columbus doesn’t exactly have the most prolific academy. Only Will Trapp and Alex Crognale are current Crew academy products on the roster and Crognale has been loaned out for the year. This is not the fault of Berhalter, as I doubt the Crew’s ownership has devoted that much money to their academy. That being said, Trapp is a commensurate professional. Say what you want about his play on the field, no one has a bad thing to say about him off the field. Additionally, half of developing youth is letting go of veteran players. Berhalter has shown a tendency to do just that as exemplified with Kei Kamara, and Tony Tchani. Tchani was Trapp’s partner in that 2015 season before he was traded and Artur filled the same role.

All of the above is why I have been on the Berhalter train for the past couple of months. Don’t get me wrong, there are other candidates I would be content with, such as Oscar Pareja, Jesse Marsch, or Tata Martino. But Pareja’s teams play more defensively than I’d like, and both Marsch and Tata seem to over-think big games and get the tactics wrong (For Marsh, look at the Red Bulls CONCACAF Champions League exit to Chivas, and for Tata look at Atlanta’s loss to Columbus last year in the playoffs and their recent loss to the Red Bulls). No candidate is perfect, I could just as easily point to Berhalter’s inexperience with developing youth as a weakness. I would rather take that unknown with Berhalter than known flaws with other coaches. 

And with that, I will see you next week where I will dissect the recent USMNT roster, examining my likes/dislikes, and project a starting XI! 

Evaluating the USMNT a Year Later

One year ago I wrote about the US Men’s National Team’s (USMNT) World Cup Qualifying cycle. At the time it was as much an emotional exercise as it was an intellectual one. Here I am revisiting the piece and seeing how my opinions have changed. Additions from this year are in italics. So, here goes nothing!

The USMNT 2018 World Cup Qualifying Cycle: A Post-Mortem

In theater, after the actors have taken their final bow, the members of the cast and crew will sometimes come together and discuss what went well and what did not. This process, is called a “post-mortem”; once the show is done and dusted, it must be laid to rest.

In this article, I hope to do the same for the USMNT 2018 WCQ cycle. Honestly, I am writing this in the hopes that I can help other people understand how we got here and what comes next. Additionally, I believe that I writing this will be therapeutic for me on some level. Without further ado…

THE PAST: Who can we blame?
After something unexpected like this, everyone wants to start pointing fingers. However, no single person can be blamed for this lost World Cup cycle. Here are a few people who played a major role.

Jurgen Klinsmann
Klinsmann has the second-highest winning percentage of any U.S. manager, trailing only Bruce Arean. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jurgen Klinsmann– Klinsmann was the head coach at the start of this 2018 WCQ cycle before he was fired for losing the first two games of qualifying. One game was home to Mexico, while the other was away to Costa Rica; neither of those games are easy games but losing both of them was unacceptable. Plus, there were plenty of problems on this team before those two losses.

I personally disliked many of Klinsmann’s quirks, but let me focus on things which affected this qualifying cycle. He believed in creating competition at every position. In an attempt to produce that ideal, he gave many different players minutes at crucial positions. What this caused was an overall lack of consistency, and lack of chemistry. Before the 2016 Copa America, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron had barely played together as a center-back pairing with Michael Bradley in front of them as a defensive midfielder. That was a foundational piece of the team at that tournament. Years of this little consistency gave Bruce Arena less to work with when he took over at the beginning of 2017.

There were also a number of players who Jurgen inexplicably would not call up to the national team. Jorge Villafana, Dax McCarty, Benny Feilhaber, and Sacha Kljestan (to name a few) could each have had another 20+ caps under their belts throughout this cycle if they were called up when they should have been. Meanwhile the likes of Julian Greene, Michael Orozco, and Mix Diskerud consistently received call-ups and panned out into next to nothing. When Arena took over, he brought in a few of these shunned players but they had to quickly acclimate to team.

Both of the above issues, lack of consistency and exclusion of useful players, may not seem super important but I firmly believe that both of them eroded the maximum potential of the core players on this USMNT.

