Raymond Domenech, providing fodder for critics everywhere, recently added fuel to the fire, having a go at CONCACAF. Saint Raymond opined that Jurgen Klinsmann has an “easy job,” because guiding the USA to the World Cup is guaranteed. According to Monsieur Raymond, the USA has only two meaningful games in qualifying, some trips to Canada, and some vacation time in the Caribbean.
One assumes that when Saint Raymond said, “this is a job I would like to have,” he was being facetious since, in making these comments, there’s zero chance that he will ever be offered the job. Not that there was much chance that the United States would be in the market for a manager with a terrible record in international tournaments, a suspicious record of avoiding immigrant players, and a past team that literally quit during a training during at the World Cup final, and got pasted by Mexico on neutral ground.
Despite these easy complaints, Domenech is only the latest voice to express the view that things come easy for the United States. Qualification is so simple in the eyes of many, that we value the United States, not for qualification, but by the comfort level with which they qualify. American punditry has largely adopted this standard and has used it to shine a somewhat negative light on Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as manager. The United States domestic audience has been treated to voices like Alexi Lalas spending half time on ESPN demanding Klinsmann realise he’s wrong about his entire approach to football.
The narrative of easy CONCACAF qualification generates the narrative in the media for Klinsi-skepticism. Klinsmann has been disappointing, according to this narrative, because the USA is supposed to win in CONCACAF (with the exception of Mexico) while looking like they’re playing FIFA 13 on Beginner. Before qualifying started, there was every reason to believe that this expectation was a preposterously simple way of thinking about how football tournaments work in real life. That Raymond Domenech seems to give credence to this expectation (having actually been a manager) does more to explain France’s performance in Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 than it supports the anti-Klinsmann narrative.
The USA has had, by my count, two losses during the Klinsmann era to opposition they should have defeated. First, a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica in a friendly. Second, a 2-1 loss in qualifying at Jamaica. While neither country is a giant of the game, both nations have won matches in the World Cup Finals before. In brief, Klinsi-skepticism is not based on results. Klinsi-skpetics hold Klinsmann responsible for trying to improve the nuts and bolts at the cost of their precious little narrative that the United States can make it out of CONCACAF strolling backwards on its head while chewing gum.
A defence of Klinsmann must recognise that the side is improving dramatically at playing out from the back and cycling possession in the midfield and attacking third. Two facts are worth noting: (1) to this point, this cycling of possession has not led to more goals and (2) the United States does not have the ability to sustain its newfound powers for more than 15-20 minutes at a time as of yet. While these two facts explain the somewhat lacklustre displays on the field, neither fact indicates a lack of progress.
If the goal is to be a side that can effectively fight for control of the match by the way that they control the possession and dictate the positional layout of both their own side and their opponents’ through their ball movement, the “next level” from having almost no ability to do this is to have some ability to do this.
There are two matches in the pre-Klinsmann era that highlight the importance of investing in future play. The first match was the Confederations Cup Final (my heart just hurt hyperlinking to this news story) against Brazil in 2009. The United States, having stormed to a 2-0 lead on some fantastic counter-attacking play proceeded to get bombarded for the entire second half before losing the lead and the match. Match number two was the 2011 Gold Cup Final, where the United States inexplicably jumped out to a 2-0 lead against a superior Mexican side before getting absolutely torn to shreds for the rest of the match. In both matches, the ability to hold the ball and cycle possession, even if it had led to no more appreciable scoring chances could have made the difference between two international trophies in three years as opposed to zero.
This is, incidentally, how the United States managed to beat Italy and Mexico in their historic victories under Klinsmann. When you snatch a goal against the run of play, it makes a big difference if you have to fight off the opponents attack for only 60 minutes instead of 90 minutes because you were able to genuinely possess the ball in the opponent’s half for 30 minutes (even if that possession largely goes nowhere).
Some might call this evidence of progressing towards “the next level.” But those people would have to know what to look for before they were talking.
Steven Maloney writes about football and politics. He also holds a PhD in Political Theory from the University of Maryland and is a political science lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. You can follow him on twitter here.