Solo’s cowards to Klinsmann’s exit: a review of 2016 in US soccer

Disappointing results dominated the landscape for both the womens and mens teams this year as some famous names slipped off center stage

1) The Carlos Ruiz experience

The USMNT had never lost a World Cup qualifying game in Guatemala when they played there in March, but a 21-game unbeaten streak against their opponents was about to end in abject fashion.

Not for the last time this year, the teams concentration on restarts would be their achilles heel. First Mix Diskerud was left flailing as Rafael Morales headed Guatemala into an early lead, then the veteran Carlos Ruiz sprinted off the last man and slid the ball under Tim Howard while the US center-backs were still turning near the halfway line.

El Pescadito had made a habit of tormenting American defenders in his various MLS incarnations in a long career, but the sight of the 36 year-old journeyman running away from the latest candidates in Jrgen Klinsmanns center-back carousel (Michael Orozco and Omar Gonzalez), was a particularly galling image for US fans to start the year with.

The US were fortunate to have the opportunity to remedy things immediately, and four days later they put four past Guatemala in their then reliable fortress of Columbus, but the positive mood that result engendered (boosted by the competitive debut of the much-heralded Christian Pulisic) could not quite erase the intensifying sense of unease about Klinsmanns team selections and tactics.

2) Olympic failure, part one

Colombia turned out to be a regular deflater of US soccer pretensions this year, though perhaps never so emphatically as in the playoff series for a spot at the Olympics in March. The USMNT-U23 team had secured a credible 1-1 draw in Colombia in the first leg, only to fall apart in the return losing 2-1, ending the game with nine men and generally chasing shadows. Kellyn Acosta endured a particularly torrid time at full back, and the gulf in class and ambition between the two teams looked particularly worrying for US fans wondering about the next generation.

For the first time in 50 years the USA would miss successive Olympic tournaments, but perhaps more to the point the master plan for this World Cup cycle was in further disarray. After the 2014 World Cup, Klinsmann had envisaged a smooth procession of competitive soccer leading up to Russia 2018, but now key losses had eliminated both the 2017 Confederations Cup and the 2016 Olympics from that notional schedule.

3) The US women score lots and lots of goals and then fewer goals

After the surprise 1-0 home loss to China that ended the World Cup winning 2015, the USWNT resumed normal service at the start of 2016, as their traveling circus roamed the country scoring goals for fun. Until a 3-3 draw with Japan ended the sequence in early summer, the US won 11 games in a row scoring an eye-watering 42 goals and conceding just one in the process, against Germany.

The latter game was also distinguished for featuring a great goal by Alex Morgan. Though perhaps more importantly for the US, it came within the context of a run of tight games at the #SheBelieves tournament, as they tried to ramp up the intensity to defend their Olympic title. Single goal wins over England and France gave a rather clearer benchmark of where the US were than 10-0 wins over Puerto Rico, but such is the unbalanced lot of the womens national team schedule, and even if the warning signs had been there during the World Cup win, it seemed inconceivable that the USA would not lift themselves for the medal rounds of the Olympics.

4) Copa America finish flatters the USA

The USAs Copa America Centenario started and ended with losses to Colombia, and while the team matched Klinsmanns stated ambition of reaching the semi-finals, the manner of their dismantling when they got there made sure that no fan was left with any illusions about the teams current standing. Lionel Messi and Argentina saw to that, as they overran the USMNT 4-0, before Colombia beat the hosts 1-0 in the third-place game.

And yet with the World Cup qualifiers ahead there were encouraging signs. Despite again missing an injured Jozy Altidore from a summer tournament, the US attack found its groove, inspired by the irrepressible Clint Dempsey, and with Booby Wood continuing an upward trajectory that continued throughout the year. Klinsmann too, showed signs of adapting smartly as the tournament went on reshaping his midfield to overwhelm Costa Rica in the second group game, and persisting with the formula right up to the Argentina game. But then familiar frailties (lack of concentration early, lack of concentration at set pieces, lack of ideas when behind) reasserted themselves. The US werent humiliated at the tournament they hosted, but they didnt light it up either.

5) Losing to cowards

A relatively routine group stage for the USWNT at the Olympics was remarkable chiefly for the chants of ZIKA! that accompanied every touch of the ball by Hope Solo (whod somewhat injudiciously chosen to tweet about her fears of the disease before the tournament), and just as in Canada last year there was the expectation that they would now begin to go through the gears en route to the final.

But then came Sweden, and former US boss Pia Sundhage, in the quarter-finals. The US attacked from the start and had 27 shots to Swedens six, but Swedens counter-attacking was more efficient than the USAs pressure. It took a 77th minute Alex Morgan goal to take the game to extra-time, but it proved to be a temporary reprieve, as Sweden won on penalties to deliver the worst tournament finish in years for the USA.

And it was Tabloid Hope rather than Athlete Solo wholl be remembered from this tournament, particularly after her post-game comments following the Sweden elimination: We played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today. I strongly, firmly believe that Sweden dropped back. They didnt want to open play. They didnt want to pass the ball around. They didnt want to play great soccer, entertaining soccer. It was a combative game. A physical game. Exactly what they wanted. Exactly what their game plan was. We had that style of play when Pia was our coach. I think it was very cowardly.

Sundhage, well used to the antics of her piece of work former charge, wasnt bothered: Its OK to be a coward if you win.

6) Breaking up the band

Alex
Alex Morgan hopes to improve her game with a move to Europe in 2017. Photograph: David Dermer/AP

And after the failure the fallout. There was a valedictory feel to watching the USWNT team in the Olympics. If last years World Cup win ended up as a triumph for believing in the veteran core of the team, the center could not hold in 2016.
Carli Lloyd, newly minted as a global superstar after her World Cup final hat-trick, struggled with injury in the lead up to the World Cup, as did Megan Rapinoe, who had little impact on the tournament. Rapinoes defining contribution to the year turned out to be
kneeling for the national anthem in the wake of the Colin Kaepernick protest, and it felt in keeping with a curiously unfocussed year for the USWNT more defined by individual storylines than collective coherence.