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Bruce Arena managed the U.S. at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, but missed qualification in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bruce Arena– He was brought in to steady the ship and ensure that the US would qualify for the World Cup. He failed. To be fair, as mentioned above, Arena was handed some tough cards to play with; two games played and both were losses. He had to get the results of ten games in eight games. As difficult asthe job was, it was not impossible.
Up until September, we looked good. We were undefeated and it looked like we would be fine. The loss to Costa Rica in September was tough to swallow but not damning. The US could survive that. We could not survive a loss to Trinidad & Tobago (T&T). Playing a line-up on short rest, in poor conditions, in a practically must-win game turned out to be pretty costly. Oddly, this was uncharacteristic of Arena. He rotated his squad between the home and away games of every other international break so far. I think he owns a lot of the blame for the loss to T&T and that loss is ultimately what eliminated the US. At the very least, in post-game interviews he owned that responsibility. I think people have been putting more blame on Arena than anyone else. That’s probably fair, but he’s not the only one to be blamed.

Sunil Gulati (I honestly forgot about this guy)- Gulati is the president of US Soccer Federation (USSF) and appointed both Jurgen and Bruce. First, it is strange for a national team head coach to last more than one World Cup cycle. Despite that, Sunil Gulati re-signed Klinsmann before the 2014 World Cup draw of pools even occurred. Then to keep him on after losing the 2015 Gold Cup in the semi-finals to Jamaica, and missing out on the 2017 Confederations Cup only to fire him after losing two WCQ matches really put the US in a pickle. Had Klinsmann been fired earlier, or not re-signed in the first place, the national team could have sailed a straighter course.

Then, picking Bruce Arena as a stop-gap seemed like the most logical choice at the time. And it probably was the best choice given the tough scenario. But Sunil Gulati put himself in that difficult position by waiting so long to fire Klinsmann. You reap what you sow.

The Players– As important as the above is, the team’s fate was decided on the field. And to be honest, it looked like the US were playing a preseason friendly for most of the final game that solidified their elimination. They knew what was at stake, and yet there was a decided lack of urgency to the team from the start. Despite this being the most talented and skilled USMNT ever, Alexi Lalas was right when he said that the US players were missing the grit of the old national teams. I still standby this sentiment.

Others– I will not entertain any arguments that US players playing in MLS is to blame for this. Even if it does own some level of blame in an indirect way it is negligible compared to what is stated above. In fact, besides Mexico, every other team in CONCACAF have a substantial number of national team players playing in MLS. If anything, MLS made the US’s qualifying more difficult because it has boosted programs like Panama and Honduras, not because it has deteriorated the play of American players.

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Christian Pulisic is the face of the youth movement giving hope to fans of U.S. men’s soccer. (Wikimedia Commons)

Conversely, I understand the desire to use the US academy system as a scapegoat. However, players “in their prime” are the players who should have carried this team to the World Cup. Those are players ages 23 – 28ish. Those players did not show up as much as we needed them to and so we had to rely on the old-guard (Dempsey and Howard). But those “in their prime” players were in US academies approximately 10 years ago. If you believe that the US academy system has not changed since Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore came out of it you are sorely mistaken. The youngsters like Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Erik Palmer-Brown, Andrew Carleton, etc. are of a different breed of USMNT player. I am not saying that the US academy system is perfect, but it is improving and will continue to improve as time goes on.

Lastly, I will admit that I am not old enough to know this, but it feels like there are more young talented players coming out of the US than ever before. The key then, is continuing to develop those players once they join the senior team and mold them into a cohesive unit. That will be the job of the next head coach. Speaking of which …

THE PRESENT: What are the immediate next steps for US Soccer?

Changes- I would not be surprised if Bruce Arena resigns before this article is even posted online (He did). Sunil Gulati will almost certainly be out of a job as well but I do not know whether that will be of his own accord, or how quickly that will occur. USSF will definitely need to find replacements for them, but that process needs to be well thought-out, which may take some time. Plus, as much as it may not feel like it, USSF has some time, especially for the head coach position. Many head coaches looking to coach a national team may not be available until after the World Cup next summer.

