MLS Stars Fail to Meet Expectations
By Robert Jonas
Unlike most those watching Tuesday night’s international friendly between the United States and Canada, I did not find myself wanting to poke my eyes out at what I was witnessing. I saw no reason to scream across social media that I wanted those 2 hours of my life returned (I’d probably spend them watching some other soccer match anyway). I certainly was glad I did not invest in a trip to Houston to watch the scoreless draw between the two rivals and instead kept those moneys in my All-Star game travel fund.
No, the USMNT v. Canada match by itself was drab, but I did appreciate the opportunity to further understand just what head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is up to with our national team. You see, with the “Hexagonal” final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 World Cup starting in February, the German was viewing the collection of domestic MLS All-Stars he had assembled for “Camp Cupcake” through the lens of a competitive international match, all in the hope of finding a few spare parts that could be added to his preferred roster of internationally based starters.
So what happened? Pregame predictions had the U.S. rolling over their northern foe, especially given Canada’s 4-0 pasting by Denmark less than a week ago. The Canadians were playing with a less than an “A” strength squad, and with a hungry group of MLSers, most hoping to make the grade in a World Cup qualifying year, had three weeks of training together as preparation and the passionate support of the home crowd behind them. The scenario was set for a U.S. romp to start off the Federation’s Centennial Celebration year.
Instead, it was the Canadians celebrating their own stalwart defensive effort — and even ruing some missed scoring opportunities — in holding the USMNT without a goal for the second straight game. Neither exceptional nor valiant in a U.S.-versus-Spain-Confederations-Cup kind of way, the effort put forth from Team Canada was everything it needed to be.
End of USMNT January camp friendlies are often a mixed bag, especially as the MLS-majority sides never seem to display the same cohesiveness individual players enjoy with their club teams. I sat down just in time for Glenn Davis and Taylor Twellman to welcome me to Houston and to watch the ball kicked off from the center circle spot. I rose two hours later, not so much dazed and confused, but certainly of a mind that the match could be washed from my DVR before the rise of the morning sun.
Had I watched bad tactics from the players, or were the players suffering from the employed tactics?
These MLS stars, and the few internationals brought in for the second half, did not so much look lost in the proceedings, but instead seemed unable to muster up a worthwhile performance in their presumed Klinsmann assigned roles. A few notables did seize the moment — Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman enjoyed another solid game wearing the U.S. kit, and a relatively untested centerback duo of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler looked comfortable manning the back — and may still be invited to the “A” list of Americans for the upcoming road match in Honduras; however, the overwhelming majority will already be on their way home to join their respective clubs already engaged in preseason training.
What I did learn from Tuesday night’s 0-0 draw was that most of the players are not ready for the system that Klinsmann is trying to institute with the national team. The coach has overtly hinted that he wants his preferred core of players challenging themselves in the best leagues in the world. MLS is gaining traction on that front, but in terms of quality and intensity of play it has many years to go before it can be compared to established European leagues.
MLS is very competitive within its own structure, but not on the world’s stage.
Perhaps with the tactical reigns loosened, the team would have mustered up something a bit more creative on offense. The cynic in me might think that left to their own devices, the MLS squad would have resorted to a more direct and over-the-top style that is commonplace during league play. Not always attractive — Klinsmann’s system definitely had a possession-first focus — the MLS way would have meant more scoring chances for both sides, and possibly the semblance of an entertaining game.
That was not to be with Klinsmann in control, and I am for one glad it wasn’t the form this match took. Emphasizing a creative approach to the game, one these MLSers were not quite ready to excel at, will better serve the national team program in the many years to come. Klinsmann speaks of a national identity for the U.S. team; he just didn’t find too many players from this game that will be up to his standards.
And so, another January camp comes to a close with another 20 or so MLS stars getting their auditions in for national team understudy assignments. The lessons learned will certainly benefit them in the upcoming season, and a few may return next year with even more hunger to crack the squad. Being held scoreless by Canada? Yeah, that will stick in the craw of this group for awhile, but the taste of playing international soccer will still remain sweet.
Just wait till next year.