The good news for the U.S. men's national soccer team (MNT) in its game against Antigua last night is that it received three points, which ought to clear the way to advance to the Hexagonal next year. The bad news is the win raised still more questions about the fitness of this national side.
First, the excuses.
Calling the field poor—even in good weather—would be an understatement. This cricket pitch is not sized for international soccer, particularly in terms of width. In bad weather, it was a nightmare. Last night, players were slipping while executing the most routine soccer skills. On a dry field, Antigua's tying goal would not have happened. They may have found an equalizer elsewhere, but the comedy of sloppy ground miscues was astonishing.
The officiating was questionable to boot. Okay, whatever, it's CONCACAF. To some degree, the U.S. will always have to pay for United Fruit's exploitation throughout the continent.
Against Antigua, those factors shouldn't have mattered.
Antigua is a country of 80,000. Its pool of national team players are dominated by the roster of Antigua Barracuda FC, a team playing in the USL Professional Division. For those not familiar with U.S. professional soccer below the MLS level, the first step down is the USL First Division. Next step down is the Pro Division, which is a bit of a misnomer because many teams at this level are semi-pro at best. Some are completely amateur. Antigua Barracuda is coached by Tom Curtis, who also coaches the Antigua national team.
So, Antigua Barracuda must be running through Pro Division competitions, right? No. It's not. Never has, as far as I know. In other words, a lot of the players seen stymieing the "best" of the U.S. last night normally struggle against U.S. semipro and amateur players.
If that isn't enough to get readers scratching their heads, consider this: Antigua's most potent scoring threat is Peter Byers from Barracuda. He has three goals in 15 club appearances so far this season. Against the U.S. MNT, he has a goal and an assist in two appearances. And this is where the wet field may have helped the U.S., because on a dry field it does not appear our defenders can run with him.
There's the big question about this MNT. Who are our best four defenders? Fabian Johnson clearly is one, but was held out last night for illness. Carlos Bocanegra arguably still is another, as he is not that old despite seeming much less mobile than in previous years. After that, it seems to be a crap shoot. Jurgen Klinsmann needs to find the right balance of athleticism and basic tactical abilities on his back line or this team will be eliminated in the Hexagonal.
The U.S. can field a credible midfield. Michael Bradley is solid and improving. Jermaine Jones can play well with Bradley and is one of the few Americans, along with Bradley, with the basic ball skills to perform in tight spaces at international (beyond CONCACAF) speeds of play. Jones, however, is digging himself into a hole with U.S. fans with his more erratic moments. Klinsmann needs to have a long talk with Jones in their shared native tongue about keeping control on the pitch.
The outside midfield needs to be credible as well. The U.S. has the players with Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, but Klinsmann seems inclined to put either up top. As any youth coach knows, if you stack your forwards at the expense of your midfield, those talented forwards will not see much of the ball. Dempsey and Donovan need to be midfielders, given the U.S. pool of players.
Up top, we have options. None are blatantly world class (if you remove Dempsey from that consideration), but a lot are close. Jozy Altidore appears the closest. That's not to criticize Klinsmann's decision regarding Altidore for last night. It seems like there is more to that story than fans can view on the field.
However, the Klinsmann benefit of the doubt can only go so far. And that's the other big question about this team: How far will it go?
Last night's lineup looked experimental. Klinsmann is too far into the job to be fielding experimental lineups for must-win games. By this time, he should know his options. He seemingly is still not sure. Eddie Johnson probably bought Klinsmann additional months to figure it out, but not more than that.
Additionally, while we can't know what was said prior to taking the pitch or what other factors may have been hindering the U.S. players, they looked hesitant last night. They looked like the underdogs. Nearly every 50-50 ball, and on a field like that there were going to be a bunch of them, saw an immediate challenge by an Antigua player and a slow-stodgy response from an American one. Coaches in other sports are fired for that kind of player nonperformance all the time.
U.S. Soccer tends to move more slowly. Out of necessity, it views a coaching cycle as four years. Klinsmann is on thin ice. There is no way I can see him keeping the job if the U.S. fails to reach Brazil, and there is no way that the team last night will survive the Hexagonal.