USSF PresidentCarlos Cordeiro won the USSF election in Febuary. My prior speculation on this isn’t really interesting now. Jury is still out on whether Cordeiro was the right choice.

Head Coach- For the head coaching job, that will depend a lot on who is available and what the new USSF President wants. I think they will be looking for someone 1. Who is familiar with the US system/MLS 2. With national team coaching experience 3. Who has a record of developing youth. As of right now, Tata Martino of Atlanta United checks all of those boxes. Other candidates who check some of them are Peter Vermes of Sporting Kansas City, and Oscar Pareja of FC Dallas. Still, all of those names are within MLS. It is very possible that USSF look far and wide for the next head coach. A dark horse candidate that no one is talking about because he is relatively unproven is Patrick Viera (formerly) of NYCFC. He has done a very good job of getting the most out of his youth (see: Jack Harrison recently playing for the English U-21s)

For now, Dave Sarachan is the interim Head Coach. He’s done fine for an interim head coach. Since the end of the spring I’ve been rooting for Gregg Berhalter to win the position. I plan on writing a whole different column about that next week. Stay tuned.

THE FUTURE: What does the USMNT have to do to get back on track?

Owning CONCACAF- I think Matt Doyle phrased it well on “Club & Country: After the Whistle” when he said that the US needs to “start beating up on CONCACAF teams again”. The US need to be the best team on this continent before we can do anything major on the world stage. Don Garber, MLS Commissioner, has expressed similar sentiments about MLS. MLS needs to be the best league in CONCACAF before it can be compared to other leagues around the world. This is a natural progression for the league to take, and I agree with the Armchair Analyst himself that it is a progression for the US as well. (If you’re interested in soccer in the US, then Matt Doyle is a must-read)

Integrating Youth- In addition to re-becoming the shark which eats CONCACAF minnows, the US have to get better at incorporating youth into the national team. This is a separate process from developing youth in our academies. I am referring to making the leap from our youth teams to our full senior national team. For example, Matt Miazga is 22 (now 23) years old and starting in the Dutch League. Yet the most action he has seen for the senior team was one Gold Cup appearance this summer and some other cameos. At this point, he should be somewhat integrated into our center back rotation. I think Bobby Wood also integrated slowly onto this team. At this point he is in the rotation at striker but it feels like it came a year or two too late.

Dave Sarachan has laid a great foundation for this in recent friendlies. The rise of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, et al. bodes well for the USMNT.

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Clint Dempsey retired from international soccer in 2018, finishing his career third in caps and tied first in scoring. (Wikimedia Commons)

Saying Goodbye- Part of our problem with integrating youth is that we struggle to move on from older players. This problem will likely evaporate for a year or two as our oldest players retire (Thanks Clint Dempsey!).

With that, we have to say goodbye to some USMNT legends once and for all. Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and DeMarcus Beasley will never play a competitive match again for the USMNT. These guys won’t see more than one or two more caps as celebrations of their careers (Clint didn’t even get that).

Additionally, say goodbye to the roles of players aged 27-30 on this team. Michael Bradley will be on the cusp of 35 by the time the 2022 World Cup rolls around. The young end of this cohort include Jozy Altidore and Darlington Nagbe who will be 31 in 2022, but also include Gonzalez and Besler who will both be 34 by then. I do not expect the US to abandon these players completely. However, when do we let go of players of this age group? I have a feeling the 2019 Gold Cup may be the last hurrah for many of them.

Seeing how well Miazga and Brooks paired together in recent friendlies, I do not see a reason to call any older center-backs. I still think Jozy and Nagbe could be useful for this team, especially over the next two years. After that I really hope some youth beat them out for their positions. After recent reports of Bradley’s ‘alpha dog’ mentality, I honestly think his presence will only be a hindrance.

