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England and the United States: Out of tune partners in the World Cup waltz

Thursday 17th November 2016
It's said everything in life is cyclical, including football. One team peaks as another reaches its nadir, even when the two trends don't appear linked. It's as though the football gods are in fact, rich housewives uncertain where they want the piano. 

Fans, of course, are the piano movers. Take England and the United States, for instance. On the surface, there's no evidence one's change in fortune influences the others'. Yet, the FA and USSF have done an odd waltz around managerial philosophies since the latter became something of a soccer (although not a football) power in the '90s.

When the US won hosting rights for the 1994 World Cup, they hired former Mexico and Costa Rica boss Bora Milutinović as coach. The Serbian took them to the tournament's knockout round, just as he had with his two previous CONCACAF entrants. After leaving the USMNT, Milutinović would go on to lead both Nigeria and China to qualification, the Super Eagles being the fourth side he progressed from the group stage. Coaching five nations in the World Cup is something no other manager has done, not even Guus Hiddink.
Looking to build on their initial success, the USSF tried to sell Milutinović on developing their youth set-up, as well as marshalling the senior squad. Wishing only to coach, he parted ways with the Americans. From 1995-2011, US Soccer made intermittent progress under three homegrown coaches, Steve Samson, Bruce Arena, and new Swansea boss, Bob Bradley.

The FA, meanwhile, had grown frustrated with the Three Lions coming up short in tournament-after-tournament. So, in 2001, they chose to look abroad for a manager who would bring a breath of fresh air to English football, hiring former Lazio coach, Sven Göran Eriksson. The Swede presided over English football's next new generation, including David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, but wasn't able to transplant his mild Swedish temperament onto them. Conversely, his notorious sexual escapades, especially with FA secretary Faria Alam, apparently made an indelible impression. The WAG culture developed into English football's only exciting aspect during his tenure.

Italian Fabio Capello's conservative nature understandably appealed to the FA after the hedonistic Eriksson reign, but England again, failed to enjoy any major tournament success under the former Milan, Juventus, and Real Madrid boss. Tabloids exploiting, if not outright creating, the rift between John Terry and Wayne Bridge over Vanessa Perroncel, then rumours regarding Peter Crouch and Wayne Rooney infidelities undermined the Three Lions in South Africa.

In 2012, England attempted to straddle the line between homegrown and foreign management, bringing in Roy Hodgson. Although his most recent jobs had been in the Premier League, with Fulham, Liverpool, and West Brom, he had made his name coaching in Europe for clubs and countries alike, most notably with Switzerland and Inter. In the end, the English youth movement entrusted to "Woy" languished in the same manner as their many predecessors.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a year earlier, the USSF had decided an international pedigree might take the US to the next level in global football, tapping transplanted Californian Jürgen Klinsmann to give American football a European makeover. As he did at Bayern Munich, and with the 2006 host team, Klinsmann promised to bring stateside what seemed a healthy optimism, as well as modern training methods. The American team was already known for its athleticism, however.

The American team was already known for its athleticism, however. Instilling a technical proficiency in the squad, even when recruiting footballers with German mothers and American GI fathers, such as Jermaine Jones, Timothy Chandler, and Fabian Johnson, would be the trick. It's fair to say the trick hasn't come off. Nor does it look likely should Klinsmann stay in the job after two defeats in this international window, at home to Mexico and on the road in Costa Rica, in which his side was comprehensively outplayed.

While the USMNT has played over its head with the German in charge during both the 2014 World Cup and this past summer's Copa America Centenario, it's difficult to attribute the players' resolve to a belief in their coach. Under Bob Bradley, the US exhibited the same spirit, fighting back to rescue results both in qualification and at South Africa 2010. Whereas they fought for their American coach, it seems they are fighting despite their foreign one. When Klinsmann came in, he promptly found himself feuding with then-captain Landon Donovan, arbitrarily exiling America's all-time best player from the team because the MLS legend took a hiatus to rest after more than two non-stop years of football, playing for the USMNT, LA Galaxy, and on loan with Everton. Similarly, longstanding number one Tim Howard lost his starting place after taking a year-long sabbatical after Brazil 2014. Nor did three of Klinsmann's core players, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Jermaine Jones, heed his advice to further their careers in Europe, opting instead to come to MLS.

When Klinsmann came in, he promptly found himself feuding with then-captain Landon Donovan, arbitrarily exiling America's all-time best player from the team because the MLS legend took a hiatus to rest after more than two non-stop years of football, playing for the USMNT, LA Galaxy, and on loan with Everton. Similarly, longstanding number one Tim Howard lost his starting place after taking a year-long sabbatical after Brazil 2014. Nor did three of Klinsmann's core players, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Jermaine Jones, heed his advice to further their careers in Europe, opting instead to come to MLS.

