How can the U.S. beat Germany then struggle against Haiti and Panama?

Infantry facing archers get picked off from distance, never getting close enough to pose a threat. But when those same archers face a cavalry, their falling arrows can be evaded by horses, allowing the cavalry to reach archers who struggle in hand-to-hand combat. And yet when that cavalry gallops upon an infantry, the troops on the ground have more control over their bodies and weapons.

Archers beat infantry; cavalry beats archers; infantry beats cavalry. How does anyone conquer the world? No one approach is enough. You need an array of options, and you need to know when to use them.

In true U.S. soccer fan fashion, we get so stoked when we tear apart Germany on the road — world domination here we come!! — then we want to throw the remote through the wall when we tie Panama at home. We’re left asking: How does a team that gets results at Germany and against the Dutch struggle with Panama and Haiti? How does a team allow schmucks like me to use the Netherlands and Haiti in the same sentence?

It’s because these opponents present very different types of battles, ones that require separate kinds of weapons. Germany and Honduras present distinct problems. It’s silly to think we can attack them with the same answers. Different in quality, those teams are also physically and mentally different.

United States' Mix Diskerud celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the soccer friendly match between Germany and the United States in Cologne, western Germany, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)AP/Martin Meissner

United States' Mix Diskerud celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the soccer friendly match between Germany and the United States in Cologne, western Germany, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

It’s fairly clear when you watch them, a game against a European opposition plays out differently than a CONCACAF game. The world’s elite will attempt to take the game to the United States – to pass and move, press and try to show their footballing superiority. They are European, after all! It’s rarely an overly physical affair.

As it showed on Monday, though Panama has four guys that could start at linebacker for the Oakland Raiders. CONCACAF teams don’t care about time of possession or building a philosophy. They go into survival mode against the U.S. They either want a super open game to make the U.S. out of sorts or they want to park a giant bus in front of their goal.

The whole dynamic of the game is different. Our best 11 for a match against Germany isn’t going to be our best 11 against Honduras.

(Seriously though, guys, who is that Panama strength coach and why isn’t he at Alabama.)

Panama forward Roberto Nurse, bottom, falls to the turf as he attempts to clear the ball away from USA defender John Brooks, top, in the second half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match, Monday, July. 13, 2015, in Kansas City, Kan. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)AP/Colin E. Braley

Panama forward Roberto Nurse, bottom, falls to the turf as he attempts to clear the ball away from USA defender John Brooks, top, in the second half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match, Monday, July. 13, 2015, in Kansas City, Kan. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

But, really, I don’t want to make this a conversation about tactics. Different strokes for different folks. The bigger issue is mentality. Shifting from a match against Andrea Pirlo at the San Siro to a game versus Gabriel Torres in Kansas City (or Panama City) is tougher mentally than it is physically.

It’s easy to be 100% focused in a big, historic stadium against the best players in the world. Ideally, professional athletes would always be ready to play, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s hard to play in the blazing heat and humidity, often on crappy fields, against opposition playing for clubs like the Charlotte Independence, and with refs that, well, you know CONCACAF refs. When the whistle blows you don’t have the same instantaneous connections running through your nervous system. When your body and mind are a fraction slower, you’re no longer the same, superior player.

Are we really going to expect the guys that just bossed Bastian Schweinsteiger to care about James Marcelin? It’s kinda sad, but it’s a fact of life. It’s not the players’ fault. It’s a natural human reaction.

USA midfielder Gyrasi Zardes (20) slips past Panama midfielder Valentin Pimentel (2)in the second half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match, Monday, July. 13, 2015, in Kansas City, Kan. Match ended in a 1-1 tie.(AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)AP/Colin E. Braley

USA midfielder Gyrasi Zardes (20) slips past Panama midfielder Valentin Pimentel (2)in the second half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match, Monday, July. 13, 2015, in Kansas City, Kan. Match ended in a 1-1 tie.(AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

So here’s where I tell the guys making a million dollars how to do their job:

We have, to head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s credit, a growing player pool, one big enough to have separate units for separate games. So let’s have a CONCACAF squad, and let’s have an Other squad. Let’s have a cavalry and an infantry. Let’s play Brad Evans against Costa Rica, then Timmy Chandler against Germany. For whatever reason, Chandler doesn’t seem to be good enough to play against Costa Rica, but he’s probably better equipped than Brad to defend Mesut Özil. Let’s have distinct answers to the distinct problems.

There are issues with it that idea, though. How do you reward a player for a good performance when he will get benched when it’s the other squad’s turn? How do you motivate guys when they may not be in line to play bigger games? How do you build continuity and get players experience when you’re splitting players into groups and using them in fewer games? It’s certainly a dangerous concept. And honestly I’m not entirely convinced I’m right.

At the same time, every time U.S. plays a CONCACAF opponent, it seems to be a precarious experience. We might be improving on the world stage, but we don’t seem to be excelling in our own backyard. The strides we are taking against the world’s elite aren’t getting replicated within CONCACAF.

It makes me wonder if the two are mutually exclusive. Can we beat the world’s best one day, and still beat no. 74 the next? Soccer is a mental game, and sometimes, you need to protect yourself.

Sometimes life requires the cavalry. But it’s awfully dangerous to send in the horses when the time isn’t right.

 

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