Looking Forward- And with that I will leave everyone with some hope that it will get better from here. Christian Pulisic, the wonder-boy himself, the most talented player is US history, is only 20 years old. He played in that elimination game and you can bet he will never forget it. The most expensive player is US history (who was injured for the last few qualifiers), John Brooks, is 25 years old. The US U-20 team made it to the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup this summer without Pulisic and Shalke midfielder Weston McKennie and other notable absences. Their only loss was to the team that ended up getting second place. 19 year old Tyler Adams scored his first USMNT goal against Mexico. The future is bright.

After another year, I have some idea on who should be key players going forward. At this point, I would definitely put Pulisic, Adams, McKennie, Brooks, Miazga, Yedlin, and Steffen on the field for a must win game. The other four starting positions are still up for grabs, which is fine for now. Our next competitive game is in the summer of 2019 and it’s the Gold Cup. Don’t get me wrong, I want to win the Gold Cup, but if we’re still working out a kink or two I won’t cry about it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we worry about that we should worry about who the head coach is going to be. Come back next week to hear my thoughts on the head coach search!

Ranking Cities Sports Title Droughts

It has been a wild couple of years in sports in terms of ending title droughts. In 2016, Cleveland won its first championship in any sport in over half a century and the Chicago Cubs broke a 108-year curse by winning the World Series. In 2017, the Houston Astros won their first ever World Series title. 2018 has already seen the Philadelphia Eagles win a long-awaited championship and the Washington Capitals finally bring home the Stanley Cup. Some of the most historic title droughts in all of sports have ended in recent years, begging the question of which cities remain the most tortured for a title. Here is my top ten.

10. Detroit
Teams: Lions (NFL), Pistons (NBA), Red Wings (NHL), Tigers (MLB),
Last title: 2008

It has only been a decade since a Detroit team has won a title, but the history of sports success in the Motor City is not a great one. The Lions have famously (or infamously) never won a Super Bowl, or even appeared in one. They also hold the NFL record for most consecutive playoff losses. Baseball is a little more promising because the Tigers have won before, three times actually, but the last World Series victory came in 1984. The Pistons have had some great teams, but have also been one of the worst run NBA franchises in the last ten years. In the NHL, the Red Wings represent the true bright spot. Detroit has hoisted the Stanley Cup twice since the turn of the century. It hasn’t been that long for Detroit, but it might be a while before one of these four teams wins another title.

9. Indianapolis
Teams: Colts (NFL), Pacers (NBA)
Last title: 2006

Only two teams reside in Indianapolis and the Colts have won a title. The Peyton Manning era is still one fans could look back on proudly, but for a long time the Colts were one of the most tortured franchises in the NFL. They have resumed that post since then. For a city as crazy about basketball as Indy, zero NBA titles is a real bummer as well. The Pacers have only reached the NBA finals once in franchise history losing to the Shaq and Kobe Lakers. Both the Colts and Pacers have been competitive in recent years as well, but always end up faltering in the playoffs, leaving a bitter taste in fans’ mouths.

8. Charlotte
Teams: Hurricanes (NHL), Hornets (NBA), Panthers (NFL)
Last title: 2006

It has also been 12 years since Charlotte has won a title, but they get the edge for having three teams as opposed to Indy’s two. The Hornets have been one of the worst franchises in NBA history. It has been 30 years since the Hornets were founded and the team has never so much as won a division title. Football has treated fans a little better, as the Panthers did reach the Super Bowl back in 2003. They came agonizingly close to beating that Brady guy, but Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winner as time expired to beat Carolina. The Hurricanes are the only team in Charlotte to win a title. After losing in the 2002 Stanley Cup final, Carolina broke through in 2006 to lift the cup. Still, just one title between three teams over the past 30 years is a poor return.

