Steve Fenn relives the last USMNT series with Ewok-sized nuggets for you to digest.
Is Jürgen Klinsmann the George Lucas of soccer?
Like Lucas’ reimagining of special effects and science fiction storytelling in the late 70s, early 2000s Klinsi broke down the German system until he had something that made much more sense and produced a fantastic product.
Both men have a checkered coaching (directing) history when they don’t have a very strong support staff.
Jogi Löw gets much of the credit for Klinsmann’s semifinal run at the 2006 World cup, just as Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand are commonly credited for refining Lucas’s vision for the original Star Wars trilogy. Lending credence to these theories, Klinsmann’s stints helming Bayern Munich and the US Mens National Team have been marked by bouts of tactical naiveté, over-ambitious rhetoric, and, at inopportune times, embarrassing results.
Likewise, Star Wars prequel bashing is so prevalent that any attempt to further or indugle in it would be banal.
The throughline, though, is the prevailing notion that these men moved onto later projects without the support staff that had molded their ideas into practical applications.
At least, that’s the playful spin of the common narrative I heard and somewhat bought into between the 2-1 nailbiter in Antigua and the 3-1 smackdown of Guatemala that capped the semifinal round of US world cup qualifying campaign.
Based on the vitriol hurled at Klinsmann, you’d think he’d encased Jozy Altidore in carbonite and forced Landon Donovan to dance for him in a metal bikini.
The truth is complex, and our expecations for qualifying may have been unrealistic. To try to cut through the rhetoric, to the Opta Chalkboards for insights we go–include your normal disclaimers on “data can be made to explain anything”– from all 6 semifinal World Cup Qualifiers. If any of the language of this article or the Chalkboards themselves are unfamiliar, check out this page of Opta definitions.
June 8th – Antigua & Barbuda at United States
The hope by the faithful was for a slaughter when Antigua & Barbuda visited Raymond James Stadium. Instead, fans got drenched with a clear but uninspiring win. Looking back on the match through the Opta lens, one tale could be the old US nemesis–just ask Jozy Altidore–of “finishing” as the main culprit for the lackluster scoreline. Here are all of Landon Donovan’s passes in the match that led directly to a shot (aka key passes). Do you miss Landon?
That’s 11 chances created by one player. The rest of the team created 8, and there were 8 other shots that were unassisted (including all 3 goals). Taking the 44th minute PK out of any analysis of US finishing, the States took 26 other shots, 11 of them on target, but only 2 of which scored. The problem here was finishing, which we see a few times from the US qualifying campaign. Also, keep in mind that the vast majority of the A&B squad (15 out of 20 on their most recent roster) play together professionally for Antigua Barricuda FC in the US 2nd tier, USL Pro.
Very few national teams know each other that well, and it makes sense that A&B played more cohesively and with better results than expected early in qualifying.
June 12th – United States at Guatemala
While the loss in Jamaica and the underwhelming wins against A&B had US fans and media pecolating, perhaps the most dismal US performance was in Guatemala. In analyzing every other match’s Chalkboard, an area of promise or two jumped out rather quickly. This match’s chalkboard offered little but frustration, and the backline was one of the sources:
In all of the other matches, US defenders made defensive plays further up the pitch, and their heat maps rarely showed them setting foot in their own penalty area. This was the match where Klinsmann’s precious high defensive line tactic simply didn’t happen. No wonder this was the only match where US’ shot locations were no better than those of their opponent. No real standout performances and a pretty much even goal expectation off of shots created led to an uninspiring tie.
Sept 7 – United States at Jamaica
Had enough negativity? Well the loss in Kingston has that eluvise fuzzy-and-warm lining. To illustrate why, take a look at Jamaica’s shots and the passes that created them.
Those shot outcomes are too accurate for CONCACAF. Not even Europe’s elite are that precise. Jamaica never took a shot closer than 30 yards from goal, and scored on two direct free kicks, an event so fluky that it only happened once over the entire 2011-2012 EPL season. Going forward, if the US limits opponents to a shot chart like that, it will be overwhelming likely that Tim Howard records a clean sheet.
September 11th: Jamaica at United States
There were many beautiful aspects of this match, savor them. Every starter looked quite good, as long as you ignore their strike rate. It seemed appropriate to focus on the wingbacks in this match, since Steve Cherundolo was a primary reason–Dolo gone loco says this essay–the US was thoroughly in control for most of the game and Fabian Johnson was so offensive that they had to bleep him whenever he was on the screen.
These two created 4 scoring chances (…counting the through ball from Johnson to Gómez that was incorrectly flagged offside in the 33rd minute). While consistently cycling the ball amongst attackers, they completed 118 passes, and only lost possession 29 times.
Overall, the first half of US vs Jamaica in Columbus on 9-11 was the most beautiful display of attacking football witnessed in this iteration of the national team. Before the break that night US outfield players completed 346 of 393 passes, leading to 13 shots. If the Chalkboard from that half were bichromatic and devoid of dots it would resemble the special effect for warp speed in Star Wars. It was exquisite to see in person, better than the first drive in experience of Princess Leia.
October 12 – United States at Antigua & Barbuda
Consider the statistics for the match in Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium to be tainted.
It was played in the rain on the boggiest, most beat up 7700 square yards (the FIFA minimum) of an available 16,000+ square yard pitch. The pictures tweeted by journalists and players post-match illustrated that dimensions and conditions conspired to make many normal dribbles and passes nearly impossible. Sure, both teams were subject to the same conditions (though thankfully the US weren’t forced to wear short shorts), but that doesn’t prevent the whole 90 minutes from being an oddity. In lieu of analysis, here’s a Chalkboard image of the buildup to the winning goal:
Well maybe that goal does say something, quick staccato passes with little dribbling and time in possession maybe should’ve been the way the US attacked the entire night?
October 16 – Guatemala at United States
Like Jamaica’s visit to Ohio, this match was a rout. Comparing the passing charts of the two teams is almost comical, since Michael Bradley and Danny Williams had more successful passes than the entire Guatemalan side.
Bradley and Williams completed 158 passes, and only lost the ball 20 times! Guatemala completed 146 passes and lost possession 115 times. Generally, it’s dangerous to analyze raw passing stats, but in this case the overwhelming evidence is that the US ran circles around a reasonably dangerous CONCACAF opponent almost the entire match.
Beyond the gut-punch in the 5th minute when the stuck up, scruffy, half-witted Pescadito, Carlos Ruiz, outran Bocanegra, rounded Howard and opened the scoring, Knights of Columbus! this was better than Jamaica at home.
Washy semi-optimistic conjecture on some of the US’ problems is easy to type and to that the notion is that the players are still thinking too much on the pitch about Klinsmann’s rapid distribution system. Pour in a line-up that is never redundant (in the last 20 matches the US has had 20 different XIs) doesn’t help the transition.
The less optimistic followup to that theory is pondering how much work and repetitions are necessary to be at a progress-past-the-Hexagonal level.
The next five opponents are all formidable and will be up for each game versus the global world power. All but Mexico know that knocking the USA out of qualifying is a fair consolation prize even if they don’t advance themselves. If the Yanks travel to the wretched hives of scum and villainy in Central America without a near-instinctive feel for their responsibilities, quite a few in the American Outlaws section will be overheard saying “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Howard, Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley, Williams, Cherundolo, and Johnson seem a strong, dynamic core who are quite capable of driving the USMNT to Brazil, but fitting together with other interchanging parts and succeeding is another thing.
Is Klinsmann Yoda or the Vader?