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Held to a higher standard, in every realm: The answer to USMNT underachievement

“We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” US Goalkeeper Matt Turner.

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Thad Bell Photography

“We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We have to have that baseline of intensity that we showed in this game in every game, in every minute because in tournament-style play, every decision, every call, every shot that you miss, every shot that you save, every shot that you don’t block, everything is magnified tenfold.” US Goalkeeper Matt Turner after USMNT’s ouster in Copa America 2024 after 1-0 loss to Uruguay on Monday evening.

Pattern of stagnation

Fact: The conversations and (more significantly) the truths after a probable Copa America Quarterfinal loss to Colombia or Brazil would be the same for the United States Men’s National Team as they are now after the demoralizing failure to get out of the Group C, which also included patsies Bolivia and Panama.

Or at least that better have been fact if the US had created such a scenario. Because, despite two somewhat recent spikes, nothing has changed in the results for the US this century.

The US are kings of CONCACAF (a status more or less true for decades). In this century the US: had a great run to the Quarterfinals, losing controversially to Germany 1-0 in the anomaly of the 2002 World Cup. Crashed out at the group stage in 2006 (scoring 2 goals total in 3 matches). Lost to 2-1 to Ghana in the 2010 Round of 16 (5g in 4). Lost 2-1 to Belgium in the 2014 Round of 16 (5g in 4). Didn’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Lost 3-1 to Netherlands in the 2022 Round of 16 (3g in 3).

For direct comparison, the USMNT lost all three matches in a difficult Group C in 2007’s Copa America (2g in 3) and won their group in the 2016 Copa America Centenario and ran to a 4th place finish by beating Ecuador in the Quarterfinals before bowing to Argentina 4-0 in the Semifinals.

If victory has come for the US in the face of traditionally strong soccer nations, it has been because of supreme effort as a cohesive unit, not because of superiority. Mostly beating who they should and then battling valiantly – ultimately failing – against sides that are simply better has been the pattern.

Positions of power

“[The 2014 US Men’s World Cup Team] did not have players playing in Europe… or on top teams. And we took a lot of shit for that. What we did have, the roles that we all had on our teams were positions of power, of responsibility, of accountability, of captains. [Gives examples.] The role that you have at your club team, that is the team that you are there every single day. That is your life; that is what makes you. We need to see more [US players] growing into these roles – being captains, being leaders – taking that weight and bringing it from their club team to the national team. Right now, at the club level, the club teams [they play on] are great, the names are great. But there are too many supporting players.” former USMNT center back Matt Besler to Men in Blazers

“[Uruguay] are really experienced; they’ve been in these moments before…. We are still a really young team.” US 21-year-old Midfielder Gio Reyna after Monday’s loss.

The average age of the US National Team roster for Copa America 2024 was 24.68 years. For the starting eleven v Uruguay, it was 25.36 years of age. Take away center back Tim Ream’s 36 years and goalkeeper Turner’s 30 years and it becomes 23.66 years of age.

It is true, that when talent is ingrained in a position of responsibility, that talent will not only develop, it will mature and strengthen exponentially. Thus, it is up to these young players to find a club situation that suits them, where the quality of play is strong enough, where they can rise to positions of responsibility and grow their substantial talents. And the time is now.

Related: Why USMNT isn’t as good as it thinks after Copa America exit – ESPN

Uruguay’s Copa America roster averages 26.23 years of age. Besler’s 2014 squad, 29 years of age. By the time the United States co-hosts the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup, the spine of the current squad will be nearly 26 years old on average.

Playmakers and finishers

For the three group stage matches in Copa America, the US had an expected goals total of 4.1xG according to whoscored.com. Three goals were finished, 73% of their xG. For comparison, Uruguay had an expected goals total of 5.9xG, finishing a total of 9, 153% of their xG.

It was evident, especially in the match v Uruguay, that the USMNT had a void. However the ball was worked within striking range of Uruguay’s goal, the US was devoid of the skill and ideas to put the ball in the net. Certainly, first-choice striker Folarin Balogun, who had scored 2 goals on 0.3xG in the first two matches and who was forced off because of injury in the first half v Uruguay, was missed.

