Monday saw England and Spain, two of the top four initial favorites, eliminated in the Euro 2016 Round of 16. The two favorites were beaten by Italy and Iceland, two overmatched teams on paper. The results should rebut claims the USMNT malaise under Jurgen Klinsmann has been all about the players.
Iceland has been no fluke. They won six of their 10 qualifying matches, even beating the Netherlands home and away. They finished second in their group. They had the best goal differential (+11). That effort was not a one off. Iceland finished second in its qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup, losing a playoff against Croatia in the second leg.
Iceland beat England. Iceland deserved to beat England. Iceland was the better, more composed team.
Italy is Italy. But, this was anything but a standout Italian team on paper, outside of keeper Gianluigi Buffon and the BBC back line. Two of their standouts this tournament have been Graziano Pelle and Emanuelle Giaccherini, players who struggled getting into the first team at Sunderland.
Spain should have been better. The spine of the Spanish team consistent of players who had won the Euros, the World Cup, and the Champions League. David Silva has been player of the season in England. David De Gea is the starting goalkeeper for Manchester United. They were loaded.
Yet, it was Italy that controlled the match from kickoff. The Italians were proactive. They never let Spain get in a rhythm. They won 2-0. They could (and maybe should) have won 4-0.
Iceland were organized. They were focused. They executed their game plan. One thing they do particularly well is create de facto set pieces from long throw-ins. That undid England.
Italy are well drilled by Antonio Conte. Players have a detailed game plan. When Plan A falters, they can adjust back to Plan B and to Plan C without discomfort.
We’re not saying the U.S. should hire a practicing dentist and rear players in darkness half the year. Nor should the U.S. embark on an audacious bid to pry Antonio Conte from Chelsea. But, these examples from Iceland and Italy are illustrative.
There are few matches in international soccer. Players come from different clubs, leagues, and, for the U.S., continents. Having your players organized in a cohesive, well-drilled system they can execute can be a decisive advantage. Competing against better teams is possible.
Klinsmann has gotten some results. Sometimes the U.S. scores early. Sometimes opponents are just that much worse. Sometimes the opposing striker (*cough* Enner Valencia *cough*) is mercifully misfiring. But, quite often, in the tightest situations, there doesn’t seem to be any real plan beneath the positive aphorisms.
Perhaps we mortals can’t comprehend the plan. Maybe the players aren’t/can’t execute it. But, it’s hard to believe sending out a team that on its face could not hold possession, was outnumbered defending midfield, and was too slow to counterattack against Argentina was a thwarted masterstroke.
Klinsmann is the Silicon Valley soccer coach. He’s sunshine. He has big ideas. He “disrupts” things. He builds the future. He has a nice tan. He enjoys casual wear. He may play well in Little England with its grey conventions, insular mindset, and calcified infrastructure.
U.S. Soccer needs a pragmatist to debug the program and get it running.