The 4-0 defeat to Argentina in Tuesday’s semifinal means the Americans’ tournament ended up, like so many recent efforts on the international stage, as a fairly accurate summation of their status in the game. Klinsmann’s team beat the opponents that it could, on a good day, be expected to beat — Costa Rica, Paraguay and Ecuador — and were comfortably dealt with by better teams — the Argentines and Colombia.
Throughout his five years at the helm of the national side, Klinsmann has frequently made sharp observations about why, despite incremental progress on the field, American soccer still is well short of the very best in the world. Critics say he doesn’t take enough of the blame, which may be valid, but a coach’s tactics or formations don’t fully explain the clear quality gap on display Tuesday.
After the loss to Argentina in Houston, Klinsmann suggested his team had shown the South Americans “too much respect.” Specifically, the coach highlighted his team’s failure to stop Lionel Messi from advancing the position of his free kick five yards forward from the point where Chris Wondolowski had fouled him, and into the range where he was able to score the wonderful goal that made him his country’s all-time top scorer.
“You have to make the argument on the field,” Klinsmann said. “Maybe we are too nice, just too nice in those moments.”
Those words echoed his comments four years ago when, after a 4-1 defeat to Brazil in a friendly at FedEx Field, Klinsmann said: “I think we need to get an edge — more nastier. Maybe we’re a little bit too naive. Maybe we don’t want to hurt people. But that’s what you’ve got to do. We’ve got to step on their toes more and get them more frustrated.”
The coach was criticized by a number of people in the soccer community for those words, but the German, who played against some of the toughest defenders in the world in Serie A during his time with Inter Milan, had a point. The arguments, the pushing and shoving, the complaints against referees and, yes, the standing on toes, are part of the game. Watch Argentina against Chile in Sunday’s final and you will see not only great technique, athleticism and skill, but also a strong dose of gamesmanship, mind games and pressuring of officials.
There was certainly nothing nasty about the American performance against Argentina, a point noted by mainstream sports talk shows, making the familiar argument that soccer in America remains a game for the suburbs, for the relatively affluent, who don’t have the hunger and motivation to go the extra mile.
Clint Dempsey, who grew up playing rough-and-tumble pickup games with kids of Mexican and Salvadoran descent in Nacogdoches, Tex., is the outlier. In in terms of his economic background he is more similar to many of the players from South America that the Americans are up against in this tournament. Dempsey’s story is commonplace in other American sports, but rare in soccer.
But the problem is not simply that American youth soccer’s “pay-to-play” system fails to develop talent from Hispanic, African American and low-income white neighborhoods. Klinsmann’s critique has also been frequently aimed at the absence of intense pressure in the day-to-day lives of American soccer players.
The U.S. defense, anchored by two players from the Bundesliga (John Brooks and Fabian Johnson) and two from the Premier League (DeAndre Yedlin and Geoff Cameron), has been a strength during Copa America. But the entire midfield and forward line in Houston was made up of players from Major League Soccer, which, though improved in stature and quality, still falls a long way short of the top leagues in the world when it comes to relentless pressure on players to improve. It showed on Tuesday: Argentina was sharper, quicker and smarter than its opponent.
MLS clubs do not face the struggle for survival that relegation creates in other leagues. Nor does the league have a real transfer market, in which players can be traded for profit, quickly raising their salaries, as well as motivation to push themselves to a higher level, while clubs are incentivized to develop talent quickly.
There are a number of promising American players in youth programs with European clubs, with the talented Christian Pulisic already having broken through at Borussia Dortmund, but the United States is paying the price for the lack of players in recent years who have successfully switched from MLS to European leagues.
Past American players have shown the qualities that seem to be missing in the current crop. John Harkes went from New Jersey to scrap his way into English soccer with Sheffield Wednesday. Brian McBride came out of MLS’s Columbus Crew and became a tough Premier League striker with Fulham. Claudio Reyna won respect for his midfield ability in German, Scottish and English leagues. Steve Cherundolo spent 15 years as a reliable fullback with Hannover in the Bundesliga. One of the toughest of them all, Wisconsin native Jay DeMerit, moved to England and started off in semipro soccer, barely earning a living, before working his way up to Watford and earning a place on Bob Bradley’s national team.
But when Orlando City’s Brek Shea returned to MLS last year after an unsuccessful spell in England, he revealed an attitude that was far from that of those that had gone before him.
“One of the reasons I didn’t enjoy England so much is that it’s so small and soccer is the biggest thing there. So everything you do is magnified times a thousand,” he said. Shea added in another interview while playing in England that he missed the weekly team barbecues he enjoyed while with FC Dallas and lamented that playing the game in England was “just different; it’s a job.”
It is indeed a job, and the scrutiny of fans and media members in European football is certainly on a different level — two of the reasons that Klinsmann has been so enthusiastic to encourage his players to test themselves abroad. If the United States is to get to the next level, it won’t be a coach’s tactics that take them there. It will be because its players have been hardened to the point where they would be offended at being called nice.