Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Fresh Clipboard: #1

So we're starting anew, with a head start on the next World Cup cycle. On this edition, there will not be the typical ordinal rankings. If there is a clear starter, I will separate that player above the pack - but there is no clear top dog in the goalkeeping stable.

So I will simply list all the candidates currently worth an audition process, and those I'm backing for a November call will be marked with an asterisk. Obviously, some guys will be passed over this time because they'll presumably be busy with the MLS playoffs.

Alex Bono
Jesse Gonzalez
*Bill Hamid
*Ethan Horvath
Brad Guzan
Tim Melia
Sean Johnson
Zach Steffen (who I initially forgot to include)

Hamid (who I'd like to see head overseas now that he's available for free) and Horvath are the obvious choices to battle for the start against Portugal. By the way, I'm not entirely averse to calling in Howard next month, provided he's only there as a mentor figure. Of course, I am ready for the program to move on from the 38-year-old, who showed his decline in Couva.

I am not, however, prepared to shove Guzan completely aside - but he has to earn his shots like everyone else.  For the time being, I will consider Johnson to be another main contender on level footing with the aforementioned trio.

Gonzalez has a ton of potential, but his form has suffered in recent months as if the FC Dallas slide is contagious. Come January, it would be nice to have Bono and Melia in camp for looks, but each does carry question marks for me.

- Greg Seltzer

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Five-Year Stare

Before we get started, please do forgive me for taking this long. To be quite frank, I spent the first few days after the USMNT's gasp-worthy World Cup qualifying failure staring off into space. I simply couldn't believe it was real.

This was me from the final whistle last Tuesday night until Friday:

I was in a daze, folks. Sleep was a struggle. Making even simple decisions was a chore. What do I say about this? Where do I even begin? Should I shower? What do I want to eat? Yeah... it was that bad.

The initial (but protracted) shock finally wore off to some extent, so here I am. I've actually only digested a few takes from fellow media members since the loss to Trinidad & Tobago. Mostly, I've read comments from fans across the country.

Many were understandably distraught over the situation, but to my mind, most everyone has the reasons for failure and some answers moving forward at least partially right. Then again, many observers are also angrily reaching to identify foundational causes that require tearing everything down when the painful answers are actually in plain sight. Perhaps somewhere out there is our own version of Doug Forcett, who in a shroomy haze has managed to break it all down with 92% accuracy.

Make no mistake, though: we are all definitely in The Bad Place. First, I want to tackle all the reactionary howls and wayward finger points that naturally come with this sort of forced national ice-water dunk, before moving on to the "What do we do next?" part that has most fans in our USMNT bubble rather consumed at the moment. And I won't even try to pretend I have all the answers for that.


For those who say our players just aren't good enough: Don't be ridiculous. We're not talking about threatening to win a World Cup. We're talking about finishing no worse than fourth out of six CONCACAF teams. We're talking about managing at least an away draw against a greenish Trinidad & Tobago side that hadn't won in seven months.

Let's be clear. Even with the somewhat poor field, even with the misguided game plan and line-up, even with the fluke-y goals that put us behind, even with the phantom goal in Panama, even with any excuse that can be thrown out, this team is good enough to have leveled the score on Tuesday to pull qualification out of the fire.

And as Landon Donovan stated, the worst part of watching it go down was the baffling, stunning lack of urgency, especially in the second half. I will never understand that.

For those who gripe that our core was too old: I also noticed the unusual dearth of players under 27 in the our most recent selection. And I do realize that US soccer experienced a bit of a youth talent swoon earlier in the decade, with numerous prospects failing to live up to their potential. On the surface, it seems like a major issue.

However, it must also be noted that no less than five young guys that were likely to either start or could have acted as bench weapons last Tuesday (Brooks, Lletget, Morris, Rowe & Saief) are currently on the shelf with injuries. That doesn't even include potential left back option Greg Garza or Aron Jóhannsson, who has seen his form and international status derailed by an incessant injury bug.

