What’s wrong with the U.S. men’s national team? And how do you fix it?
They’re simple questions with complex answers. Yet the conversation is more pressing than ever in the wake of the U.S.’s 2-0 loss at Guatemala last Friday, a defeat that dramatically raised the stakes for Tuesday’s semifinal-round World Cup qualifier against the Guatemalans in Columbus, Ohio (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2, UniMas). Friday’s stunning loss against the Guatemalans, No. 95 in the FIFA world ranking, marked the lowest point in an 18-month-long slide for the Americans following World Cup 2014.
And now it has come to this: If the U.S. loses on Tuesday, it will very likely miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
For this story, I spoke to six players from the U.S.’s World Cup 2002 quarterfinalists, the gold standard for U.S. World Cup performance in the modern era. The U.S. national team has gained so many new fans in the last decade that the majority of them aren’t aware of the 2002 team and the way it took the game to Portugal, building a 3-0 lead before winning 3-2, and outplayed Germany in a 1-0 quarterfinal defeat—to say nothing of scoring against Mexico early and holding on to eliminate its greatest rival from a World Cup in a 2-0 victory.
One the one hand, if you’d watched those U.S. games in 2002 and were asked then how the U.S. would be playing 14 years later, you wouldn’t have predicted the Americans would be deservedly losing 2-0 to Guatemala. On the other hand, not even the qualification for 2002 was an easy task. The U.S. didn’t clinch advancement from the semifinal round until the last game in Barbados, and in the final-round Hexagonal Bruce Arena’s team lost three straight qualifiers (to Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica) before qualifying for Japan-South Korea with one game to spare.
So what’s the problem right now? A common theme for the 2002 vets I spoke to was the lack of a sizable core group of national team players these days under coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Because the national team isn’t together every day, familiarity and collective experience become even more important.
As Claudio Reyna, who’s now the sporting director of NYCFC and was previously the U.S. youth technical director under Klinsmann, put it:
“You want to have a core group of players that have earned through their club play and national team play being called in consistently. And that could be 15 to 16 players that we have to have on the roster more or less every important game. That allows the team to develop a consistency from game to game, tournament to tournament, getting to know each other, getting to learn the way the team should play. I think the amount of constant changeover from game to game [these days] makes it difficult for our team to establish any rhythm and consistency that you need to get results.”
Said Tony Sanneh, who now runs his own foundation, “The only thing I worry about with this team is the true core of the team is getting smaller and smaller.”
Added Cobi Jones, who’s now a TV analyst, “When I was there, you pretty much had an idea of the seven or eight players who were going to always be playing, and then you’d have a few changes. This might be Klinsmann’s style, but you’re not sure who the main starting group is throughout the team. For the most part, [Michael] Bradley will be there. When Jermaine [Jones] is playing, Jermaine will be in there. Maybe a couple others. So you have like four maybe, and that’s a big difference from the past.”
“There’s a core of players who take responsibility for the team, and you need that during the qualification process,” noted John O’Brien, who as a current psychology student said he’s most interested in the psychological aspects of the issue. “If you’re more a part of the team, you realize you’re more responsible for what becomes of it. You notice things like that in practice. The team will start to grow. You’re talking to your fellow teammates about, ‘Hey, when this happened what did you do here?’ If you have a core group, it’s also easier then to integrate outsiders, other players who are maybe new to the team.”
“In 2002,” said Brian McBride, who’s now a TV analyst, “one of the most important parts is that we had a foundation that Bruce [Arena] had put in place: A formation, a style of play, but also a belief. We had a unity in the group. That’s a tough thing [to achieve], especially in a national team setting, because you’re not together a lot usually.”
Continuity certainly wasn’t the case last Friday. Of the 11 U.S. starters against Guatemala, only three were in the same position they had been in for the previous qualifier, a 0-0 tie at Trinidad and Tobago: Goalkeeper Tim Howard, central midfielder Bradley and right midfielder DeAndre Yedlin. (Yedlin, for his part, has been playing at right back for his club, Sunderland.) Some of the changes were out of Klinsmann’s control, from Jones’s suspension to injuries to Matt Besler, Fabian Johnson and Jozy Altidore.
But other changes were within Klinsmann’s control, such as starting Mix Diskerud, Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco, as well as putting Geoff Cameron, who’s much more comfortable in a central role, at right back.
Cobi Jones, for one, doesn’t think Klinsmann is the issue. “They’re not gelling as a unit right now, but this isn’t anything new,” Jones said. “It’s happened before, plenty of times, where the national team has struggled. The pressure is on right now. It’s beyond the coach at this point. This is where the players in my opinion should be getting together, even if it’s a secret meeting, to say: ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter what people are saying. No matter what the coaches are telling us, it’s about what we need to do on the field to get a result.’”
