Back in 2013, up-and-coming striker Aron Johannsson had a decision to make. He had the opportunity to be a part of two senior national teams—the United States, where he was born, and Iceland, where his parents were from. He spent his younger years in the Icelandic developmental set-up, giving them a perceived advantage in his recruitment. That being said, it didn’t surprise many when he chose to represent the US. Iceland was a tiny country with a population roughly the size of Corpus Christi, Texas, and it played in the toughest regional confederation in the world, while the US was an up-and-coming power with seemingly unlimited potential.
Earlier today, that tiny country played its first friendly since qualifying for next summer’s World Cup; in a few hours, the US prepares to play its first friendly since contriving to miss the tournament for the first time since 1986. During the last qualification cycle, Mexico, the US’s primary regional rival, churned through three managers as they attempted to play through their struggles, eventually making the Cup via a play-off victory over New Zealand. It was a huge disappointment that that team had even found themselves in that spot to begin with. Of course, the question must then be asked: what would missing the greatest tournament on the planet be considered? To be short: disaster of epic proportions. There are many factors that played into this failure; I’m going to address each of what I believe the biggest problems were.
Much of the blame for the US getting knocked out will fall, rightfully, on the two managers that helmed the team through qualifying, Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena. Klinsmann was the big-name hire the USSF had sought after for years—he had success playing for and managing his native Germany before coming to settle in California. Arena was the steady hand, a man who had previously managed the team for two World Cups and knows more about the ins and outs of US Soccer than virtually anyone. Both men had their successes—Klinsmann revolutionized the talent pool from whence team selections were made, while Arena stabilized a chaotic environment after Klinsmann’s departure. Both of them were also felled by a similar issue—their team selection.
Klinsmann had a tendency to over-rotate his squad—he could never settle on a set formation, much less a starting XI. This made things difficult for two reasons—it was tough for players to understand their role in the system of a manager that kept changing, and perhaps more difficult for those players to develop any sense of camaraderie with their teammates, something that is already a challenge considering the nature of national teams. A prime example of this is the plight of Michael Bradley—as Klinsmann’s tenure wore on, the captain was often shunted into a role akin to an attacking midfielder. While putting him there made sense based on the players the manager preferred, it definitely didn’t benefit the team performance-wise, and it certainly didn’t do Bradley any favors. He was far from comfortable in the role, and possession often stagnated at his feet because of major indecision. Putting him in his preferred spot would result in one of three things, though—moving Jermaine Jones, Bradley’s “normal” partner, if one could call him that, into the captain’s role, dropping Jones, or drastically altering the formation. Klinsmann tried all three options—the first in a Gold Cup play-off loss against Mexico, the second in a 2-0 loss against Guatemala, and the third in a qualifier against Mexico in a 2-1 loss. These three games were notable for many reasons—for our purposes here, though, two main ones. The first is that, in every case, Klinsmann stuck a different person—Kyle Beckerman in the first case, Mix Diskerud in the second case, and Christian Pulisic in the third—near to Bradley in the center of the park, which, considering the importance of the matches, was a poor choice that limited his effectiveness. The other was that these were games that were considered extraordinarily winnable, and their failure to do that could largely be attributed to Bradley’s poor performance.
Arena, meanwhile, had quite the opposite problem—he was far too predictable in establishing his team, and he eschewed more talented, and more productive, players for those that he considered his “favorites.” These issues can be best represented in the squad and line-up selections for the last two games of the most recent Hex. Arena decided to leave out Fabian Johnson, who is arguably the country’s best two-way player, and called in Gyasi Zardes, who played under Arena for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Johnson had, of course, struggled with injuries, and looked off the pace in the team’s previous qualifiers, but leaving him out and bringing in Zardes, who eventually had to withdraw from the team on account of his own injury problems and had greater struggles than Johnson when he was healthy, is inexcusable. Just as baffling were Arena’s decisions on who to start in the biggest qualifying matches of the year. He rolled out what he believed to be the best line-up in the first game against Honduras, choosing not to rest anyone for the match that would be held in the more difficult, and more hostile, locale of Trinidad and Tobago. He also refused to rotate in the second game, which resulted in a sluggish start from which the team was unable to recover. That line-up also did not feature Geoff Cameron, Johnson’s closest competitor for the country’s best two-way player, but did feature Omar Gonzalez, another of Arena’s former Galaxy men. Gonzalez looked very out of place, especially in the second match, hitting in an own goal that prevented the US from snagging a point, thereby costing them a chance of at least making the World Cup via a play-off.
It is clear, then, that the US needs to find a manger that can find a balance between the two extremes of Klinsmann and Arena—over-rotation and a lack of it, little unity and no fresh blood. They will also need to place a heavy focus on incorporating youth players into the senior team—players like Jones, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard, mainstays for the last two Cup cycles, will either be retired or past their prime the next time around, and the youth set-up, while immensely flawed, is more talented than ever, with players like Tim Weah and Josh Sargent primed to be stars. It is for this reason that I think that the job should go, at least on a temporary basis, to Tab Ramos, the current technical director and U-20 manager. I recognize that Dave Sarachan is in charge now, and I have a fondness for him due to his time in Chicago with the Fire, but I simply don’t think he’s the right fit here. Ramos’s knowledge of the youth system will be imperative, especially for a team that will come to rely on that system more than it has in recent years. If he is not viewed as a long-term option, then I would try to go after Alexander Nouri to run the show. He showed some strong tactical flexibility in helping his old club, Werder Bremen, beat the drop last season in Germany, and also has a familiarity with America, having played in Seattle on loan back in the late 1990’s. Furthermore, his previous experience in a league where many players, such as Johnson and John Brooks, to name two, play their club football would make it easier to know what to expect from a good chunk of his core, and they the same from him. Nouri also has some knowledge of the talent pipeline for the US, as it was under his watch that Bremen signed the aforementioned Sargent to his first ever professional contract. If he isn’t available, being patient in identifying the right candidate will be imperative—the last two choices were the wrong ones, and we’ve seen where that’s gotten us.
Check back soon for Part 2!