It was definitely no disgrace.
In the minutes after the US went down 4-0 to Argentina on Tuesday night, everyone – Jürgen Klinsmann, Geoff Cameron, Kyle Beckerman – was keen to make the same point: there was no shame in the loss. After all, this was Lionel Messi! And Argentina! And besides, the US had come so far! It’s true, of course: to lose in the Copa América semi-finals to Lionel Messi’s Argentina, a team that plays on atomic time when everyone else is left checking the stovetop clock, is no disgrace. But it depends on the manner of the loss – and this loss was, on anyone’s reading, a bum note on which to conclude an otherwise successful tournament for the US men’s national team.
Around 30% possession and zero shots on target (or off target, for that matter) told the story of a night on which the US players stumbled around the pitch with the open-mouthed adoration of fans waiting for an autograph. Sure, the US had lost three certain starters during the quarter-final triumph over Ecuador, but it was the team’s established – and emerging – stars who disappointed the most on Tuesday. Michael Bradley was as hard to press in defense as he was quick to give the ball away in attack; Clint Dempsey, starved of service and unable to free himself of the suffocating attentions of Javier Mascherano, saw the fresh reserves of energy he’d discovered in the last few matches desert him; and John Brooks endured his worst outing of the tournament. After a performance for the ages against Paraguay, Brooks seemed – like many of his team-mates – at once distracted, subdued, and utterly overawed by the company he had been asked to keep for 90 minutes; the young defender lost Ezequiel Lavezzi for Argentina’s first goal, and from that moment the US were never really in the contest. It was like watching a wedding band joined onstage by The Rolling Stones.
Could we have expected more? After the progress of the last three games, in which the US, with a settled line-up, at last approached the mobile, attacking, aesthetic heights Klinsmann had long ago promised would be his gift to American football, this felt like a firm step back in the wrong direction. But let’s be fair: a semi-final appearance is well above par for the US at this Copa. Across most metrics – results and new talent unearthed especially, but also in the reboot that has been given to domestic football – the tournament has been a success for the home team.
And a word, if you please, for Tuesday night’s opponents. The US allowed themselves to be dazzled, yes – but Argentina, to their credit, did not pass up the invitation to dazzle. Mascherano, unpressured and unimpressed as always, steered proceedings from the base of the midfield, but it was the forward lights who shone most brightly: Lavezzi showed why Europe’s scouts are so keen to scour the Chinese Super League for promising young has-beens, while Gonzalo Higuaín’s Copa mini-slump can now be definitively declared over.
Meanwhile Messi was Messi, scampering across the field with wriggling, elusive intensity. As he works the tight spaces and finds the pockets, head pushed forward and shoulders rolled in a stunning rebuke to the contemporary dictatorship of good posture, Messi resembles less an elite athlete than a surprisingly mobile and tattooed mole; it’s the casual earnestness of his mastery – his complete lack of ego or bombast on the field – that sets him apart from his fellow greats, present or past. In 2014 Messi played through an injury to drag Argentina to the final of the World Cup, but he seemed somehow burdened by expectations; at this Copa, by contrast, he’s played with a freedom not seen since his 2014-15 Barcelona bounce. His goal and assists last night were executed with a shrugged, no-look nonchalance that spells trouble for whichever side joins Argentina in the final. Sunday’s showpiece will be a fitting way to end a tournament that has been, on balance, far more entertaining than the more attritional, late-scoring affair taking place on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
For the US, the news is not all bad. In years to come this tournament will perhaps be remembered chiefly for the emergence of a new generation of talent to carry the USMNTT (US men’s national team torch) once Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Bradley retire. The TV commentators throughout the Copa have thrown out all manner of ludicrous comparisons to make sense of how much we can expect of these players: Brad Friedel compared John Brooks to Eddie Pope at one point, while Bobby Wood drew comparisons to Brian McBride. On the evidence of the Copa, these analogies drastically undersell the ability of the US’s new stars. Reports out of England suggest several Premier League clubs are already sizing up the quality of Hertha Berlin’s fax machine ahead of a post-Copa swoop for Brooks – and with good reason, because he’s emerged in the last three weeks as that rare bird, a modern, mobile defender whose greatest strength might just be his ability to defend.
