America’s national pastime is baseball, and America’s Game (as branded by NFL Network) is football. America’s youth enjoy playing basketball, and in the Northeast and Midwest, where the weather outside is often frightful (but the fire is so delightful!), hockey has a huge following.
Unfortunately for our national pride, some of these sports aren’t played across the globe, and when they are, those upstart nations forget their place and manage to beat us at our own games. When we say that the New England Patriots are world champions, it is almost by default, because no other nation plays professional football. But when it comes to baseball, Japan and much of Latin America are breathing down our necks. Canada is the undisputed king of hockey, with many European nations also in the running. And in basketball, Spain leads a laundry list of worthy opponents against whom victory is anything but certain.
The astute readers in my audience may have noticed that I omitted soccer from the above enumeration of sports. In America, soccer, while growing in popularity, is clearly fourth fiddle to the big three of football, baseball, and basketball; some would even argue that it sits in fifth place, behind hockey as well.
It seems that every four years, right around the time the World Cup is held in some exotic location (that was probably decided through bribery, but that is a topic for another column), America’s slumbering fanhood wakes up, and the nation rallies behind the amazingly dedicated American Outlaws to support the stars and stripes in whatever valiant World Cup run they manage to make. Unfortunately, after the inevitable heart-breaking elimination game, the fans’ interest in the U.S. Men’s National Team wanes.
The past two years, however, have seen a stiffer-than-usual resistance to this pattern, as the USMNT followed up a herculean effort at the World Cup with some searing upsets on the European continent, defeating Germany and the Netherlands while playing swashbuckling, exciting football. Taking out the World Cup champions he once managed and upsetting the Oranje on their own turf seemed to be a coronation of sorts for Klinsmann. The American squad came into the Gold Cup riding high…
And they were promptly, ingloriously, embarrassingly unseated. The Gold Cup ended with an embarrassing semifinal loss to Jamaica, compounded by a defeat to Panama in the third-place match (also known as the lovable losers’ bracket). This was followed by a pasting at the hands of Brazil, a loss to Mexico in the de facto Confederations Cup play-in game, and then another defeat at the hands of Costa Rica in a friendly. All the positivity that surrounded the team after its European tour has been replaced by a specter of doom and gloom, and the fear that all purported progress of the team is just an illusion.
Jurgen Klinsmann has never been one to mince his words, and he has certainly burned some bridges with former players on the national team — the unceremonious dropping of longtime captain Carlos Bocanegra and the rhetoric-laden dismissal of all-time USMNT great Landon Donovan have rankled at least the two people directly involved, and probably many others who haven’t spoken out openly.
His tactics have also come under fire, with a number of talented and skilled players languishing on his bench whilst “his” guys — the Jozy Altidores and Michael Bradleys of the world — are either undroppable despite their form or experimental pieces in his madcap lineup experiments.
Meanwhile, the youth squads that are supposed to be Klinsmann’s specialty are also struggling, with the U-23 squad facing a must-win playoff match just to qualify for the Olympics (thanks Alex Popof ’14 for the heads-up). Overall, although Klinsmann has preached an attacking, fluid brand of soccer, in reality this USMNT side is known for being a Jose Mourinho-esque defensive tortoise, content to sit back and defend furiously as waves of enemy attacks crash against the beachhead.
All of this isn’t to say that progress hasn’t been made — Klinsmann has unearthed a number of hidden gems, and there have been some very positive results. However, it seems that for every positive result, there are at least two disappointments, and that inconsistency is at the heart of what ails the USMNT today.
Time will tell whether this particular squad can ever challenge the haves of the soccer world for supremacy, but the future of American soccer and the USMNT’s success go hand-in-hand. It is up to Klinsmann and the powers that be to capture the American public’s heart again, for only with good results will soccer continue to grow nationwide.
While Vignesh Venkataraman feels passionately about the future of soccer in the U.S., he also has personal connections to the “other” futbol — (American) football — as he was the quarterback for his high school team. To hear stories of his Tom Brady-esque talent, contact Vignesh at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu