May 22, 2012

Mixing the American Melting Pot

Over the weekend, U.S. Men's National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann sent out his second round of invites for the Training Camp that will lead to three friendlies (Scotland, Brazil and Cananda) and two World Cup qualifiers (Antigua and Guatamala) in the next three weeks.  As a reminder, here are the players coming into camp (with the new additions in bold face)

Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra (Rangers), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover), Alfredo Morales (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), Oguchi Onyewu (Sporting CP), Michael Parkhurst (FC Nordsjaelland), Clarence Goodson (Brondby IF)

Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Chievo Verona), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Maurice Edu (Rangers), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Jose Torres (Pachuca), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Forwards: Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy), Juan Agudelo (Chivas USA), Terrence Boyd (Borussia Dortmund), Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar)

So, like all camps there is much talk about those who are surprises (Agudelo, Zusi) and snubs (Sasha Kljestan, Tim Ream, DaMarcus Beasley).  Such talk usually follow camp call-ups.  To be honest, there is not much to be had in the "Snubs & Surprises" type column, although Franco Panizo at Soccer by Ives makes a good case for Kljestan, Beasley and Eric Lichaj.

Much more important is what this roster says about what Klinsmann is looking for in building a squad.  So let's break it down by position:

Goalkeepers:  Really, what do you want from a goalkeeper?  Shot stopping?  Check on all three, although Guzan is probably the weaker of the three.  Experience?  Check (again with a caveat for the under utilized Guzan).  Ability to organize a defense?  Check.  Distribution?  Check.  Really, right now Klinsmann suffers from an embarrassment of riches in this position and I don't subscribe to the belief that young up and comers like Bill Hamid, Sean Johnson, Zac McMath or even Ryan Meara are not capable future replacements.

Defenders:  Look at this list and drop Onyewu from the list and what do you have?  Ball control, ball control, ball control.  And even Onyewu is getting better in this department.  Clearly Klinsmann wants to possess the ball more, not just panic and hoof the ball up forward after stripping an attacker.  All of these players can hold the ball, pass the ball and keep their composure under pressure.  Sure, there will always come a time when a defender has to just blast the ball clear, but rather than that being the basic response of American defenders in the past, what we are seeing is soccer players, not athletes who happen to play soccer.

Midfielders:  Admittedly, this group is a little harder to figure out.  You have Beckerman (my and Klinsmann's favorite dreadlocked hobbit) as your holding beast and physically strong players like Mo Edu and Jermaine Jones.  I think pound for pound, Michael Bradley is one the best box to box midfielders the U.S. has developed in the past 20 years.  But then you have players like Corona and Torres, better known for their technical ability than their imposing physicality.  Add in Williams, Johnson and more than likely Donovan and what do  you have?  Power, technique and flair, with a dash of speed.  But something else you have in this group.  Passing ability.  That is going to be key for this squad to break down a defense and to put on a counter attack.  Sounds like a pretty good midfield.  The problem?  Klinsmann can't put all these guys on the pitch.

Strikers:  What do Dempsey, Gomez, Wondolowski, Altidore and Boyd have in common?  They have been scoring goals like mad.  Scoring by the buckets and not just one or two, but multi-goal games, scoring in multiple consecutive matches.  Even Boyd has been lighting it up for Dortmund's reserves, and the Bundesliga reserves are not a Sunday pub league.  So their inclusion is no surprise on their current form and confidence.  But there is something else that all these players and Agudelo have?  Movement, lots and lots and lots of movement.  How do you break a defense down?  Movement.  How do you score goals?  Movement (and shooting which these guys apparently don't fear right now).  How do you create space for your midfielders like Torres, Bradley and Coronoa to exploit?  Movement.

What does all this mean.  I think the key is what Klinsmann has been trying to build.  Klinsmann has stated that he wants to identify an American style of soccer.  But the problem is, of course, that we don't have a national style like the Dutch Total Football, or the Brazilian Samba soccer.  Like so much in America, there are distinct flavors to everything.  So what has to be done?  Find smart, dynamic players with a few core competencies (like passing and penchant for movement) but who have distinctive styles and pedigrees and start blending them around a basic theme.  Each of those players above possesses the skills also that Klinsmann seeks, in order to build a dynamic passing team, whereby attacks start in the defensive third, build through passing and rely on movement up top to keep defenses unsettled.   Klinsmann has put together a squad that is pretty diverse in terms players and playing skills.  He truly has started to build a program that brings together the diversity of American soccer and he is trying to build a team along those lines.

No longer can an opponent look at an American starting 11 and just see 11 good athletes who will run until they drop or the final whistle blows (that is a given now and no American player will be able to do otherwise, particularly after this event).  They will see big, tall, strong in the air defenders who can pass the ball with precision through the middle third.  They will see a dizzying array of attacking midfielders and strikers running around like gnats, popping up in odd places at unexpected times, supported by defensive midfielders who can put in a bone rattling tackle and then dribble past you with the ball on a string.  With different personalities on the field, you get a different flavor each time, always within a context of German-American strength and energy, but just like America--a melting pot of styles and skills.  In tournament soccer, nothing is more dangerous than an opponent whose style is unpredictable because the players all have something different they bring to the table.

Whether it works of course, remains to be seen.  Bringning all that diversity together a few times a  year takes a lot of skill and persuasion to get the players working on the same page.  But if you look at the players who were not called in, aside from perhaps Lichaj, could they have added any depth or diversity to this squad?  What does a player like Kljestan have that the other midfielders don't?  (and this from a guy who wishes Kljestan would get called in).  Looking at the players Klinsmann has called in and you can see that he might be on the cusp of creating something new, something that we have been looking for quite some time:  An American Soccer Identity--The Melting Pot.

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