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"Hustle" Over Talent: US Soccer's Mental Hurdle Strikes Again

The day that the US Men's National Team cares more about talent than intangibles is the day that we become a true World Cup contender.

Jonathan Daniel

There are few things that I despise more than 'intangibles'. Anyone who has ever listened to the Thugcast knows that I  cannot stand it when people try and argue about things that cannot be quantified when it comes to sports. It's much harder in soccer to get actual numbers for those sorts of things even with the advent of Opta-stats. That's why it's one of the hardest games to analyze out there -- any idiot can figure out a baseball game, because all the numbers are laid out right in front of you. In soccer, it's different. As much as baseball fans want it to be 'the thinking man's game', soccer is far more so. You really have to have your head in it in order to take any real analysis out of something, every statistic has to be taken in context with the others.

Unfortunately, a lot of fans just eschew all of that and bleat on endlessly about heart, hustle, grit and determination. Words that have absolutely no meaning in any actual context of analysis, but words that people like to try and use to end arguments. A generally mediocre player scores a bunch of goals early in the season? And the so-called 'experts' are saying he'll regress!? He won't regress, he's got hustle! This player has been generally mediocre defensively, and gets burned at least three times a game? Well don't worry, that boy deserves a starting XI spot every week regardless because he always gives 100% for the team!

This has always been the flaw of American soccer. We do not care about talent in this country. We only care about intangibles. Does he give 100% every play? Bring that boy on in, he's just our type! There's just one problem with that. There's a reason why the majority of players who have big intangibles get talked about in terms of their intangibles: they are lacking in one or more other departments, sometimes big time. A guy who "gives 100% for the team" is usually a guy who wouldn't even be sniffing the starting eighteen if he didn't work absurdly hard every single second. Most of the time, those guys don't tend to be that great at soccer overall. It almost always comes down to an argument of intangibles over talent.

If you want a down-home example here, allow me to rewind the clock to the old Rapids strike partnership of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings pairing. Rapids fans absolutely loved Omar Cummings. A lot of Rapids fans did not like Conor Casey. Casey was the more talented of the two strikers. He was a genius at off-the-ball movement, his strength against defenders was fantastic, and he had some very underrated footwork as well, He had every trait you love to see in a pure target forward, and unlike Cummings he didn't just have a single flash-in-the-pan season before flaming out right after. Even in 2011, when injuries destroyed his season and eventually his Rapids career, he had scored six goals in six games going into the fateful night against the Seattle Sounders where his Achilles' tendon snapped.

Yet despite that, when Cummings was doing absolutely nothing game-after-game from 2011 until he was traded, he was the one that a lot of Rapids fans would defend to the death. Why? Because while Casey's smart movement made him 'lazy' and 'scoring just the easy ones', Cummings would run all over the field, even if goals weren't coming for him. He had 'hustle' and 'determination'.

That is also the curse that always seems to plague the US Men's National Team. We're cursed with what appears to be some sort of underdog complex: we don't want to be a World Class talent. We want to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps and beat them bad guys with heart and grit because this is America, damnit!

Take a look at the 23-man roster the US is bringing to Brazil this summer, and you'll see that in spades. A whole lot of heart, but not a whole lot of proven talent. Chris Wondolowski has proven time and time again that he is not talented enough for the US Men's National team on a high level. He used to score in bunches against really bad MLS defenses, but his poaching tends to fail against teams with decent defenses that actually cover him. Most half-decent national team sides fit that latter category, which is why the five of his USMNT goals that came in actual meaningful competition came against Belize and Cuba in games the US won 6-1 and 4-1. But my goodness that boy hustles and 'finishes plays', doesn't he?! Wondo did nothing during the Hex, yet he got in over two guys (Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson) who both have far better histories at the national level and who both scored important goals during the qualifying process. And the only reason anyone can give me for why is intangibles.

DeAndre Yedlin and some of the other youngsters who made the squad are another example; Yedlin's a guy who has a bright future ahead of him, but who has been shredded by MLS attackers all season. He got in over Micheal Parkhurst, one of the best position-oriented defenders in the entire league, and the only reason I can see for why is intangibles. That boy runs hard, don't he?

You know who I never hear harping on endlessly about intangibles? You know who never sings the praises of 'hustle'? Spain and Brazil. The two most absurdly talented teams in the world don't need hustle. Fernando Torres never hustles -- in fact it's a running joke how little he tends to work on the field sometimes -- yet he's got 106 caps, 36 goals and several winners medals from big tournaments, along with a Golden Boot from EURO 2012. 64 of those caps and 27 of those goals have come in actual competition, too. Despite his work rate and his perhaps lack of 'giving 100% to the team' every second, he produces because he's got talent.

It's clear that Klinsmann knows that there are plenty of talented players that were left off of the roster for Brazil, because a lot of them made it far enough to get cut from the 30-man in the first place. Alexi Lalas made a tweet that I very much agreed with in that same vein.

It's no secret that Klinsmann doesn't seem to like Donovan thanks to his Cambodian cruise, but clearly Donovan's superior talent level was still in the back of Klinsmann's mind right until the end. This isn't just about Donovan, of course. He's the most notable 'snub' from this World Cup roster, and the one getting the most press at the moment, but there were plenty of other players that didn't make the team who certainly had the talent to do so. Yedlin over Parkhurst, Wondo over Johnson, and even a situation like John Brooks over Clarence Goodson are a few other examples. Let's not pretend that this team doesn't a lot of talent still, but there's less than there could be. In a few cases, intangibles won out over talent, and the US honestly doesn't have the stock to get away with that.

Germany nearly always has an absurd amount of talent to choose from, so Klinsmann could do as he liked with them. The United States does not have an absurd amount of talent to choose from. We might be in that position in four years if all goes well with the flood of young prospects in the USMNT picture, but right now, we're not. There is no easy picking for the starting eighteen, and that's because of a lack of talent, not a dearth of it.

In 2018, we might have enough talent to get away with keeping some of it off the roster when it's time to head to Russia. Until then, I hope we can finally get over this foolish mentality that 'hustle' will ever defeat talent. When we finally do, we will always have the potential to turn into a world power.

Edit: Hahahahahaha