In fact, Jones argued, he thinks crunch moments like the one on Tuesday are the kind that can forge a team for the future.
“This could be that moment for this team when they become tight and go beyond the coach, beyond U.S. Soccer and become that 18-man unit to make something special happen,” he said.
When he looks back at the 2002 World Cup team, Carlos Llamosa (now a New York Cosmos assistant coach) thinks of the bond the team had forged. “In that cycle there was a chemistry we had as a team off the field and on the field,” Llamosa said. “We were like a family. We enjoyed every single practice, every single game. We faced every game seriously with the same enthusiasm. That was a special team with the chemistry.”
But beyond chemistry, continuity and a larger core group, what was so special about the 2002 U.S. World Cup team that’s lacking in the current U.S. team? For Reyna, the players on the 2002 team were mostly at the peaks of their careers and able to maintain possession of the ball better, which allowed the U.S. to control games more often. Reyna also noted that even reserves like Eddie Lewis, Gregg Berhalter and Josh Wolff were players who you knew would be O.K. if you put them in a World Cup game situation.
What’s more, Reyna said, the 2002 U.S. team “was proactive and aggressive with how we tried to play. I don’t think we may have the same quality right now to be able to do that if I’m honest. No disrespect to the current team, but you look at guys like John O’Brien and Pablo [Mastroeni] in the midfield, we could defend, we could play, we had good balance, we had speed, players like Earnie Stewart and Cobi Jones. We had Brian [McBride] up front and Landon [Donovan] and DaMarcus Beasley in the team. It was a very well-balanced team and a mix of experience and young players.”
While the U.S. certainly had some brilliant attacking moments at World Cup 2002—including O’Brien’s pass and Clint Mathis’s finish against South Korea and the third goal against Portugal, from Sanneh’s push upfield and cross to McBride—O’Brien differed from Reyna by arguing that the U.S. was still often reactive then.
“In 2002 we didn’t really dictate games from a passing and creating chances perspective,” O’Brien said. “We dictated games through pace and intensity and defending well, through counter-attacking. There were games like Mexico, where they controlled the game more than we did; we scored early and didn’t have much of the ball. With Portugal, we beat them early. First half they were sleeping and we came out kind of firing. Same type of thing, though, with pace and getting the ball wide. During qualification, when you’re playing teams that are supposed to be lesser opponents and sit back against us, that’s something we’ve had a hard time breaking down.”
“We didn’t have that at the World Cup [in ‘02]. Portugal was coming at us. South Korea was coming at us, and we got chances to go back at them. With Poland, we got kind of run over early and couldn’t claw our way back. Then Germany was kind of a back-and-forth.”
These days you have some observers making the argument that the U.S. just doesn’t have the players to compete on the world stage.
But nobody from the 2002 U.S. team I spoke to bought that notion entirely.
“We have the players,” said Reyna. “There are good players in our country and good professionals. I don’t think we lack depth and quality. I do think we lack in some specific positions. An out-and-out center forward, for example, and a creative player in the midfield are the two things we don’t have at the senior level right now. But in terms of the player pool and depth, it’s strong. Honestly, I think we could have three starting 11s that could beat Guatemala, personally.”
Both Reyna and McBride said they think the U.S. will win on Tuesday, and it’s true that the U.S. hasn’t lost a home World Cup qualifier since 2001 against Honduras. But McBride expressed a worry that the rest of CONCACAF may be improving at a faster rate than the U.S. has lately.
“My concern is the Hexagonal,” McBride said. “The teams that are going to be in the Hexagonal have gotten better. You look at Panama and Costa Rica, their players are playing all over Europe. When we were playing back in 2002 there were very few, so the competition has gotten stiffer. That’s a concern with the way we’re playing.”
Considering the U.S. has been struggling for a long period of time now, it’s worth asking: Is Klinsmann the right coach to lead the U.S. forward?
“I think so,” said Cobi Jones. “I’m more of a believer that it’s the players, not the coach. The coach is significant, but the players are the most important part of the team. If you ask most players if they’ve had success with difficult coaches, they’d say yes, they found a way to do it. It’s on the players in the end.”
Asked whether Klinsmann is the right guy, Sanneh said:
“I think there’s probably better guys, there’s probably worse guys. I don’t think he gets enough credit for what he did at the World Cup. Realistically, we just weren’t that good at the time, with what he had to deal with, especially with Jozy [Altidore] getting hurt so early. I would like to see a little more consistency in some key areas, like the back line.
“Is it time for a change? I don’t know. You look at the last three guys [Klinsmann, Bob Bradley and Arena], they all did better than they were supposed to do at the World Cup. They were all under fire at some point in qualifying. It’s a fine line.”
The U.S. is cutting it awfully close right now. On Tuesday night in Columbus there will be no margin for error.