There are other youngsters who have failed to develop in a pleasing manner and even some that might have helped during the Hex if broken in sooner, but I can't help but feel that this complaint is somewhat misguided. Twenty-nine and 30 are not ancient for defenders or a defensive midfielder, 27 is not decrepit for a striker. And while I see now that we needed a refresh in goal, if anything, the attack could have used a lot more time with the resident "senior citizen" than we got in recent games.

For those who say MLS is the problem: I get this gripe, believe me I do. It's just silly, is all. Right off the top, I'll note the obvious, that improving the USMNT and qualifying for World Cup is not the job of Major League Soccer. It's not the league's job to see that our international players/prospects go to/stay over in Europe for maximum sharpness.

That said, one could reasonably argue that MLS has become a poor scapegoat choice anyway.It's far better than it was when we reached the World Cup knockouts, and far, far better than it was when we reached them eight years ago. Besides, Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama are littered with key cogs who play or recently played in MLS. And most of the Soca Warriors who doomed our qualifying efforts in the end have day jobs in their nation's much inferior domestic league.

What's more, MLS has gotten its development game together in recent years. Most clubs in the league now have a full-time academy, and several are either loaded in the youth ranks (like Atlanta United), have been churning out pro players for a while now (New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake) or both (FC Dallas).

Heck, quite a few of the youngster we're all clamoring to lead the USMNT squad turnover (DeAndre Yedlin, Matt Miazga, Weston McKennie, Justen Glad, Tyler Adams, etc.) are, yup, you guessed it... MLS youth program products. And that's not even counting other domestic-based youngsters like Brandon Vincent and Wil Trapp, or still-blooming internationals such as Kellyn Acosta and Jorge Villafana.

It's far too easy to take angry shots at our home league, but it's still a rapidly improving relative baby in the global scheme of things. And despite a late start with academies, it is doing it's job.

For those who blame it on firing Jurgen Klinsmann: Oi vey... I have news for these folks. He never should have been given a second cycle as manager. Anyone who thinks the guy who sprung a formation the team had never practiced with no notice in a home World Cup qualifier against Mexico is buggin'.

That's not to say he never accomplished anything or that he never had any good ideas about how things should work. It just gets hard to remember those things after he'd lost the room and, occasionally, lost his mind regarding selections and tactics. Put a Joachim Löw at his right hand, and Klinsmann is alright. Otherwise, he's a loose cannon that contradicts himself and leaves the team feeling unprepared.

For those who lay the failure on Bruce Arena: This is partially fair. While he pulled our qualification drive out an early ditch and steered us to the precipice of "good enough" in the Hex, he also stumbled miserably at the Couva finish line.

I said it before, and I'll say it again. The old trope of trotting out a winning side is much more worthwhile in the club game, where players aren't pulled from stray points on the map on short notice to play vital games three days apart. In a World Cup qualifying situation. it's just lackadaisical, and that's precisely how the team looked last Tuesday.

Not only should typically steady hands Geoff Cameron and Clint Dempsey (if not also Alejandro Bedoya) been in the line-up, but sticking with a 4-4-2 diamond set against a massive underdog with nothing to lose on a poor field was a highly unfortunate choice. In either a 3-5-2 or a 4-2-3-1, Michael Bradley should have been given a partner to share the central park workload against a speedy foe.

Not only that, but the team clearly looked out of sorts mentally - which was quite strange considering they'd just run through walls to bash Panama around. Last Tuesday, they were stuck in neutral for most of the game. There was none of the usual fight we see when their backs are against the wall, and other than bringing on Deuce at halftime, his in-game maneuvers were slow to come and odd.

It wasn't Arena's only misstep in this Hex, but it was the crucial one. I like Arena. I respect him and his accomplishments. And it's because I respect him that I'm comfortable saying this game plan was an obvious disaster from the get-go.

For those who point the finger at Sunil Gulati: Okay, well, I don't have an argument against that. Klinsmann's firing marked twice in just over five years that US Soccer had jettisoned a second cycle manager early. That's well more than the tip of the iceberg here. I'm not suggesting we lay all the blame at his feet, but his decisions definitely had us chasing the Hex from the start.

Oh... and everyone can stop screaming for him to be fired. The guy was elected, there's no firing him. He either resigns (which ain't gonna happen), or he serves until the next election in February.

