Keith Olbermann doesn’t care about soccer.
And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. This is America, correct? Follow the sports you like, ignore the ones that don’t interest you. Nobody forces you to tune into ESPN to watch the World Cup or click on a World Cup-related internet post.
As a dyed-in-the-wool soccer nut, I’ll admit some of the evangelical aspects of the beautiful game — hell the term ‘beautiful game’ itself — are at best off-putting and at worst, consistently annoying. I love most music, but can never find myself getting into jazz. For whatever the reason I don’t “get” it. Hearing music buffs or, more accurately, snobs sneer, “you don’t get it, man.” (probably while snapping their fingers with a cigarette hanging from their lips) ultimately makes me dislike the aesthetic of jazz more than the actual music.
But I digress.
Tuesday night in the wake of the United States’ 2-1 loss to Belgium, Olbermann — who admits right up top he doesn’t care about soccer — offers his suggestions on how America can improve. This might be one of the more tired tropes in all of sportswriting, one that’s been written about for 30-40 years without any real, concrete answer. Olbermann’s first point — stop acting like the English — is an excellent starting point.
In the year 2014, there isn’t a soccer nation on the planet that should want to emulate England. Perhaps, yes, looking at the Barclay’s Premier League as a business entity to print money is worth studying, but the league has more ties to a global television audience than England itself. There are many in English soccer who decry the league for stunting the progress of English players, but that’s a problem for England to worry about. The EPL/BPL produces highly entertaining soccer on my television set. If it hinders the development of a 17-year old from Hertfordshire, so be it. No skin off my back.
Anglophile or not, there’s no point paying much attention — heaping doses of schadenfreude aside — to an England national team that hasn’t been past the quarterfinals of a World Cup since 1998 — the same highwater mark for the United States over that span. In addition, the stereotype of the Euro-snob American soccer fan is declining, albeit at a slow pace. I’d wager the majority of the thousands of people crammed inside Soldier Field on Tuesday have never heard an album by Suede.
In the wake of the American soccer elimination — our scapegoat-needing sports culture — some people on the web are gnawing at the red meat that is coach Jurgen Klinsmann. (There’s been a long simmering anti-Klinsmann camp in the American soccer media, it seems.) The U.S. knocked out in the Round of 16? Obviously it’s all the coach’s fault — a very English perspective. By the same token, if Chris Wondolowski — one of Klinsmann’s substitutes — scores, the coach is hailed as a genius.
So it goes.
Without veering too far from the topic at hand, trying to come up with a perfect solution to transform U.S. Soccer, it’s youth programs, MLS and everything in between is almost a never-ending math equation. I’ve lost track of how many different “Projects” or “Generations” U.S. Soccer think tanks have cooked up over the last 20 years. Sweeping declarations following four games every four years, too, don’t begin to scratch the surface of the complex world of American soccer, which still includes things like high school and college soccer — challenges other nations don’t face. If you mark progress solely by winning the World Cup, we’ll probably be right back here again in this same place in 2018, 2022, 2026 …
Progress, if anything, remains slow. Winning a World Cup isn’t an American birthright, as much as our parade of photoshop memes proudly displaying Clint Dempsey atop a bald eagle shooting lasers wants it to be true. There isn’t a magic bullet, where we can snap our fingers and say every under 17 soccer team in the United States plays a 4-3-3 system and 12 years later we’ve produced a crop of talent that Belgium had on the field Tuesday in Salvador.
The question remains: shouldn’t a nation of 300 million produce a better national team? We’ve yet to collectively come up with the right answer, and yet we press onward and upward. Interest in the National Team at the World Cup continues to grow, fueled by youth and social media.
On a more practical level, how do you get better as the big fish in CONCACAF, when you’re consistently taking it offensively to lesser opposition, only to be forced to flip that script when pitted against the likes of Ghana, Portugal, Germany and Belgium in the World Cup? Save for an optimistic, pan-Americas federation one day, the U.S. is stuck where it is in this regard.
Moving forward, it’s more worthwhile scrutinizing Klinsmann’s role as a technical director for U.S. Soccer than his decision to, say, start Geoff Cameron over Kyle Beckerman. When you lose to a better team like Belgium, one that outshoots you 39-to-14 there isn’t exactly one tactical decision you can pinpoint as the reason for the loss — a loss the U.S. still had a gilded opportunity to win in the 93rd minute via Wondolowski, amazingly enough. (Some will forever bring up the Landon Donovan exclusion, surely.)
Klinsmann’s guidance did net the National Team 19-year-old dual national Julian Green (and John Brooks and Aron Johannsson and Fabian Johns0n, etc.). It’s part of the reason an overflowing amount of stories today are touting the team’s bright future. Moving forward we’ll have to see how Klinsmann is able to shift away from the Clint Dempsey/Tim Howard/Jermaine Jones core and into something new. Hopefully he’ll find the American version of Xavi. Otherwise it’s hard to find a way the U.S. would, as currently constructed, stand toe-to-toe technically or possession-wise vs. Germany or Belgium. Losing Jozy Altidore barely 20 minutes into the first game could have crippled the team, but it didn’t even if it lacked a like-for-like replacement. Nor did it help Fabian Johnson limped off with a hamstring issue in the first half of the 120-minute game to Belgium, again screwing up the game’s pattern.
If, come 2022, the U.S. is still in a position where it scrambles in possession and chases the game, yeah, then Klinsmann (under contract until 2018) failed. If the team is still unable to pull a quality player off the bench in extra time like Belgium could, it’s a bad job.
ESPN’s Alexi Lalas offered a fair assessment of Klinsmann late Tuesday that’s hard to argue with, as he made the most with what was available.
And as Ty Duffy wrote on the site, it was a fair performance by the United States in 2014 but one that was ultimately hollow, not one to pin the failures on the coach.
Let’s get back to the English. Here’s the fun irony today. While media members in America line up their keyboard knives for Klinsmann, there are many in England calling for its FA to hire the former German star.
Yes, the English — the nation that birthed soccer to the world — now wants Klinsmann’s rah-rah, belief-building ethos to take over the perpetually dour Three Lions. Here’s Luke Edwards in the Telegraph:
Klinsmann is the ideal candidate. Not only because he has played in the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur, and not because he is a showbiz name that will add a sprinkling of stardust on the England set-up, but because he has shown with both Germany and the USA that he makes national team perform better than the individuals within it.
The English looking to the American for advice on how to coach their National Team? Let’s certainly call that progress and remember we’re not England — and that’s a good thing, something we can all agree upon whether we don’t care about soccer or are hoarse this morning from yelling “I believe that will be win” roughly 67,321 times over the last 15 days.