The United States’ men’s soccer team conceded four goals on Tuesday and was shut out against soccer powerhouse Argentina, the No. 1 team in the world, in the Copa America semifinals. From kickoff, the U.S. seemed timid and unwilling to take chances and create opportunities. They lined up in a safe formation with safe players utilizing a bunker-and-defend strategy. The undeniable talent gap between the two nations was clear as day, but the choices made by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann only accentuated that gap.
The general sentiment around the U.S. soccer community, however, is that reaching the semi-finals of such a prestigious tournament should be considered a success, that beating Ecuador is an indicator of progress, and that soccer in the United States is improving. To a degree, all of these statements are correct, but they also point towards something far more troubling: complacency.
Soccer is something of an anomaly in the realm of American sports. Whereas the U.S. is one of the top countries in the world when it comes to the big four (basketball, baseball, football and hockey), U.S. soccer is typically out-classed on the world stage. The program is currently ranked No. 31 in the world and has never won a World Cup. Their highest ever finish, third place, came back in 1930. Recent history has not been so kind with the Olympic soccer team failing to qualify during the previous two cycles, the Under-20 team losing in the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup to Serbia in penalty kicks, the Men’s National Team falling in the Round of 16 against Belgium during the 2014 World Cup and the 4-0 loss last night. Why, then, all the negativity? Why should U.S. Soccer fans not be happy with the U.S. beating Ecuador, the 13th best soccer nation in the world, in a competitive tournament? Because complacency is the only thing that can stifle U.S. soccer’s slow, but consistent, progress.
When Jürgen Klinsmann was first announced as head coach in July of 2011, he was hailed as a savior. Some even likened him to the second coming of Christ in a U.S. soccer polo shirt. But as fans are still finding out, overnight success cannot save a program that bombed out of the group stages of the World Cup in 2006 and lost in the Round of 16 against Ghana in 2010.
Every day, a new sports writer or internet blogger will post a story asking why the United States has not won a World Cup yet and why they haven’t started pumping out an American Messi every other week. The answers to both of these questions are the same: It takes time.
Klinsmann took a ridiculous amount of flak when he converted the Developmental Academy, U.S. soccer’s elite youth league, to a 10-month season, thereby eliminating high school soccer’s viability on the national stage. However, the benefits of the program have been profound. Major League Soccer is now signing more homegrown Academy players than ever, in large part due to the professional training environment a 10-month season provides. These young pro soccer players have more time to improve and a few lucky ones may be called up to the national team.
DeAndre Yedlin exemplifies Klinsmann’s academy system. Playing for the Seattle Sounders Academy, Yedlin was able to train extensively throughout the year and develop technical abilities that high school programs simply could not provide. This development, in turn, paid dividends as the Sounders rewarded him with a professional contract straight out of high school. After proving his worth with the first team, he then earned a transfer to England and locked down a starting spot with Sunderland of the British Premier League.
Before Klinsmann’s academy revolution, players were often not ready for the pros upon graduation from high school and went to play college soccer, as many still do. Now, the elite prospects have the preparation necessary to become professionals earlier, and that will only benefit the national team. While Klinsmann is prone to poor game management, odd subbing and a revolving door of starting lineups, he is trying to build a program in the United States from the ground up. He is attempting to catch the U.S. up to the rest of the world, and doing something of that magnitude takes time.
With this perspective in mind, it is still important to remember that DeAndre Yedlin and other young American stars like 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund winger Christian Pulisic, are not the norm. The majority of American players in the MLS are late pros, entering the league at 22 or 23 after college. However, U.S. soccer is finally improving. So far, that is the takeaway from Klinsmann’s brief tenure; regardless of how slowly it happens, the team is advancing. The players are gradually getting younger, more skilled and less reliant on pure athleticism.
While the U.S. has suffered a number of harsh international losses over the past six years, the team’s success appears to be on the upswing. It handled Copa America group play with competence and finished first overall in the group, thanks to a floundering Colombian squad. The team dismantled Ecuador in the first half and held on throughout the second half as Jermaine Jones, a 34-year-old veteran, was sent off for violent conduct.
Yet, even with these tangible signs of progress, the worst possible thing the U.S. program can have is a sense of complacency. The United States houses a population more than eight times the size of Argentina but lacks the necessary world-class talent. So, while the U.S. team can pat itself on the back in regards to advancing to the semifinals, there is still much to be accomplished. It comes down to players that aspire to be the best, a media that holds the team accountable and fans who are willing to support a World Cup-caliber team.
As a soccer nation, the United States should not shoot for good: They must shoot for great. Getting beat by any team 4-0 should never be followed by accolades, it should be followed by a hard look at the program and the changes that will be implemented to rectify the result. The day when a United States men’s soccer team can safely expect to contend for and win a major international tournament may still be a distant vision, but the sense of satisfaction that accompanies mediocrity will only drive that expectation further from reality.