Some of those stories led to infamy, such as the recently-retired Abby Wambachs arrest for drunk driving, or Solos international career effectively being ended in an act of vindictiveness by US Soccer they banned her for six months, ostensibly for her Sweden comments, but it had the definite feel of payback for years of headaches now that the keeper was finally at an age where she could be surplus to requirements.

And then there were other individual trajectories whose consequences are not yet played out. Alex Morgan moved to Lyon at the end of the year, looking to develop her game to the next level with a Champions League team rather than starting the NWSL season with Orlando.

Whatever collective identity emerges from the next generation of players (and one needs to emerge pretty quickly with a new collective bargaining agreement to work towards in the new year), 2016 was the end of an era.

7) Klinsmanns last stand

In hindsight, the two games the US won against St Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago in late summer, to ensure advancement to the final Hex round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying, went entirely as could be expected the USA beating inferior opposition comfortably, after some patient laboring to make the initial breakthrough.

But it was a measure of how far Klinsmanns stock had fallen that the attacking creativity offered by Sacha Kljestan and Christian Pulisic should spark the surprised optimism it briefly did after all, surely the US were meant to be playing like this, at least according to Klinsmanns long-abandoned attacking manifesto.

Kljestan was coming off a career year with New York Red Bulls, while Pulisic was continuing to meet every challenge sent his way with Borussia Dortmund, and their movement, touch and cool in front of goal, and its knock-on effect for the strikers in front of them, and the ability for Michael Bradley to play as a more traditional No6 behind them, meant that for one final brief moment before the Hex started it looked like Klinsmann had once again got his act together

8) Dos a Cero no more

Mexico
Mexico celebrate their victory in Columbus. Photograph: Joseph Maiorana/USA Today Sports

the positive feeling lasted all the way into the first minute of the opening game of the Hex against Mexico, when Miguel Layun jogged across to his coach Juan Carlos Osorio, holding up five fingers, to indicate Klinsmanns tactical masterstroke of introducing an experimental five-man backline in the most significant game of the year.

Osorio shrugged, pulled Layun into a back four to immediately adjust, and for the next half hour Mexico tormented a demoralized US team: over-running them in midfield; posing challenges to underprepared defenders; and generally making the USAs attack an irrelevance.

And this was in the USAs fortress. For four World Cup cycles the USA had played Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, and for four World Cup cycles they had won by the now mythical scoreline of 2-0, or Dos a Cero, as the familiar fan chant had it.

Not any more. The US rallied in the second-half, but despite leveling the scores and pressing late on, their coach was out-thought by his counterpart Osorios substitutions had way more impact than Klinsmanns. And on a historical night it was Rafa Marquez, a man who made his international debut before Pulisic was born, who scored the winner.

The immediate aftermath of the game focused on that historic loss and on the additional pressure now on Klinsmann to get an unprecedented result in Costa Rica a few days later, but looking back, perhaps more attention should have been paid to Michael Bradley running over to Klinsmann during an injury break, seemingly to check if there was a plan B for dealing with the unfolding crisis. The players had not been set up to succeed and revolt was simmering.

9) The end

One of the easiest phenomena to see and hardest to prove, is the moment when players quit on a manager, but anyone watching the USAs ragged 4-0 capitulation in Costa Rica knew what was unfolding.

Johan Venegas is currently a fringe striker for the Montreal Impact, but against the lumbering US defense he Joel Campbell were made to look like world beaters when the latter raced clear of the defense to complete the scoring, it was hard not to think back to Carlos Ruiz losing the defenders in that Guatemala game and to wonder what progress had been made by the USA between the two competitive games that bookended the year.

The only question now was whether Sunil Gulati, a man whose legacy as president of US Soccer is inextricably linked to his long-time pursuit of Klinsmann, was prepared to use the upcoming winter break to make a change.

But missing the Confederations Cup and Olympics is one thing missing the World Cup is quite another, and this performance and the potential consequences of letting the rot go unchecked effectively made Gulatis decision for him.

10) Bruce Arena ponders the nationality of the national team

The Klinsmann project was supposed to be about integrating the US with the best of international practices, and of course the coach ruffled plenty of feathers when he pointed out that virtually all the examples of best practice he was interested in were to be found in Europe. It repeatedly put him on a collision course with MLS, as he tried to guide players to challenge themselves in Europe while the league pushed its own league of choice manifesto.

And with Klinsmann scouring Europe (particularly Germany) for players with US ancestry, he also attracted his fair share of pushback from those who felt that these players missed an innate sense of understanding of what it meant to be American.
One of those voices was Bruce Arena, whod followed up his underwhelming second World Cup cycle as US coach in 2006, by going on to consolidate his position as the greatest US club team coach of the MLS era. Now called in as a safe pair of hands to stabilize World Cup qualification, Arena found himself spending part of his opening press conference as US head coach clarifying comments hed made about foreign born players, before departing on a potentially awkward tour of Germany to meet several of said players.

Arena defused the moment deftly, but the very fact he was expected to do so reflected what a departure in style and ideology the new/old coach represents. The internationalist, modernizing ambition of the Klinsmann years has given way to a more familiar goal for US coaches find a squad that works for right now, starting with the most immediate resources to hand. For Arena, that means going with what he knows an MLS core and making them play in an American style. Read into that what you will, but Arena wont care. Hes inherited a situation where he needs results more than style points.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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