It's been quite the week in the USMNT: A drubbing by Belgium's presumed first team and then a cracker of a match against Germany's presumed 2nd/3rd team in exhibition matches had people flying all over the scale in terms of their reactions. Of course, these reactions were typically qualified with "It's just a friendly" unless of course they believed these results to be indicative of something they were trying to prove, in which case, "It's NOT just a friendly." And then we had the "What does this mean for World Cup Qualifiers?" to which the answers varied from "Nothing" to "Everything".
Well, after the dust has settled from both, and the USMNT are well on their way to Jamaica, your friends at Burgundy Wave are going to weigh in too. I especially want to weigh in on the idea that was brought up on Extra Time Radio, twice in fact, that the USMNT is incapable of playing the style of football that Jurgen Klinnsman promised: a pro-active, high pressure, possession based attacking style. A demand for a return to bunker-ball. Because that's what we are good at, and that's what we've taught our players to be good at: tough and gritty defensively and then quick on a longball counter attack.
I don't think the United States should abandon its development of a better system of soccer under any circumstances. I don't think the direction of the Men's national team should necessarily follow whatever path is easiest to the World Cup, and then try to do our best to get out of the Group Stage, and then hope we don't get too embarrassed in the knockout rounds. I, for one, am OK with missing one World Cup if it means we will have better results in future World Cups. I may be alone in that regard, even among my friends, but a complete overhaul of the way we have done things with regards to the Men's game in the United States is of the most critical importance.
Some have said, "Well, that's what Americans are good at, bunkering and countering. That's what we do well, we should keep doing that."
To counter that point, I need only point to the other side of the National Team: The United States Women's National Team, who play some of the most attractive and dominant soccer in the women's game today. The reason? Because they value it. Because they've taken the time to train it and implement it from the 1st Team on down. And they did not compromise (fortunately, they never had to, because the United States has always been dominant in the women's game). It's a sad fact of our sports culture that our Women's team gets neglected in conversations about the directions of the Men's team. As if the transition to technical, possession based, attacking soccer hasn't been done in this country before. Like Americans are somehow ingrained to think of Bunker Ball as our national game.
Bunker Ball is what happens when we face teams who are dominant, physically and we have no technical way to respond to it. This is going to happen every time the United States faces an opponent from Europe, Africa, South and Central America... well, anywhere really. I think we need to face facts that our professional soccer players for the most part are not at the same physical level as the athletes of Europe. That's something that's culturally influenced: soccer is simply more valuable than other sports in other countries--so top athletes go there first as opposed to other sports. In the United States? Soccer isn't seen as a first choice for many of our young male athletes. Sure, it's fun to play as a kid, but until the development of the Academies, there was never a clear path to being a soccer player as an athletic career. And even if they do, before the Academies, American boys were treated to a coddling system of pay to play in which they were rewarded with meaningless trophies as opposed to given a true path to further challenge themselves and develop their real athletic potential.
How have the women of the United States become so dominant in the field of international soccer? Because their response to being confronted with better athletes is to be smarter, more technical, and more skilled--to develop a possession based attacking approach to the game. The exact thing that the Men's team needs to do, and can do.
Belgium was an example of how far we need to go in order to truly master these skills against European competition that has already had years on us in terms of their development of the skill sets required to play the kind of system we want to play. Germany was an example of what it looks like when the system works. Both times the Men's team attempted to play the kind of soccer that we were promised from Klinnsman: high pressure possession based attacking soccer. It's what we want to see: a high scoring game where America comes out on top. The kind of the result that we regularly expect to see from our Women's National Team.
There's still everyday elements to these games that need to be address: lackadaisical defending, fluency in passing... the kinds of things that every team (national or club) has to deal with during a match. But these elements are small in comparison to a larger scale paradigm shift that's happening within the Men's National team and to the Men's game in American overall.
Is the USMNT in a better position to play Jamaica than it was, say, a few months ago? I think so. I think they've gotten better as they've gone along. But as they say, football is played on grass. And when the ball gets kicked, all this talk of major over-arching philosophical changes get thrown out and it just becomes 11v11. However, thinking that nothing but Bunker Ball will succeed in CONCACAF is just plain wrong. The women's game has already shown the way, and it's up to the men of the USMNT to follow in the footsteps of their sisters.