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Mather: The USMNT needs to adapt to a post-Dempsey world

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The U.S. men’s national team’s last few months have undeniably been a little rough. The team followed a surprise elimination to Jamaica in the Gold Cup with a heartbreaking extra-time loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup and, just yesterday, a 1-0 friendly loss to Costa Rica, all of which have caused people to ask if coach Jurgen Klinsmann is taking the program in the right direction.

Clint Dempsey seemed to struggle especially in the team’s defeats. Though he was still nominally the best American attacker in the Gold Cup, Dempsey was unable to find the net when it mattered most against Jamaica and looked outclassed in Saturday’s game against Mexico. The player who had captained the United States in the World Cup as it came so close to a fairytale ending has struggled to come up big in the most important matches since.

It seems only fair that Dempsey should be able to cede some of his responsibility to lead his country at this point in his career. Soccer players are entitled to grow old, and Dempsey has put in more than his part to elevate the status of the American game.

But every time Dempsey has attempted to take a step back, the rest of the team has failed to do its part and step up. A position that once looked amongst the U.S.’s strongest now looks like it might be left without a player to fill it. Based on the way that the American national team plays, this has me quite worried.

Jozy Altidore has been the heir apparent to the American attack for many years now, and for a while, it appeared that everything was in place for him to succeed. But under the reign of Klinsmann, Altidore has failed to find his groove. The striker was sent home from the Gold Cup after appearing out of phase to his coach and has failed to make his formerly massive impact in most of his appearances over the last year.

Klinsmann recruit Aron Johannsson has showed some of the range and creativity that Dempsey brought to the U.S. offense, but the Icelandic-American has only managed 4 goals in his 19 appearances. This is a far cry from the numbers that would be necessary to keep America moving forward.

Dozens of other names have been tossed around as part of the solution for years now, but it’s hard to know if and when this talent will develop. Stanford’s own Jordan Morris has looked sharp in his six performances for the senior team, but it’s ultimately too early to tell whether he can become a reliable threat going forward. Bobby Wood and Julian Green have also made headlines at different points in their careers, but both have punctuated periods of true greatness with prolonged spans of mediocrity.

The under-20 team has performed well in recent tests, but, as the case of Freddy Adu proved, early displays of potential do not guarantee that success will ever be achieved. Immediate reinforcements from the under-23 may be a long time coming, however, as this group failed to impress in the 2016 Olympic qualifiers and now faces an uphill battle just to qualify for Rio.

Of course, teams can survive without an elite level center forward. The new No. 1 in world football, Belgium, lacks a truly top-level goal scorer and instead relies on the creative play of its elite attacking midfielders and staunch defenders.

Yet the Americans appear reluctant, or perhaps poorly prepared, to employ such a strategy. Though the U.S. midfield is arguably the squad’s strongest unit, with multiple proven players like Alejandro Bedoya and Michael Bradley who are just entering their prime, American tactics rarely exploit these weapons except on the counterattack and for set pieces. In the Mexico game, the Americans appeared far inferior to their opponents in finding space in the final third, and as a result, their only scores came on unconventional plays and individual efforts.

I’m not saying that American soccer is doomed upon the retirement of Clint Dempsey, but the recent trajectory doesn’t seem to inspire a lot of confidence in how the American strategy is preparing for this eventuality. Unlike in club soccer, the U.S. cannot simply go out and find a new player who fits its requirements. Its only options are to adopt a different style of play or develop someone into the competitor it needs.

Now we need someone to step up and get things rolling.

To the astonishment of The Daily staff, this column is one of Andrew Mather’s first pieces about something other than sailing for quite some time. To learn more about Mather’s other non-sailing interests, contact him at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Andrew Mather served as a sports editor and as the Chief Operating Officer of The Daily. A devout Clippers and Iowa Hawkeyes fan from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mather grew accustomed to watching his favorite programs snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He brought this nihilistic pessimism to The Daily, where he often felt a sense of déjà vu while covering basketball, football and golf.