Monday, July 22, 2013

State of the USMNT

This post has been a long time coming. I have often stated my beliefs and opinions about the US Men's National Team, but this will be the first written account of it.

I have been brushing off writing about the Gold Cup for a few reasons, not least of which is that I don't particularly enjoy writing match recaps. Games are played; you either watch them, or you don't. I'd rather exchange ideas about what happened than give a minute by minute update. Anyone who wants that information can check ESPN's Gamecast. The bigger reason, however, is that the USMNT - as a whole - had not done anything noteworthy.

In one of my previous posts (Transfer Monday) I stated that the Nats tcob against Belize. Last week (Transfer Monday: Vol. II) I mentioned that I had a gripe, which I would get to. Well, here it is:

If the USMNT wants to be considered a challenger, a top caliber program, and basically live up to the expectations of the, albeit fickle, American media and public, then beating Belize, Cuba, El Salvador, and even Costa Rica should be a given, not a struggle.

It's just that simple.

Are we there yet? No.
Can we get there? Yes.
Will we get there? I think so, but it will take time and player development.

This next part may seem like a tangent, but bear with me, it's all related. Do me a favor and check out the latest FIFA rankings. Most people in the soccer world put little stock in the actual rankings of these countries, and I am no exception. It is a flawed system, but the bigger picture is what matters here. I like to think of the rankings in terms of Fantasy Football (again, bear with me). If you do not play/understand FF, feel free to skip down to the next paragraph. When ranking players in FF, experts generally break them into categories. Quarterbacks, for example, may be categorized as "elite" or "solid starter" down to "bye week play" or "if you're desperate". "Elite" is self explanatory, while "if you're desperate" basically means that if you have nobody to put into your team for a given week, at the very least we know that Mark Sanchez is starting, and he's playing the Bills. So, instead of having a 1-207 list of countries, I have a few different categories, and the order in each doesn't really matter.

Note: These rankings are based on history and opinion. If you've got a problem with them, go ahead and voice it.


Elite

The cream of the crop. These countries have proven throughout the years that they are the best of the best by winning trophies. In order of World Cup trophies:

Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Spain

While these teams may have their off years, anytime they participate in major tournaments, they are among the favorites. Spain are the latest addition to this group. They are included because of their recent dominance and the fact that they continue to produce talented players. These are the only Elite teams, in my opinion.

Elite Pretenders

These teams could make a case for being in the upper echelon, but when it comes down to it, Joe Flacco is not Peyton Manning. That's not to say these teams cannot make the jump, but they have to earn it. In no particular order:

France, England, Netherlands, Portugal, Uruguay

The Dutch continually struggle to win the big ones, and Portugal are just happy to be here. The other three have won at least one World Cup. Uruguay have had a long lull in production since 1950, while England are over-hyped and underwhelming.  France could make the strongest argument to be included with the big boys, having won the 1998 World Cup, and 1984 and 2000 EUROs, but those who know me know why they aren't. This blog is called Biased Soccer for a reason.

The Muddled Middle I

This category is where it gets messy. In the FIFA rankings, these countries usually fall anywhere between 3 and 50. The order is taken from where they currently stand in the FIFA rankings.

Colombia, Croatia, Belgium, Greece, Cote d'Ivoire, Switzerland, Russia, Mexico, Chile, USA, Ghana, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ukraine, Sweden, Nigeria, Japan, Australia, Serbia, South Korea, Paraguay, Turkey

The USMNT falls into this category, along with many other countries. I'll get to what this means after my rankings. 

The Muddled Middle II

The difference between I and II is that the teams above have demonstrated more consistency over the years. They regularly qualify for the World Cup, and the European representatives qualify for the EUROs. The non-UEFA contingent are teams that have won their regional tournaments, or are always thereabouts in the end. The following are other middle-of-the-road teams, but have less of a track record. Same way of determining order as above:

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ecuador, Peru, Norway, Hungary, Romania, Algeria, Costa Rica, Ireland, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Honduras, South Africa

Now, I only selected teams currently in the top 60 according to FIFA. Even then, I omitted a few (as well as included some questionable ones). There could be a "Muddled Middle III", and "The Rest" but I won't go that deep. Here's the point, and where it ties back into the State of the USMNT:

Right now, the USA is not close to being an "Elite" footballing nation. But we can get there.

I believe most hard-core fans are realistic about this, but the media leads the casual supporter to believe that we deserve to be in the final reckoning more often than not.

Explaining my rankings
Think of it this way: The head-to-head results between teams in the same category are usually pretty evenly split.

Example: In the last 10 meetings between Brazil and Argentina, Brazil have won 5 matches, drawn 2, and lost 3.

Example 2: There have only been four meetings between the USA and Denmark, with each nation holding a 1-2-1 record.