Final analysis: Some folks surely won't want to hear this, but this monumental failure shouldn't be chalked up to any great systematic defect. That's not to say that we shouldn't be having serious discussions about development, scouting or coaching in America. We should have these discussions whether we qualify or not. These issues didn't suddenly get worse when we lost in Couva and they aren't really about the art of qualifying. They're about reaching that mystical "next level" our soccer bubble is always consumed with. They're about catching up to the Frances and Germanys and Argentinas, not about staying ahead of Honduras.

When it comes right down to it, the USMNT will miss out on World Cup because the players and manager fell flat at the finish line after digging themselves out of the Klinsmann hole. That wasn't the only problem event from the Hex, to be sure, but nobody would be freaking out from despair about blowing up the system had the team handled business in Trinidad & Tobago. The World Cup place was there to take, with controlled destiny, from the easiest away match of the bunch.

Excuses are for the unsuccessful, and there was no excuse for letting the ticket to Russia 2018 slip away last week. It's not fun for me to say that, as I know everyone involved is gutted by what happened. But it is what it is.


Considering my take on the Hex letdown, it may seem like I don't see so much worth fixing in our system. That's not the case. There is plenty to work on - just not so much that it should stop us from falling on our faces at the CONCACAF level.

The USSF leadership: Yeah, obviously it's time for a change. Gulati has done plenty for US Soccer, and he will still be active in the World Cup '26 joint-bid (another terrible, overly safe idea, by the way).

It's time for someone more in tune with the soccer side than the business/diplomacy side to take the reins. Reaching the "next level" doesn't come from repeating the same old program and methods that got us this far. It requires something new, something bolder, and definitely something less purely about front-end profits.

Our NT attitude: I already mentioned this in the comments, but I'm sick and tired of the familiar refrains we hear during World Cup qualifying. We all know it's not easy to travel in CONCACAF.

Nevertheless, we need to stop caterwauling about how European powers would struggle in our Hex and being content with road points - especially when we don't win all the home games. In each of the prior three Hexagonal campaigns, we chalked up seven road points. This time around, we gathered just three, all from draws.

Enough already. Plan and play to win every time, and stop telling the players that away draws are satisfactory. This reactive mindset can't help but creep into their heads, and it's simply not helping. Or true. It's about time we accepted that the best way to "play it safe" is to go balls to the wall.

Tackling development: This area already seems to be on a better course, largely thanks to MLS academies. Many folks subscribe to the notion of busting up the pay-to-play youth networks, but that's easier said than done when money is involved for the adults. However, we all know that US Soccer is sitting on a $100 million surplus.

They could quite easily break off a tiny chunk of that to subsidize wider participation for (and the scouting of) kids from lower-income families, a demographic that often produces world-class players in all those countries whose international success we aspire to emulate.

Frankly, I can't imagine why we're still fumbling around this issue. If US Soccer can't splash a little of their windfall to improve the player pool, then why do they even have it? Doing something proactive much sooner might have helped us avoid the brief youth talent gap that saw us left out of the last two Olympic Games.

Finding a new boss: This is another one that is easier to theorize than it is to pull off. Word going around is that longtime youth NT manager Tab Ramos could be given the job on an interim basis, and I'm fine with that.

But we should already be beating the bushes to find a permanent main man to lead the next cycle. And I believe it's more important to find some that will push the USMNT with a clear tactical vision than it is to hire a rudderless system-shaker (see Klinsmann) or a safe choice who can list "knows the American game" as a résumé selling point.

Forget this "we can go free-form" stuff. Never mind with altering formations every FIFA window jazz. Let's get someone who will start by institutionalizing organization, which has repeatedly been lacking throughout this failed cycle. Let's get one game plan down cold before we go trying to diversify every time the wind blows.

Oh, and I still must insist on that tactical vision featuring a triangle in central midfield, because being outnumbered there is almost always a problem. That means no more 4-4-2's of any shape, please.

Do I know exactly who we should hire, or which side of the Atlantic that person should come from? No, I don't. Sorry. But by now, we should all be able to detect options that won't do the trick.