Wood has had a no less memorable tournament. The young Hamburg-bound striker was out of the game for two years – and even considered quitting – after sustaining a meniscus injury in 2011. His goal against Germany last year announced his re-emergence as a national talent, but it’s taken this Copa – and the similarly spectacular turn-and-shoot of his strike against Costa Rica – to confirm he’s the real deal. Arsène Wenger once said, “At 23, it’s time to play.” At 23, Bobby Shou Wood is playing – and he’s doing everything in his power to live up to the theatrical promise of his middle name. Add Gyasi Zardes, who was one of the few US players to show any enterprise in attack last night (one cross on the 41st minute in particular caught the eye), Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe, and the US now has a firm core of players around which it can plan for the next four to six years.
And what, finally, of Jürgen? This tournament has not taught us anything we didn’t already know about US soccer’s pajama-top wearer-in-chief. We knew going into the Copa that Klinsmann is tactically naive but good at getting players motivated for the physical and emotional sprint that is tournament football; and so it has come to pass. Let’s not deny the man his due: he inspired the team to get through their group after a tough start, and the emergence of Brooks and Wood has been, at least in part, a Klinsmann production. But everything else about the German’s performance throughout the tournament – the way he’s set his teams up, the instructions he’s given his players, his at times bizarre management of substitutions – has confirmed the picture of Klinsmann as a well-meaning, exuberant lightweight. “We need to stay physical,” Klinsmann told his team at half-time last night, according to the Fox Sports sideline boffins. “We need to keep going at them.”
Klinsmann’s guileless, everyone-gets-a-prize, “go for it!” approach to tactical thought presented no problem as long as the US was swatting aside fellow middle powers such as Ecuador. But against Messi and co, the German was comprehensively found out. For a start, his selections backfired: Chris Wondolowski and Kyle Beckerman were consistently overrun. Starting Wondolowski up front was the kind of bold move that, had it paid off, would have seen Klinsmann hailed as a tactical seer. It didn’t pay off, on any measure. Klinsmann also left his substitutions late, bringing Pulisic and Nagbe on once the game was already well out of the US’s grasp.
The German’s comments after the match did nothing to dispel the sense that as a football thinker, he’s no more astute than a weekend coach. Argentina, Klinsmann said, were simply far too good. This is true, of course, but the words were conveyed in a way that suggested Klinsmann absolved himself of all responsibility for what was, no matter the quality of the other side, a thoroughly wretched display. The great coaches believe they can beat any team, no matter how superior: Klinsmann’s defeatism on Tuesday night carried the slightly condescending implication that the US cannot hope to compete against superpowers such as Argentina. To be clear, he didn’t say any of this directly – but it was there in the far-away, slightly dreamy look he took on when discussing the victors, just as it’s been there in the nostalgic way he’s evoked Europe’s superior footballing culture throughout his tenure as US manager.
The US have played enterprising football over the last couple of weeks, and Klinsmann deserves credit for some of that. But the team still depends on individual virtuosity, collective pluck and sheer enthusiasm to carry it through the major tournaments. That might work occasionally, but it’s not a plan for long-term success. Making it to the semi-final might constitute a meaty rebuke to Klinsmann’s many critics, but nothing about the way the team performed in this Copa suggests a platform for durable progress has been put in place. Signs of intermittent progress bookended by a pair of comfortable failures: such is the performance review of the US at this Copa. After five years of Klinsiball, five years of stasis, five years of hoping for the best against all the evidence, five years of the US being managed by a sideline dad-in-chief, that’s surely not good enough.
This article was written by Aaron Timms, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 22nd June 2016 12.43 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010