Friday, June 19, 2009

We're Just Not That Good

If you're a masochist and a US soccer fan, here are Jeff Carlisle and Grant Wahl on the game, as well as the player ratings from I have two basic thoughts on that thumping:

1. What in G-d's name was Bob Bradley doing? Generally speaking, an underdog in soccer will try to play defensively. By doing so, it will reduce the number of chances that both teams will get and therefore increase the odds of an anomalous result. (Soccer isn't the only sport in which Davids needs to reduce possessions to beat Goliaths.) A conservative strategy is especially important against Brazil because Brazil struggle mightily against defensive sides. One of the great myths in world football is that Brazil still play Jogo Bonito. Brazil haven't played that way for years. Instead, their current style is to play with two center backs shielded by two defensive midfielders. They generate offense from the wing backs while playing conservatively in the middle. Brazilians are extremely successful in the major European leagues in just about every position, but you'll have a hard time finding a great Brazilian central midfielder (and no, Gilberto Silva is not and never was a correct answer). Brazil struggle to create offense against massed defenses, but if you give them time and space to counter-attack, they'll beat you to death with their wing backs bombing forward. Their second goal yesterday is a perfect example of a modern Brazilian goal. Hell, for that matter, the first goal was a great example as well because the Brazilians have emphasized athleticism over skill in recent years, so they've become very good at out-muscling opponents on set pieces.

(An aside: Brazil-Spain would be a fascinating game on a number of levels. Spain play the Jogo Bonito game that Brazil used to play: short passing, constant movement, and total control of the ball. However, their style will also create space for Brazil to counter. The two team's styles mesh nicely, which ought to create the conditions for an outstanding game. Also, Spain are not the biggest team, so Brazil's physical power could create problems for them. Finally, Puyol will get his first chance to kick the s*** out of Kaka.)

In light of Brazil's style, which has been evident for years and is especially pronounced with the unimaginative Dunga in charge, Bob Bradley's obvious choice was to play defensively and look for a goal on a counter. Instead, he elected to play a 4-3-3 that exposed the US's vulnerable fullbacks to Maicon on the right. He played Sasha Kljestan, an attacking midfielder, in the central midfield role when the game was screaming for defensive midfielders. Does he think that we're Spain or Germany and can go toe-to-toe with Brazil? Is he mad? Bradley had an excellent record in MLS, but he doesn't seem able to manage when his players are inferior to those of the opponent (not that the list of such managers is very long).

2. The result shouldn't surprise us. As mad as I want to get about the US getting undressed by an unremarkable Brazil side, I just can't because rationally speaking, it is the expected result. American players just aren't that good. If you don't follow European soccer, here's a brief primer on the US starting XI from yesterday:

Tim Howard - successful goalie for a major club in England

Jonathan Spector - cannot find the field for West Ham, a mid-table club in England

Jay Demerit - starts for a second division side in England

Oguchi Onyewu - starts for Standard Liege in Belgium; failed on a trial at Newcastle

Jonathan Bornstein - starts for Chivas USA in MLS

Michael Bradley - starts for Borussia Mönchengladbach, a club which barely avoided relegation in Germany

Sacha Kljestan - starts for Chivas USA in MLS

DeMarcus Beasley - cannot find the field for Rangers in Scotland

Clint Dempsey - starter for Fulham, a team that just finished an impressive seventh in the EPL

Landon Donovan - failed on both forays to the Bundesliga; stars for the LA Galaxy

Jozy Altidore - couldn't get on the field for Villarreal or even second division side Xerez.

Other than Tim Howard, the US doesn't have a single player who starts for a major European club. The starting lineup is full of players who made little or no impression in Europe (Donovan, Altidore, Beasley, Onyewu, and Spector) or who are playing well for lesser European sides (Demerit, Bradley, and Dempsey) or an MLS side (Kljestan and Bornstein). Honestly, what do we think would happen when these players ran up against Kaka (2007 world player of the year; just moved between two of the biggest clubs in the world for a then-record transfer fee), Julio Cesar (arguably the best goalie in Serie A), Maicon (the best right back in Serie A), Lucio (stalwart for Bayern Munich), Luis Fabiano (star striker for Sevilla, the third place team in La Liga), and Robinho (4th leading scorer in the EPL for Manchester City)?