Yet, even Balogun is more an exception than the rule. His 31 goals in 86 club appearances for Arsenal, Middlesbrough, Monaco, and Reims are significant, as are his 17 goals in 47 international (mostly youth) appearances. However, Balogun is a product of England, not the US as he was born in New York to Nigerian parents, yet moved to England when he was two. It was not until May of 2023 that Balogun made the final choice to play for the United States.

Not since the days of Brian McBride (30g in 96 appearances from ’93-’06) and Clint Dempsey (57g in 141 apps from ’04-’17) has the US produced a consistent striker.

“We passed the ball around really nicely tonight, getting in really dangerous areas. But we just didn’t have that killer instinct in the final third,” said Turner after the Uruguay loss.

No matter the amount and quality of playmakers the US possesses, quality finishers are absent. For sure, the skill and mindset required are somewhat rare, thus their value. The steely mind that tunes out hindrances, the precise skill and vision, to know, almost intuitively, when to strike and where to direct the ball are unique, arguably developed at an early age and most likely outside of organized “practice” then honed in a professional environment. The US must find and nurture these talents.

Prime opponents

“It’s very important… Those opportunities aren’t going to come about as often as we like,” stated US center back Tim Ream after I asked him of the importance of playing high stakes matches v high quality opponents. “And they have been rarer and rarer as the years have gone on, the last four to six years. [Taking on Brazil or Colombia in the Copa America 2024 Quarterfinals] would have been another amazing test, and a chance for another high-level game and a knockout-stage game.”

Between the 2022 World Cup and Copa America 2024, the USMNT played 23 matches. Only five of those were against quality sides outside of their CONCACAF region: Colombia 2x, Brazil, Germany, and Ghana. All were friendlies and all were at home.

Strong competition in stressful environments forges another level and invokes survival of the fittest. Plain and simple, the US needs to play strong competition consistently. Despite location and perhaps reputation working against them, the US needs to find a way.

Put the players in the best possible environment

“We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” said Matt Turner.

I could have titled this section with Push the players” or “Prompt change” or “Push the boundaries” or “Pull the rug out from under all of us” and the solutions would have been the same.

The players are looking to gain traction at strong clubs that play strong competition. Now, they must put themselves in positions of power. Finishers must be nurtured. Prime opponents must be gained. All of these are part of the solution. But the most important one is hiring the proper guide.

A new United States Men’s National Team coach must be found. Develop a list of non-American coaches who have connections. Hire a coach who can instill a consistent sense of urgency, who has connections with European/South American countries to gain those challenging matchups, who has that “raise the stakes” attitude. Money and a hell of a lot of convincing must be spent to get the games and the coach our burgeoning national team players need.

No more coddling of the US player. Your coach can be your friend, should certainly not be your enemy. But it’s okay if he is an asshole. It’s actually necessary. The best compliment a coach can receive is, “You were an asshole of a coach. But you were a fair asshole, and a right one at that.”

“Success is not a straight line,” added Turner. He is correct.

This is the United States of America, the home of most of the best sports leagues in the world. The home of many of the greatest athletes ever. The third-most populated country in the world. And the soccer nation that did not have a viable domestic soccer league until sometime in the early 2000s when Major League Soccer stabilized. But, still, the US is the US, our soccer should be top notch… (pausing for all those Americans who only care about European soccer to tune in). People have been touting the US as the next great soccer nation for decades.

Granted, things are getting better (Hey, have you paid your kids’ club soccer bill this month?). Yes, even making soccer available to the masses is incrementally improving. But problems remain, even at the ultimate level. Success comes in ups and downs.

Thriving as co-hosts for the 2026 FIFA World Cup is an opportunity, a great one. But it is not the end game. Then what is? Putting the US players in the best possible environments to succeed. It is the responsibility of the players themselves and of the US Soccer Federation to raise the standards.

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InToTouch

They should hire Roberto Martinez after Portugal lose to France tomorrow

ar_jhawk

The problematic flip side to all the you should go get suggestions is that those guys have to want to come here. Evidently, no one did in the Berhalter Interregnum.

InToTouch

We’re not talking about KC here, we’re talking about the USA. Money talks and us soccer can say anything they want to pretend that they can’t attract a top quality manager but they will always be lying.

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