The United States men’s national team’s loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup last Saturday was more evidence that the old model of U.S. Soccer has gone as far as it can. For Team USA to continue to improve, it needs to focus on developing world-class talent, and less on building the team itself.
Ever since coach Bob Gansler led a group of college and amateur players to World Cup qualification in 1990, the plan for the national team has been the same: work hard, build a cohesive group, and count on effort and team spirit to carry the day. Even after Major League Soccer kicked off in 1996, giving American players more opportunities to play for teams other than the national team, U.S. Soccer brought in a series of similar coaches to reinforce the same style. Steve Sampson, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley all had coaching backgrounds in college soccer, giving them plenty of experience in attempting to mold a team into something more than the sum of its less-than-world-class parts.
The U.S. soon found that this method, combined with the increasing resources being poured into American soccer and the relative weakness of other CONCACAF nations, meant that World Cup qualification and Gold Cup success were all but assured. The leap to relevance on the world stage remains elusive, though; the U.S. has only five wins in seven World Cups.
The appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as coach was a conscious attempt to change. Klinsmann was a world-class player but has never been a hands-on coach in the traditional Team USA mold. He had great success as the coach of the German national team, when top-class scouting and assistant Joachim Low’s coaching skills enabled him to focus on challenging German players to think differently about themselves and their approach to soccer.
Klinsmann has tried a similar tack in the U.S., but it has led to nothing but grumbling. Public clashes with Landon Donovan and anonymous comments from other current U.S. players have revealed a disconnect: American players, who are used to being molded and encouraged by a college-style coach, have been unable to connect with Klinsmann, who has offered less coaching and more personal challenges.
Without the same support and excellence from his assistants that he had with Germany, Klinsmann has turned in a frustratingly inconsistent performance as a gameday coach. That said, Klinsmann’s challenge to the players themselves — and by extension, to all of U.S. Soccer — has been both clear and unwavering: They simply aren’t good enough yet to be world-class. The U.S. coach knows it will take more than just team spirit and effort to get there. It’s on the players, now, to raise their games.