The U.S. national team was outplayed comprehensively during Wednesday’s 3-2 loss in Denmark. But the fact that the Americans were so close to leaving NRGi Park in Aarhus with a win or tie would surprise only those who haven’t been watching coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s team over the past couple of years.
The U.S. has a habit of making the scoreboard look a whole lot prettier than the stat sheet. Last year’s World Cup represents the most obvious example. In Brazil, the U.S. was out-possessed in its four matches by an average of 56.5% to 43.5% and outshot by a combined 94-44, but it escaped the “group of death” and took Belgium to overtime before exiting the round-of-16 with only a -1 aggregate goal differential.
Or take your pick from a bunch of other notable games, from the 1-0, 2012 win over Italy in Genoa (where the Azzurri outshot the visitors 19-4), to the 0-0 qualifying draw at the Estadio Azteca the following year (the U.S. was outshot 13-1 as Mexico enjoyed 58.3% of the possession), to last November’s 2-1 exhibition loss to Colombia, which squeaked by in London despite tearing through the Americans at will.
That trend continued Wednesday in Denmark, where the scoreline flattered a U.S. team that took only four shots and was out-possessed 59.7% to 40.3%. The Danes controlled the ball and the tempo, yet the Americans remained in the game thanks to Jozy Altidore’s opportunism, a resolute performance from Michael Bradley and a bit of good fortune.
The U.S. took a barely-deserved lead in the 19th minute when Altidore somehow beat two defenders to Timmy Chandler’s long ball and powered a shot inside the near post. The visitors were ahead again, 2-1, in the 66th. Bradley was the creator this time. His looping pass over the Danish rearguard found Altidore, who took a nice first touch and then bounced a cross toward strike partner Aron Jóhannsson for the finish.
Somehow, some way, a win was in the offing on a wet and windy night in Europe.
“We have a good understanding for sure,” Bradley told ESPN following the game when asked about his partnership with Altidore, his new Toronto FC teammate. “It all goes out the window if you’re not able to take care of things in the last few minutes. [We] have to learn from this and get better.”
Those last few minutes were a mess. Much-maligned VfL Wolfsburg striker Nicklas Bendtner drew Denmark level in the 83rd minute when he corralled Chandler’s poor header and hammered home past goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Bendtner then became the first player to net a hat trick against the U.S. in 18 years when he raced past John Brooks, knocked down captain Christian Eriksen’s gorgeous long ball and beat Rimando to the far post.
It was a game the U.S. should have lost by a larger margin, yet it was only a couple minutes away from leaving with a draw. That collapse highlights another trend—one that superficially seems more troubling than the Americans’ inability to control and move the ball. Bendtner’s game-winner was the 14th goal yielded by the U.S. after the 75th minute in its past 14 games. And it was the seventh allowed in the 80th minute or later in the past seven matches.
The U.S., long lauded for its fitness, work ethic and ability to master the moment late (see the 2010 World Cup), now buckles in primetime. Wednesday’s defeat was the third since last November in which the Klinsmann’s team blew a second-half lead. It hadn’t lost under those circumstances in the previous four years, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Those failings are difficult to address, however, because they’re the result of other issues. First, those three aforementioned losses came in friendlies, where managers often make wholesale second-half changes in order to get a look at additional players and combinations. By the time Bendtner scored his second in Aarhus, Klinsmann had substituted five starters. That impacts chemistry.
In addition, those who’ve been on the field for the duration are going to be more fatigued because they’ve been chasing the ball. Teams work harder when they’re not in possession. Defending is exhausting, and conceding late goals is a consequence. Granted, the U.S. on Wednesday was missing experienced backs like Jermaine Jones, Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler. Perhaps they wouldn’t have made the mistakes their compatriots did. But they very well could have been under similar duress because of the national team’s consistent inability to dictate the flow of play against better opponents.
The U.S. isn’t winning games because it’s still unable to produce the sort of proactive, possession soccer Klinsmann wants and because Klinsmann won't stop wanting it.
“[Denmark] played good football and they were able to move the ball,” Bradley told ESPN. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that there’s only one way to handle that. But again, for me, it’s just the whole package.”
So what’s the answer? Klinsmann is committed to pursuing his style of play. When the U.S. is on the back foot—desperately defending—it’s because of circumstance, not by design. He’s made it clear that he’s not going to abandon principle for the sake of the status quo. And U.S. Soccer is committed to Klinsmann. He was hired and then extended (and promoted to technical director) in order to deliver foundational change. That was always going to take time and patience. It probably wasn’t ever going to happen smoothly.
The senior U.S. squad hasn’t improved under Klinsmann. Whether that’s a reflection of his coaching or the current state of the player pool or deeper issues on the domestic landscape that will take a generation to fix, is in the eye of the beholder. But if the game indeed is the best teacher, as the well-known soccer aphorism claims, then the only short-term option Klinsmann has is to continue to plug away.
He’s not being paid to compromise, or to bunker and counter by design. He's obviously not interested in establishing a stable starting 11 that leaves those included feeling secure. And playing only to win—either tactically or by facing easier opposition—won’t get his team to where he thinks it needs to go.
So, continue to play the toughest opponents in the toughest environments. Go to 12th-ranked Switzerland next Tuesday and to the Netherlands and Germany in early June, send out the best 11 available and hope that every mistake, every late goal and every setback is a lesson or a stepping stone. “Risk results,” as he told ESPN before the match.
See how players respond in those moments and reward the ones who learn. Make a U.S. call-up and a U.S. start something earned through merit and earned again with performance, not potential. Schedule as many games as possible against the game's elite and take your lumps. Embrace them. And don’t worry too much about the score. It likely won't be that indicative of the game, anyway.