Being an international soccer fan in America is a blessing and a curse. Our women’s team is consistently dominant but our men’s team is a perennial source of disappointment. Unfortunately for the latter, things didn’t get much better on Tuesday night. During their game with Panama, the US looked disjointed and out of sync.
The cohesive unit that decimated Honduras on Friday was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the first half was mired in penalty calls and missed opportunities. Even when we finally did put one in the net, off of an absurd assist by rising star Christian Pulisic, it was answered within minutes. Gabriel Gomez managed to score off of a long throw-in while the US defenders…um…sort of just…stood there.
The defense, particularly Zusi on the right side, was tested early and often and just barely managed to stave off Panama’s attacks. Overall, the halfbacks looked slow and unable to keep up with the Panamanian onslaught. By the second half, Panama had assumed full control of the game and if it weren’t for some miraculous saves by Tim Howard, the US would have lost.
It is worth mentioning that Pulisic was routinely abused throughout the match and was clearly the target of coordinated fouling. The refs however, seemed content to allow the flagrant aggression to continue and never handed out a single card. Such is soccer though and one player being fouled doesn’t excuse 90 minutes of bad play.
From a coaching standpoint, the team looked like it was consistently collapsing in on itself. It felt as though Bruce Arena made a conscious, strategic decision to cede the entire center of the field. The plan may have been to draw the Panamanian defenders in, in order to give Dempsey or Altidore a chance at a long run but it was poorly executed. Whatever the intentions, the result was that the US played most of the second half in their own end.
Another fundamental issue with the US National team is its weird, mawkish attachment to Michael Bradley. Our captain is completely lacking in any discernable leadership qualities. During last night’s game (and the entire 2014 world cup), Bradley wandered around the field with the scared and confused face of a 9-year old who accidentally walked in on his parents having sex. His passing was sloppy, his eyes were almost never downfield and his intensity level could be described as geriatric. Despite his consistent underperformance and complete absence of talent or charisma, Michael Bradley continues to play 90 minutes a game. The team has evolved past Bob Bradley but for reasons unknown; Michael Bradley remains.
While Bradley’s play was characteristically abhorrent, he wasn’t the only player who had a disappointing showing last night. Clint Dempsey may have scored but he seemed a bit sluggish and quite often found himself out of position. The announcers often lauded him for coming back to help on defense. The problem is, once the ball started going the other way, it took him way too long to get back up field. It may be a product of age but Deuce didn’t look quite like himself.
Last night’s draw against Panama, a team that has never qualified for a World Cup, spells trouble for the US. Currently, with The Hex almost halfway done, we sit in 4th place. The pressure is mounting and the question is being raised as to whether the US has any realistic shot at World Cup success in Russia. Unfortunately, the answer is probably “no”. Bruce Arena is optimistic, certainly more so than Jurgen Klinsmann was in 2014 but the exchange rate of optimism to tournament wins isn’t particularly strong. It looks as though the USA could be in for another short run next summer.
Yesterday’s disappointment did yield a single positive; further proof that Christian Pulisic is the real deal. He was calm and poised. He had great vision and his passes were nothing short of pristine. His fights with the refs and his opponents showed a slight lack of maturity but in fairness, he’s only 18 years old. In seven CONCACAF games, the would-be high school senior has three goals and five assists. His natural ability is unmatched on the American squad and many (including Coach Arena) are hopeful that he is the future of US international soccer.
Realistically, it’s difficult to say what the USMNT might look like going forward. Its squad for 2018 is more or less set but the team is old. Dempsey just turned 34. Tim Howard was born in the 70s. Pulisic was the only player in last night’s starting line-up that was under the age of 26. The reality is, that by the time 2022 rolls around, Pulisic, Villafaña and Nagbe might be the only current starters still playing. Young players like Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris and Cameron Carter Vickers could be due for a sharp increase in playing time in the near future. With so much young talent coming up, the American team should shift its focus from winning, to developing its future superstars. Whether or not Arena will do this remains to be seen but with the USA’s chances next year looking slim, development seems like the best course of action.