Michael Bradley, if you weren't aware, is not only the team captain but previous coach Bob Bradley's son. Despite understandable emotional conflicts, as well as being played out of position by Klinsmann nearly to the extent, and with remarkably similar consequences as Wayne Rooney, Bradley the junior has remained the consummate professional, expressing public support, if not enthusiasm, for his new boss. Theirs is obviously a difficult relationship, one having to play for the man who, in some people's eyes, openly lobbied for the job while it was still filled, the other an outsider aware of the political dangers in cutting ties with his leadership core's youngest member, even though he is the son of the man he replaced. In an alternate universe, the dynamic would make for an excellent gangster flick. In this world, it's been the script for failure.
If anything, it appears the club has tolerated Klinsmann as they would an unpopular boss at a meat-packing plant. They clock in and out, putting in their shifts, but any urgency seems to come from the moment, rather than the coach's remonstrations. This week, despite their opening fixtures in the final CONCACAF World Cup qualification round beginning with a home match against their top rival , followed by a trip to the most impenetrable fortress in the federation, there was no sense of urgency. The top three CONCACAF teams from the six in the hexagonal round robin will go to Russia, with the fourth playing the fifth-place team in Asia for another berth. Minnows Trinidad & Tobago, Panama, and Honduras being the other competitors in the Hex, results against Mexico and Costa Rica weren't what you would call crucial.

That said, no one expected the US to emerge from the international break at the bottom of the table. The general opinion was the USMNT would vie for Mexico for group supremacy. Only, it doesn't appear Jürgen Klinsmann was a believer. With the Mexico tilt taking place in Columbus, Ohio, where the Americans had trotted out three consecutive 2-0 victories in their standard 4-4-2 formation, pundits were claiming all the pressure was on Mexico's tactical savant Juan Carlos Osorio. Yet, Klinsmann overreacted to the technically gifted Mexican midfield, opting for a 3-5-2 which turned out to be even more unfamiliar to his players than the press, supporters, and opposition. Despite bodies in abundance, the complete confusion regarding positioning and responsibility afforded El Tri acres of unguarded space to cross into the American half. Where's Donald Trump when you really need him?
Within twenty minutes, the US were down a goal. To their credit, Bradley and Jones lobbied Klinsmann during an injury stoppage. When play resumed, the side switched back to the more comfortable 4-4-2. The tables turned almost immediately, but the equaliser didn't arrive until the second half. Juan Carlos Osorio then made his own adjustments with second-half substitutions. The match began to look like it would play out to a draw. In the 89th minute, however, the Americans inexplicably failed to put a man on the far post, or to cover the right edge of the six-yard box to defend a late corner. Mexican captain Rafa Marquez darted in, to loop a free header over Brad Guzan's head for the winner. Had a defender been manning the far post, he would have been able to clear the effort off the line. Poor tactics and game management can only be blamed on the coach.

Moreover, had the players been in Klinsmann's corner, they'd have responded in Costa Rica. Estadio Nacional is infamous as an unfriendly venue for visitors. The US has never beaten the Ticos there in World Cup qualifying. Still, a defiant effort to end the streak should have been on the cards. Instead, the Americans were again disorganised and disinterested, accumulating three yellow cards for late tackles in the first half, while showing no ability to maintain possession. Again, they went into the break down a goal. Having had a chance to regroup,Klinsmann's group came back out to concede three more.

If there is a better indication of a coach losing the clubhouse than two uninspired performances when faced with a pair of sizable challenges, I don't know it. The best thing to be said for the USSF is they have four months to assess the situation, then identify possible candidates to succeed Klinsmann if they do sack him. As with the England job, there isn't a horde of applicants banging on the door at the moment.
England has been there, done that when it comes to coaches losing the clubhouse. But then Sam Allardyce came along, who very much had the players behind him, but still cocked it up by opening his mouth to undercover media. Rather than using the red and white of St George's Cross to identify the team in fixture lists and the like, perhaps a bullseye would be more appropriate. With the intelligent football managers among those available having noted the disrespect afforded to the England managerial post, Gareth Southgate has no competition for the position he has temporarily filled in since Big Sam's embarrassing exit.

Thankfully, his audition has been solid, if not inspiring, to onlookers. He only fumbled his lines at the very end of the last of his four trial matches, when Spain fought back from two goals down at the death to snatch a draw in their Wembley friendly on Tuesday. Commentators and pundits quickly pounced on how badly Southgate's squad played against the regular starters Julen Lopetegui threw on in the second half, compared to the way they had bossed the "second string." The media roundly condemned both players and the potential manager. No one is saying England's first team is a match for Spain's, but, in all fairness, as La Roja's better players came on, England's were leaving. The two late strikes came not against the best England had to offer, rather at the expense of the Three Lions' cubs.

The overriding factor to take from the match was England's confidence in staking out a 2-0 lead. Unlike the USMNT, these players were buying into their coach's program. Unlike Klinsmann's squad, Southgate's is playing for him. It helps that many  younger squad members know him from the youth set-up. Promoting management from within is rarely done in football, these days. When it is, it's usually very successful organisations who take the risk on inexperience. Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, and Luis Enrique are all Barcelona products, even though Enrique went the prodigal son route. Real Madrid has learned their lesson and groomed Zinedine Zidane into a Champions League winner both on the pitch and in the coach's box. The Three Lions aren't overflowing with talent in the manner of the Primera Liga giants, but, like the Americans, European football hasn't really taken hold at Wembley. Certainly, English players are more technically adept than Americans, but physicality remains a fundamental element of the English game. Why not allow a coach to embrace that?

In the coming weeks, if not days, we'll know both Jürgen Klinsmann and Gareth Southgate's fate. One's star seems to be fading while the other appears to be coming into his own. Regardless, in the endless waltz of footballing nations, it's been a long time since England and the United States have put their best feet forward. Both appear to have another turn to dance with the stars.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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