In the headliner of last night’s pivotal spread of U.S. international soccer matches, with Jürgen Klinsmann coming under the most fervent and wide-spread criticism he’s met in his tenure as manager, the USMNT performed how they should have and pasted Guatemala 4-0. Like they were always going to. The result will cool Klinsmann’s (still warm) seat by at least a few dozen degrees, as the team is now set up nicely to progress from this round of World Cup qualifiers into the next, where they will almost certainly stamp their ticket to Russia. Like they were always going to.
Some may see vindication for Klinsmann and the lofty project he sold U.S. Soccer and the American public on way back when in the result. His charges were definitely more engaged and motivated last night as compared to last week’s debacle against this same Guatemalan team, and while not practicing the Guardiola-esque possession-based game he so often promised to implement, you could see in his tactics the kind of high pressing game that is even more trendy in European—and especially German, from where Klinsmann reasonably takes many of his cues—play. Others may consider last night merely a dressing on a festering wound, a cosmetic concealment of the deep and fundamental problems the manager has demonstrated time and time again plague his coaching, dating all the way back to his speciously successful run coaching the Germans.
Regardless of what you think you learned about the senior team from the Guatemala game and what it means for our World Cup qualification trajectory—and both of the above takeaways are perfectly reasonable, if tempered to some degree by the other—what was even more revelatory was the second-billed affair, the U23 match against Colombia. There’s no clearer distillation of what America’s soccer problem really is than that match.
From the outset of the game, Colombia absolutely dominated the U.S. As had been evident from the first leg of this home-and-home play-in tie with a spot in this summer’s Olympics in Brazil on the line, the Colombians were more technically gifted, more positionally aware, more intelligent and associative, and downright more confident and prepared to fight for the Olympic reward than their American counterparts. Even with the U.S. looking at least slightly more competent on the ball last night than they did during their deceptively flattering 1-1 draw a few days before, it was obvious from the first whistle that Colombia had the talent discrepancy weighted in their favor and would probably get the win they needed. The final scoreline might’ve read 2-1 in favor of the visitors, but the result was far more comfortable than that would have you believe.
The failure of the U23 team is what everyone should see as the harbinger of the USMNT’s ultimate stagnation, not Klinsmann’s odd lineup decisions or conservative away game playing style or a stumble or two in a World Cup qualifying process that always causes a couple. The fact that the best the U.S. can offer in the way of young talent expected to one day enrich the senior team with players who can take the national team from the first knockout round of a World Cup and into the semis is a squad of untested, under-developed, and under-talented youngsters who easily get played off the pitch by an unremarkable bunch of Colombian kids tells you all you need to know about where the country’s true weak point is. The problem with the national team isn’t Klinsmann’s suspect tactics; it is, and has always been, the entire development system.
As ESPN commentator Alejandro Moreno wisely pointed out during the broadcast of the U.S.-Colombia match, the kids in yellow had vastly more experience competing in critical matches at the top level than the ones in white. Almost every starter in Colombia’s lineup has made over 50 professional appearances in South America’s top leagues, competing against once and future world stars domestically and in the Copa Libertadores, being trained from a young age on how to challenge the very best and come out on top. Among the U.S.’s starters, only two have made more than 50 senior club appearances, and both of those players, Kellyn Acosta and Wil Trapp, did so in MLS—not exactly the hemisphere’s premier soccer competition. With all of the structural and developmental disadvantages that start this country’s soccer players well behind the rest of the world’s, we fail even to give our players nearly the same amount of professional experience—of any kind—that the better prepared and instructed players they’re expected to beat.
So yes, while the gameday managerial flaws not even the staunchest Klinsmann defenders would dispute may cost the USMNT a few games here and there and have arguably already been enough to justify his firing, the greater issues American soccer faces going forward have very little to do with the in-game organization of the exceedingly mediocre talents on our senior team. How we spot, train (pay-to-play, anyone?), develop, and coach American soccer players far before they are eligible for international caps is why we aren’t good enough. (And it’s on that front where Klinsmann’s least forgivable missteps lie.) Our domestic league, with its structural defects, that promises to one day soon feature world-class talent yet to this day has failed to consistently produce even European-quality players of its own—while the “smaller” leagues it professes to have leapfrogged, like Colombia’s Categoría Primera A, regularly churn out players like James Rodríguez and Carlos Bacca and Juan Cuadrado—is why we aren’t good enough. The tendency of our best and most promising players to shirk the smelter of the European leagues where true greatness is forged in favor of easy minutes and money in MLS is why we aren’t good enough.
If only there were a man—an outsider, most likely—with experience overseeing the successful overhaul of a nation’s soccer development structure, who could spot this country’s systemic problems and galvanize everyone into acknowledging that those issues must be first and foremost addressed before our delusions of grandeur could even be humored, and constantly pressure the players and the system to improve themselves, then we might have something real to build on. I’d want a guy like that leading the way over here, even if he did have a few flaws.
Photo via Getty