By Patrick MacDonald
The World Cup Qualifying campaign for Russia 2018 starts in 8 days. Can you believe it? Probably not because if you look at the blogs, websites, and other media that normally cover the Men's National Team, there's nary a whisper. They're either consumed with covering the MLS playoffs or the upper echelons of European action. Even so, with an all important qualifier so close, it's unusual to not see a roster prediction blog here, a who should get called up/who shouldn't article there. As the allure of soccer in the United States has risen, particularly that of the national team, it's a bit shocking that no one's paying any attention. It's deafening.
Why is that? Well the answer is pretty simple, 2015 for the Men's National Team has been abysmal. They came 4th in the Gold Cup, lost the Confedrations Cup playoff, and have been beaten by 4 CONCACAF opponents on home soil. If those losses came in qualifying, there'd be a better chance of running into Jurgen at your local soccer pub, than on screen during the next World Cup.
The National Team's failures have divided the fanbase into 2 pessimistic camps, those who believe Klinsmann should have been served his walking papers as soon as he left the field in Pasadena. And those who hold onto the belief that Klinsmann is a brilliant soccer mind, but with so much of the National Team pool playing in MLS, they're simply not good. I admit I happen to be in the former camp, but perhaps there's a happy medium.
First off, there is credence in the idea that the United States simply isn't good enough. After all, there are no Ronaldos, Messis, Lewandowskis, or hell, even Donovans in the current player pool. From that standpoint, the U.S. fanbase really doesn't have a right to expect to be world beaters. For every consistent European based player, like Johnson, Cameron, and Howard, you have a player that leaves much to be desired, like Brooks, Chandler, and Williams. Their failings have lead to disastrous results in 2015 making it an easy year to soon forget. Siitting through some National team games was more painful than the Padme-Anakin love affair in Star Wars. It's no wonder the fans just throw up their hands and say, we're just not good enough. After all, what else are you going to do? Turn to MLS?
Actually, the answer to that's quite simple: Yes!
MLS has a ton of problems. In the owners' overly paranoid fear of becoming the early NASL, they've kept the salary cap laughably low which has prevented them from increasing the quality of the league as much as it could. However, the notion that MLS is a tiny step above recreational leagues is, how do I put this politely, the soccer equivalent of what politician peddle for a living. Despite the owners' best efforts, the level of play has gotten better, for a number of reasons. There are more, and younger designated players. Plus, with the improved Academy system and USL partnership, players are getting more minutes at younger ages. In time, these improvements may very well produce American world beaters. But in the short term, it's made for a more competitive MLS than it certainly was in 2002 when an National Team squad made up of many of the league's finest took Germany to the brink in the Quarterfinals of the World Cup.
Like it or not, MLS has played an integral part of the National Team throughout its existence, if for no other reason than that's where a majority of the player pool lies. If you blatantly ignore it, you get forced roster decisions like Alejandro Bedoya at defensive midfield, Alfredo Morales and Aron Jóhannsson on the wings, and despite repeated failures you keep trotting out the likes of John Brooks, Ventura Alvarado, Tim Chandler, and Danny Williams. The former two still have time to grow, the latter two are what they are. Most importantly, it means misusing your best player, who happens to be in MLS, Michael Bradley as an attacking midfielder.
It's like Stephen Stills once said, "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one your with." Klinsmann may want all his players to be in Europe, but that's not the case, some aren't good enough to start in the top 4 leagues. But that also doesn't make them unworthy of wearing the Stars and Stripes. Will playing more MLS men bring the United States its first World Cup, probably not. But playing them most certainly can stop the bleeding.
2013 was arguably the greatest year for the National team, but it didn't look all that unlike the team of today in February of that year. Klinsmann played guys out of position or refused to send disinterested players like Chandler to the bench because of their European pedigree. They were sent home from Honduras with their tail between their legs having lost, 2-1. But then the Strauss article came out and whether this was the result of it or not, Klinsmann started to trust players like Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, and Omar Gonzalez. The squad played more cohesively and would soon rattle off a 12 game win streak that included a Gold Cup title and eventually a final place atop World Cup qualifying.
Klinsmann needs to do this again. He needs to trust destroyers like Dax McCarty or the possibly Serie A bound Perry Kitchen to play the #6 over Danny Williams. He needs to let steady Matt Besler play centerback over the gaffe a minute Alvarado or Geoff Cameron. He needs to leave Chandler home and let DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson play full back, while Ethan Finley and Sebastian Lletget man the wings. He needs to let an actual attacking midfielder like Benny Feilhaber or Sacha Kljestan play dangerous through balls up top, at least until Gedion Zelalem is ready. Then Michael Bradley can do what he does best and be the dangerous box to box midfielder he is.
Right now, the U.S. doesn't have to beat Germany, Argentina, or even Mexico. Right now it has to beat St. Vincent & Grenadines, Guatemala, and Trinidad & Tobago. The best way to do that is by putting guys who know their positions in the right place to win. The guys making the jump to Europe will come in time. After all, there's still a little over 2 and a half years to go until the kickoff in Russia. But all of that will be for naught if you can't build some momentum now and escape qualifying.
Jurgen, please, just love the one you're with.