The coaching issue, overall: Let's wander back toward that mega-fat stack the USSF is sitting on. Last year, our old buddy Will Parchman detailed the stunning paucity of learned coaches in America and the head-shaking cost of adding more to the ranks at a time when youth soccer participation is at a burgeoning all-time high.

This is a serious problem, if not the most pressing one we can kick about in any talk about our soccer ecosystem. Let's do a little math, shall we? An A-level coaching badge costs roughly six-and-a-half times as much in America as it does in Germany, where the reigning world champions have around five times as many A-level coaches. Now look at preceding World Cup winners Spain, who have approximately 10 times as many coaches walking around with an A-level status that cost them about 20% of what American coaches pay to get there.

Gosh, I think we've found one of those gaps we're always talking about slashing to catch up with the big boys. Soccer folks always go on about how competition breeds quality in selection, which builds performance levels. This dictum should naturally extend to the coaching realm. Why the USSF is not spending some of their windfall to remedy this situation is beyond me. Isn't growing the American game precisely their function? How better to do that than by properly guiding your players?

And we all wonder why the US coaching ranks is such an insular, conservative, old-boy network... well, wonder no more why our youngsters aren't equipped with enough technical skills like and why youth coaches are often more focused on results than on development. With one A license coach for every 6,000 American players, who has the time to teach?

This is dire, friends. And the anybody running for USSF president next year needs to make changing this nonsense one of their main platforms. There's more than enough money lying around to do it.


And with all that said, I have begun working on a new Clipboard. But this one will be different. Sadly, it won't be about a depth chart headed for a World Cup (or any competitive tourney in particular). This time, it will be about starting over with a long view. That doesn't mean all the veterans will be left behind. It doesn't mean all kids are automatically in.

It will be about taking inventory with designs on finding the best way forward. And it will begin on Wednesday with the netminders.

- Greg Seltzer

Monday, October 16, 2017

If There's A Will, There's A Weah

I'm still working on my World Cup qualifying post-mortem. To be honest, I spent most of last week in a serious funk and the weekend was busy. I should have it up by tomorrow, but for now let's all take heart in the US Under-17's own World Cup run, which is now to the quarters thanks to a surprising 5-0 rout of previously hot Paraguay paced by a Timothy Weah hat trick.

He became the first men's national team player to score three goals in a World Cup knockout game, and now our boys are in the elite eight for the first time since 2005. Next up: the winner of tomorrow's England-Japan game.

- Greg Seltzer

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Staring into the nothingness...

I have the saddest USMNT player ratings ever to write and I really don't want to spout off while the wound is still fresh as can be, so I will leave this here for you all to kick around tonight's pathetic, maddening "effort" in Trinidad & Tobago. I will come back tomorrow with so much more to say.

- Greg Seltzer

Your USMNT Line-up v. Trinidad & Tobago

The answer to your first question? Yes, Christian Pulisic is fit to start.

The answer to your second question? No changes from the XI that schooled Panama the other night.

The answer to your third question? Sure, I suppose I'm alright with this set-up... for tonight. I still don't believe we should get married to it. Starting what is effectively a 4-1-3-2 (even if some wish to call it a 4-4-2 diamond, which demands more defensive work from the wide midfield spots... looking at you, Darlington Nagbe) would make me very nervous at World Cup.

What works in CONCACAF does not translate to the big dance, but I'm sure Da Bruce realizes this. I still will want two gate guardians of some sort next summer.

But that's for later. Now, it's time to punch the ticket to Russia. I'll see you on the other side with player ratings at MLSS.

- Greg Seltzer

Friday, October 6, 2017

Oh, for crying out loud.

For those who may not be unaware, FC Dallas committed a line-up card violation in their scoreless draw with Orlando City that, by the MLS rule book, should come with a forfeit. Them's the rules. Period. Full stop. End of story. Right?


Real Salt Lake's Mike Petke offered this take (which he can't even politely as possible stumble through without gentle chuckles of disbelief)...

This is not even slightly difficult. If MLS wants to be taken more seriously at home and abroad, maybe don't intentionally shoot yourself in the foot, huh? Follow your own damn rules. Duh.

- Greg Seltzer