It’s 2015, and American involvement in the football world is greater than ever.
Loretta Lynch and the DOJ are leading a crusade against the sport’s deplorable governing body, MLS television ratings are on the rise, and the 2015 Women’s World Cup is already drawing scores of spectators north of the border to see the Stars and Stripes try to bring home their third title.
But what of the men’s national team?
The USMNT has been on somewhat of an emotional roller-coaster lately. After making incredible strides in Brazil last summer, the Americans — informally known as the Family von Trapp — have looked anything but, throwing together late-game collapse after late-game collapse. First it was against a top Colombian squad in London, where the USMNT gave up two late stunners and slunk away in defeat; next, in a game they led 2-1 before allowing two goals after the 66th minute. In March, the squad again went up 2-1, this time against Denmark before allowing two goals in the last eight minutes, and in a matinee performance six days later in Switzerland, the team was true to form, allowing the Swiss to score an 80th minute goal forcing a draw. All said and done, the team has allowed eight goals after the 80th minute in the last nine games.
So what now?
Members of the national team spent their seasons making head coach and former superstar Jurgen Klinsmann’s blood boil. A number of the team’s stars (Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Mix Diskerud, Michael Bradley, every important center back, etc.) make their livings stateside for MLS clubs. The boss has expressed his dissatisfaction with players who forgo tougher environments abroad to play at home, which has caused rifts between MLS administrators and the feisty German.1
Yes, the fights have sparked drama, but it’s now summertime, and summer is no time for fighting. These dog days are exciting for a number of reasons. Already underway is the U-20 World Cup, where German-American wonder-kid Gedion Zelalem, Fulham product Emerson Hyndman, and potential-filled striker Rubio Rubin led the squad to the Round of 16. They’ll face either Portugal, Colombia, or Senegal there for a spot in the quarterfinals.
Elsewhere, the U-23 team put together a lackluster performance, yet still somehow found a way to slither into the third place playoff game at the prestigious Toulon Tournament. The two biggest names in France for the Americans are World Cup hero Julian Green, coming off a frustrating loan to Hamburg, and Jordan Morris, a 20 year old striker who spends his days in class at Stanford.
The focus, however, is on the big kids club. In July, the USMNT will take the pitch for the Gold Cup against the best that CONCACAF has to offer. The Americans are, at the very least, expected to make the final. Truthfully, anything less than a win will be a disappointment. Even a win, however, will raise what I can only call The USMNT Question: when will the Stars and Stripes make the jump from good to great?
Beating Mexico dos-a-cero day in and day out is fun. Running the jewels on Honduras is fine and dandy. But when will the team stake their place among the world’s elite?
The short answer is no one knows. Players at the youth levels of American soccer have shown extraordinary potential. None — with the exception of Zelalem — look to be European league stars, but many have the talent to play supporting roles for the next decade. Still, few of them seem ready to break through to the first-team. So where does that leave the squad?
The back line, as always, has questions. Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez are the two most skilled center backs the Americans have, but they’re not talented enough to be world-beaters. On the wings, there are gaping holes. Fabian Johnson is a top-tier fullback, but players opposite him have been less than great. Deandre Yedlin is talented, but lacks polish. Matt Miazga could be the answer, but he too is young. Timmy Chandler’s form is a perpetual face-palm, and DeMarcus Beasley just retired. Geoff Cameron could be the answer, but Klinsmann prefers him as a center back. In goal, Brad Guzan seems to have cemented his place as the first-choice keeper, but what happens when Timmy Howard’s sabbatical ends? Will he supplant his fellow bald headed post minder?
The midfield brings joy to supporters’ hearts, as Bradley continues to be a creative genius when it comes to buildup, though only for 15 minutes per game. He goes quiet for blocks of time, but when awoken, produces plays that no other American can. That mostly has to do with him playing everywhere except his preferred defensive midfield role. Diskerud is developing an attacking presence, and Bedoya’s recent form elicits glee with every touch. Zelalem and Hyndman — the aforementioned U-20 superstars-in-the-making — are almost ready to break through to the first team, and as always, Clint Dempsey is his consistent, jaw-dropping self.
Dempsey occasionally masquerades as a forward, bolstering the team’s front line. Led by oft-injured Toronto resident, Jozy Altidore, the group is made up of Icelandic transplant, Aron Jóhannsson, Los Angeles youngster Gyasi Zardes, recent call-up Bobby Wood, and the two previously mentioned U-23 strikers, Green and Morris.
This team has issues, no doubt, but they’re filled with great potential. Not all is bleak. On Friday, the American B- squad came from behind to beat a C+ Holland team in Amsterdam. Down 3-1, they rallied, and continued to press the Dutch back line until something broke. In the 70th minute, John Anthony Brooks slotted home a tap-in reminiscent to the header that broke Ghanaian hearts last June. 18 minutes later, substitute Danny Williams scorched in an equalizer, and just a minute later, Bobby Wood tapped in a game winner.
No one can say for sure when, or if the Americans will make the jump to the next level, but one thing is certain: this team is going to bother every squad it comes up against. They may not win them all, but damnit, they’re going to make it a fight.
Correction: A previous version of this piece stated that John Anthony Brooks headed home a goal against the Netherlands. He actually tapped it in with his foot. The article has been corrected to reflect this change.
- In spite of these face-offs, Jurgen continued calling upon his battle-tested veterans, and sprinkled in future stars of the sport to bolster potential. ↩