7. Nashville
Teams: Predators (NHL), Titans (NFL)
Last title: N/A

If you also lump in the Memphis Grizzles, the Tennessee would likely move up a few spots on this list. Seeing as Memphis and Nashville are on opposite sides of the state though, it did not seem too fair. Both teams moved to town in 1997, but the Predators came close to bringing home a title in 2017. On the other hand, the Titans made the playoffs in 2017 for the first time in nearly ten years. What holds Nashville back is how new of a sports city it is. It has only had pro teams for 20 years, so the lack of a title is not totally shocking. Only one appearance in a finals setting is more than enough to qualify for this list though.

6. Cincinnati
Teams: Bengals (NFL), Reds (MLB)
Last title: 1990

Oh, where to begin with Cincinnati. For one, the Bengals have been a punch line in the NFL for quite some time. Head coach Marvin Lewis took over in 2003 and has taken the team to the playoffs seven times in his tenure. He is also 0-7 in the postseason. It has been 27 years since Cincy has won a playoff game, the longest active streak in the league. The Bengals weren’t always this way though. In the ’80s, Cincinnati made it to two Super Bowls, both times losing by less than a touchdown to the Joe Montana led 49ers. The Reds haven’t been a whole lot better. Since winning the World Series in 1990, Cincy’s baseball team has only made the playoffs four times. With the Bengals looking like an average team and the Reds in the middle of a rebuild, it could be a while before Cincinnati celebrates another championship.

5. San Diego
Teams: Padres (MLB), Chargers (NFL)
Last title: N/A

Technically, there is only one pro team still in San Deigo, but to not include the struggles of the Chargers in evaluating the drought this city has gone through would be unfair. I actually think the fact the Chargers left makes life as a fan in this city even more torturous. Boasting one of the greatest offenses in NFL history, San Diego never managed to reach a Super Bowl. Its lone appearance was a blowout loss to the 49ers in 1994. Even during the early 2000s, it seemed like the Chargers would finally break through, but never managed to reach the Super Bowl. For the Padres, opportunities for postseason success have been few and far between. In 49 years as a franchise, the Padres have made the playoffs just five times, including two different losses in the World Series. San Diego has long awaited a title and now will have an even tougher time securing one with only the Padres left in town.

4. Phoenix
Teams: Cardinals (NFL), Coyotes (NHL), Diamondbacks (MLB), Suns (NBA)
Last title: 2001

It has been 17 years since the largest city in Arizona brought home a sports championship. The Cardinals came agonizingly close in 2009 before falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a wild Super Bowl. The Suns haven’t been good in years, but still remember the days of Charles Barkley and Steve Nash fondly. Neither of the ever managed to bring home a title. The Coyotes have never made it to a Stanley Cup final, much less won one. That leaves the Diamondbacks, who won the cities last championship in 2001. It is the only title in the city’s history. The Cardinals won an NFL Championship in 1947, but that was actually while the team was located in Chicago. Only one title between four teams is tough for fans to swallow and it does not seem like any of them are close to a title for a least a few more years.

3. Atlanta
Teams: Hawks (NBA), Falcons (NFL), Braves (MLB),
Last title: 1995

Between the Hawks, Falcons and Braves, Atlanta has only brought home one title in the history of sports in the city. The Braves broke through in 1995, which isn’t really that long ago, but this city definitely knows what it is like to want a title. The Hawks have never made it to the NBA Finals while in Atlanta. The 2016 Falcons made it to the Super Bowl and blew the largest lead in the history of the game. It marked the second time the Falcons lost in the championship. Looking at the Braves, they lost four other World Series during the ’90s. Had it not been for that World Series in ’95, Atlanta might very well top this list.

2. Buffalo
Teams: Bills (NFL), Sabres (NHL)
Last title: N/A

Western New York is home to one of the most passionate fan bases in all of sports. The aptly named “Bills Mafia” provides a fun home field advantage whenever the Bills are hosting. Sabres fans have suffered through many years of woeful play on the ice, but still support the team nonetheless. Between these two franchises, Buffalo has appeared in six different championships, winning none of them. The Bills came up short in four consecutive Super Bowls! Talk about torture for fans. The Sabres made two different runs to the Stanley Cup final over the years, but fell short in both. It was the NHL team who made Buffalo’s last championship appearance in 1999. Up until last year, the Bills hadn’t even been to the playoffs since 1999. What holds Buffalo back from the top spot is the fact that the city only has two teams.