However, the difference between the "Elite"/"Elite Pretenders" and the "Muddled Middle" is significant. Brazil are 8-1-1 against the States (after 90 minutes) in the last 10 matches. Brazil are 8-0-1 against Costa Rica, all time. In four of the last five matches, Brazil have scored at least four goals against the Central Americans, who are arguably the third best team in CONCACAF. For comparison, the Nats are 5-2-3 against Costa Rica since 2002. On top of this, the USMNT have won by more than one goal only once in that time.

How to become "Elite"
In my mind, there are three major steps to take to reach the likes of Brazil and Spain:

1) Establish complete regional dominance

While they have not often occurred, blowout wins against clearly inferior opponents must become a staple for the Nats. They have proven they are capable of over-matching opponents thus far during the Gold Cup with a second choice squad, no less. Excuses for ugly 2-1 wins against Antigua and Barbuda shouldn't be tolerated. While "a win is a win" in WCQ, matches like these do nothing to boost the reputation of our team.

2) Consistently compete against the world's best

Last month's win against Germany was a great stepping stone, more so than the win against Italy in 2012. The match in Italy last year was a display of negative tactics and counter attacking, which is to be expected when weaker teams face strong oppo. Not very fun to watch. The argument can be made that Italy was at full strength, and the Bavarians sent their 'B' team, but just as the current US squad is tearing apart weaker foes in the Gold Cup, so could it be said that the Germans are capable of doing the same. While these two victories have been highlights of the Klinsmann era, I will point out that they are accompanied by draws with Canada and Russia, and losses to Ecuador, France, and Belgium (in an embarrassing manner).

This is a gradual process, it will not occur over night, but the fact that the USA have shown signs of improvement over the last few years is encouraging. Progress can still be made.

3) Win the World Cup

The "Elite" nations I mentioned all have this in common. A few countries on the outside looking in have won on the world's biggest stage. Without this on the USMNT resume, they cannot be considered "Elite".

For the record, I think it is possible for this to happen. I may even go as far as to (optimistically) say that it could happen in my lifetime. In the next 60 years, 15 World Cups will be held. With American resources and infrastructure, it is absolutely within reason to assume a World Cup championship is achievable. 

Think about Spain, the baby of the "Elite". Their evolution into the powerhouse they are today began about 20 years ago, when they began producing players like Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, etc. US Soccer and MLS have been working hard to improve the academy program in the States. They are producing and cultivating better players, and while the process is not yet where it needs to be, it is progressing. The tricky thing to keep in mind that our rivals have a head start on us, and are also continually progressing. Reaching the levels to which we aspire will likely take decades. Hopefully I'll still be around to see it.


Feel free to leave comments and feedback, suggest future topics to cover, whatever. Also follow me on Twitter @biasedsoccer

6 comments:

  1. USA in the same group as Croatia and Belgium? Bosnia below Serbia? Portugal in the fakers group? Argentina in the ELITE group? Mother of god do you have yourself turned around.

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    1. Hey Matt,
      First off I appreciate the comment. I'll do my best to articulate my thought process, and specifically on the ones you pointed out.

      In my opinion, and nation in a given group could compete evenly with any other nation in that same category. From one category to the one below it, you would expect to see a favorable record for the "higher" ranked team. Upsets happen, but that is why they are upsets.

      Croatia are a great team, they have proven that, but until they win something, or get close to it I can't move them up. They would be towards the top of the Middle group. I am a huge fan of what Belgium is doing, but like Croatia, they haven't proven much yet. I believe they have some 3rd or 4th place finished in the WC back before the 1970s. The USA would be in that same group because I believe that historically, the teams are pretty even. Right now the edge goes to Croatia AND Belgium over the states, but in terms of accomplishment, they're (pretty much) on the same level.

      Serbia have qualified for the last two World Cups (one as Serbia and Montenegro), B&H have not.

      Portugal are only in the "Fakers" because I think they are better than most of the teams below them. I could have moved them into the "Middle", hence the "Just happy to be here" comment. This is a blog, it's opinionated.

      Argentina have 2 World Cups and 14 Copa America titles. And since the 2011 Copa America, they have only lost 2 matches. There are a lot of draws in that time, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt based on their history.

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    2. A team with Messi, Aguero, Higuain, Tevez has to be elite. Especially given the history you very well described. The fact that they have underachieved the last 2 world cups does not take away that they have also won the qualifiers for the 2010 WC and they are comfortably first in this ones.

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    3. Scratch that, meant 2006 WC. Oops

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  2. You won't write it in your blog but we know you're a French fan!
    Allez les Bleus!

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    1. Martin! You will forever be my favorite Frenchman. I cannot say I like France (especially since I almost got into a bar fight with two Frenchmen while I was is Cusco over soccer).

      I will say this: Since I met you, I dislike France less than I have in the past. Brazil's 3-0 win in June also helped.

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