We want the US to do well, but can we really expect it when our players cannot make a big impact abroad? I think we're deluded by our success in CONCACAF. We think that winning the Gold Cup and qualifying with ease for the World Cup means that we can compete internationally, but it's really a miracle that we do as well as we do against Mexico. There is no American equivalent to Rafa Marquez (starter for two Barcelona sides that won the Champions League) or Ricardo Osorio (starter for the Stuttgart side who won the 2006-07 Bundesliga), not to mention the fact that the Mexican League is stronger than MLS (as evidenced by the strong performances of Mexican teams in the Copa Libertadores). The poundings that the US often gets when it leaves CONCACAF ought to be a spur to change something. I don't pretend to know what that something is.


Jeff said...

I had the exact same reaction--why do we think we can compete with the ite when our players can't make/crack the lineups of the good club teams. To me it comes down to the quality of athletes. These other countries are choosing from among their country's best athletes;we are clearly not. Imagine if all the guys who played PG and SG or DB, WR, etc. professionally or even just in D-1 played soccer. My guess is that we'd be at or near the top of the heap. For instance, I imagine Iverson would have made one hell of a soccer player (except for the whole practice thing). If we can just got a fraction of these people to play soccer, we could realistically compete.

chg said...

Is there a soccer equivalent of a volume scorer? I know you can bomb away on low percentage shots on some of the EA FIFA games until you get the lucky outcome, but I've never seen that strategy in real soccer.

In conversations with friends, Iverson and Vick are always the two guys that come up as the best fits for soccer as pure athletes. Given Vick's headscratching decisions at QB, I wouldn't want to run an offense through him, but find a role that minimizes decision making and maximizes athleticism and skills and he could be a star.

Jeff said...

I was going to mention Vick along with Iverson but didn't want to get into that. It's obviously hard to project who would be good with their feet since there's not a direct correlation with hand-based skills but I have to think some of the freakishly fast and agile American athletes--Champ Bailey, Devin Harris, Chris Paul? And why couldn't Randy Moss or Dwyane Wade or someone like that be a much more talented Peter Crouch?

chg said...

One reason US sports fans are resistant to soccer is they see third tier athletes playing the game in the US thus consider the sport third tier. It isn't the same in Europe and South America, but I still think there are many well known soccer players who are athletically inferior to even average athletes in the NBA or NFL.

Crouch is a great example. He basically succeeds by being "tall", but American sports fans under 40 probably went to HS with at least one guy (and likely three or more) as tall or taller with much greater athletic ability.

I would never want to miss the chance to see Chris Paul's gifts applied to basketball, but he is the ultimate size, speed, and vision combination to make a world class soccer player. Unfortunately for American soccer, even many soccer fans like me would ultimately rather see guys like Paul in the NBA or on the CFB gridiron, and most of the athletes will continue to follow the money and exposure to those sports.

Jeff said...

Chg, you make a good point that we don( even need to get the Iverson's and Chris paul's to play soccer, just some guys good enough to play PG in the ACC and Big East or backup DB at Florida. But even that's a hard sell because MLS is (and will always be) AA soccer and how many Americans grow up dreaming of playing in England, Italy or Spain.

Michael said...

Soccer doesn't necessarily require great athletes. I may be spoiled from watching Barcelona so much, but none of the players on that team are super athletes. They're all fast enough, but none of them are Vick/Iverson fast. (OK, maybe Messi. And Henry was in his prime, but not now.) They have perfect control on the ball and they understand how to play the game. There are plenty of people in the US who are as athletic as Xavi and Iniesta. The problem is that they aren't developed to play in the same way. The coaching from youth ages and up isn't the same.

Jeff said...

I feel a little weird posting this after yesterday's fantastic result but Michael, I think your argument about athleticism is an oversimplification. No, pure athleticism isn't the end-all be-all in soccer or any other sport. For example, Steve Nash and Brandon Roy are sub-par athletes by NBA standards yet have been superstars based on superior basketball IQ, passing skills and hand-eye coordination. (Of course, much of their skill set is just another form of athleticism.) And Tyus Thomas and Darius Miles, for all their raw athleticism have never been stars. But does that mean the speed, agility, hops and strength don't make people better basketball players? Take Brazil: it sure seems to help to have a fleet of big, bullish fast guys surrounding the Kakas of the world.

If nothing else, I'd like to pick my pool of smart, savvy, skilled players from a pool of better athletes, wouldn't you?