1. Minneapolis
Teams: Timberwolves (NBA), Twins (MLB), Wild (NHL), Vikings (NFL)
Last title: 1991

21 years ago was the last time a team from the Twin Cities won a title. Minneapolis is home to some of the most tortured fan bases in sports. On one hand, you have the Vikings. The Purple People Eaters lost four Super Bowls from 1969 to 1976. The Vikings have never made it back to the big game since their loss in ’76. It seemed like they would in 1998, with a historically good offense, only to lose in their first playoff game that year. Then there are the Timberwolves. Minnesota finally broke the second longest playoff drought in NBA history in 2018 after 13 years of failing to qualify. In a league where more than half the teams make it to the postseason, that is quite a feat. The Wild haven’t been in town long, but like the Timberwolves, have never even reached the finals. The Twins are the only team in town with a title, but have not returned to the World Series. While Minneapolis has won a title, none of the teams in the city have even reached the championship stage in the 27 years since. This city is starved for a title and well-deserving of the top spot on our list.

The Forgotten Playoffs: MLS

We are in the playoff push for the NFL season. The NBA season tipped off and NHL season is well underway. One of the most watched World Series ever wrapped up with the Chicago Cubs breaking a 108-year curse, the longest drought in American sports history.

sebastian-giovinco
Sebastian Giovinco could deliver Toronto a league title for a franchise that had never won a playoff game before this year. (Wikimedia Commons)

Somewhere in all of that, the MLS playoffs kicked off. Now, the MLS is not quite on par with the core four of American sports, but the last few years have pushed the top American soccer league into the national focus. The last several years have been solid years of growth in terms of league money and fans.

If anything, this year had the makings of a big year for the MLS playoffs. It features several big market teams, think New York, LA, Seattle, Dallas and D.C., a team searching for its first ever playoff win in Toronto, all three MVP candidates between the two New York squads and the return of the most-accomplished MLS player ever in Landon Donovan.

Yet all of that very easily fell by the wayside when the rest of the sports world exploded. Factor in the most ridiculous presidential election possibly ever and the MLS playoffs have been largely forgotten.

Now it is easy to write this off as just Americans don’t care about soccer, but that isn’t really a fair assumption. MLSSoccer.com reported in July that viewership was up across all ESPN platforms, specifically 32 percent on television and 127 percent via the WatchESPN app.

More fans are showing up to the stadiums as well. Total gate numbers increased by about more than 100 fans per game across the league. That might not sound like much, but that’s an extra 34,000 tickets sold this year. According to Soccer Stadium Digest, roughly 7.38 million fans turned out for MLS games this year.

Jordan Morris, Jeff Hendrick
Jordan Morris (left) scored the decisive goal in the Western Conference Final for Seattle. (Wikimedia Commons)

The stage is set for a massive final tonight, between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC. It is the first time that either team has even reached the MLS Final, so we are guaranteed to have a new champion this year.

The stage is set for an impressive final, yet it is unlikely that people will be watching. At least not in the United States. Canadian television ratings were smashed consistently during the Eastern Conference playoffs. Toronto matched up with Montreal for the first all-Canadian conference final ever.

As I mentioned before, the league holds its playoffs at a time that competes with the NFL, college football, college basketball, the NBA, NHL and the World Series. It is to imagine that soccer is going to break through all of that to make an impression or garner fans’ attention.

Once again, the league needs to start considering a shift in the season. If the MLS Final were to happen some time in September or June, there is a very good chance that it would merit more coverage. There would also be a lot less to compete with. Obviously, the league does not want to admit that soccer is not popular enough to stand out in the States, but that’s the reality right now.

Soccer is slowly growing the U.S., but the long-term success of MLS will rely on a breakthrough in television viewership.