The United States head coach wants the team to be proactive and more technical. The team should build from the back and dictate tempo. None of the players should be comfortable in their place, nor should they be totally comfortable in how the team is playing. There is no one way. Formations are obsolete, but styles and systems are not. There won’t be a thing that the team can’t do.
Unfortunately for the Americans, those are the objectives of the men’s team. Not the women’s.
When Jurgen Klinsmann took over as U.S. men’s national team manager in 2011, he wanted a revolution. The men didn’t need one, though. No one would call the Americans technically brilliant, but the team was coming off of a time under Bob Bradley when it had tried a 3-5-2 formation in Costa Rica and played incredibly ambitiously against Mexico in the Gold Cup. The U.S was neither stuck in a rut nor set on a specific way of playing.
No, the men’s team didn’t need a revolution. The women, however, did. And despite yesterday’s encouraging win over France, that fact remains. While the men are trying to build for the future, the women are still looking to the past. More than ever, the women need a new direction.
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A year after Klinsmann was hired to lead the men, the women underwent a change of their own. Pia Sundhage jumped to manage her home nation, Sweden, leaving behind a team and program that had become increasingly comfortable. That comfort was not without good reason — the team had just won the Olympic gold medal a year after making the World Cup final — but it also came with costs.
The truth about contentment is that it precedes stagnation. While the U.S. maintained its preeminence at the top of the women’s soccer world, other countries were committing to the game for the first time. France saw huge growth of its domestic league, as the football federation spent more on the national team than ever before. The same was true of Japan. England also saw women’s clubs grow, FA commitment increase, and record crowds show up to see the national team. No longer would the U.S. be one of a few countries that cared about women’s soccer and back it with money. The new countries committing to the sport were changing the landscape.
The U.S. seemed to recognize this, hiring Tom Sermanni, who had done wonders with a young Australia team. He brought in new players. Christen Press, Crystal Dunn, Morgan Brian and Kristie Mewis all made their senior team debuts in the first six months of Sermanni’s reign. The fresh talent challenged older players. Slowly, Sermanni began to change the team’s style of play, too. His side wouldn’t simply look to get crosses into an aging Abby Wambach or play the ball over the top. Instead, it would keep the ball, circulate it, interchange and assert the control with a talented midfield.
Though initial response appeared positive, the players never fully warmed to Sermanni’s changes, bristling at being taken out of their comfort zones. After a good first year, Sermanni had a rough Algarve Cup in 2014. That was enough for U.S. Soccer to give up on the change and hire Jill Ellis, who has been around the program since roughly forever. Moreover, they brought back Tony Gustavsson as an assistant coach — the same man who was Sundhage’s top assistant.
The long ball came back. The reliance on speed returned. Instead of fluid, technical play from a midfield, pressure was countered with a boot down field, hoping physicality and speed would win out. As women’s soccer was moving forward, the U.S. wanted nothing more than to go back to 2012.
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But the results of 2012 haven’t come. In the wake of Sermanni’s departure, the U.S. beat North Korea and China, even Mexico, but it also limped through stretches of World Cup qualifying against lowly CONCACAF teams. In the struggles of players like Sydney Leroux, whose place in the team was never in danger, fans can see where Jurgen Klinsmann’s proactive steps have worked for his side. Jozy Altidore, seemingly indispensable for the men, was at one point dropped from the team during qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. Early on, when captain Carlos Bocanegra was phased out of the team, Klinsmann made it clear: nobody is untouchable.
The U.S. women won just one match at December’s tournament in Brazil, against a terrible Argentina side, and were out-played by China and Brazil (twice). Lauren Holiday, one of the world’s best No. 10s, remained a deep-lying playmaker. Ellis showed no desire to get her most talented creator more involved. Klinsmann, on the other hand, has gone as far as putting Michael Bradley into an attacking midfield role to get him more touches. He is half the brilliant, skillful talisman that Holiday is.
When the U.S. came up against a full strength France team last month (Wednesday’s was missing a number of stars), it was played off of the field. The team didn’t look like it belonged. Though the team followed that up with a win over England, the underlying performance was still unconvincing. Instead of bringing young players in for competition and versatility, as Klinsmann did with DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green, Ellis doubled down on the veterans.
After a scoreless draw with Iceland at this year’s Algarve Cup, the Icelandic manager told the world what we already knew the U.S. had become.
“We forced them to play the long ball since after watching their first two games, we saw that when they get under pressure they tend to resort to the long ball,” Frey Alexandersson said to FOX Soccer. “I don’t understand it because they can play the ball on the grass. I would expect a team 20 seeds (ahead of us in the world rankings) would trash us.”
Alexandersson wasn’t taking a cheap shot at the U.S. He didn’t have an ax to grind. He honestly answered a question. Had anyone who has been watching the team for the better part of a year been asked the same, they’d have given the same response.
That is what the U.S. is now — a 2012 team in a very different 2015. And it landed here because it wanted so desperately to be something it used to be. The team gave up on progressing, an outcome that would have been unlikely had a Klinsmann been put in charge.
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Talent isn’t the problem with the U.S. women. Attitude and ambition are.
It’s the complete opposite of the men. Klinsmann brought a different attitude, one that took the long view. His ambition wasn’t about being the best tomorrow or the day after. He wanted the U.S. he left behind to be nothing like the one he inherited. He wanted revolution.
The women’s national team needs a manager who doesn’t just want to be good today but great tomorrow, even better in a year, then to keep growing for the next four.
The women’s pool has the talent. It has always had the talent. But the attitude, culture, style and leadership lags behind, clinging to the past instead of evolving with the rest of the women’s soccer world. The U.S. needs to get out in front again, challenging itself and a program that has grown stagnant. It needs a revolution. It needs its Jurgen Klinsmann.