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Plans, ideals, and reality: Trophies don’t care about your feelings

United States v Mexico: Final - 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

Over the summer the world was treated to what was a tense and exciting European Championship final between England and Italy. It had everything, England scored early and Italy looked to be short of ideas about how to find an equalizer. Italy also had a tough time dealing with Harry Kane dropping back and playing more of a playmaker role than as a classic no. 9. It looked like a tactic that would create goals for the Three Lions during the game, but a second score did not materialize. For their part, Italy had been dominant and even exciting in the tournament. During the match, they looked especially like an away team with the form that led them to the final lacking.

Eventually they found the back of the net scoring on a corner in the 67th minute. The teams battled through regulation and extratime until penalties. That’s when Gareth Southgate brought in Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford whose first touches in the game were penalties which they missed. It doesn’t get much more English than icing your kickers before penalties.

Nobody could have possibly seen this coming. Did any game previews say that Kane would be dropping back as a playmaker? That was pretty unexpected and Italy certainly didn’t have a good answer for it. In fact, the entire tournament was somewhat decided by an extreme outlier in that a record number of own goals were scored. Own goals can be discredited because they really can’t be planned for, though coaches of teams that score them will say that their overall tactics and approach to the game put the opposition in situations where they are scored. Still, some of the OGs in the Euros were comical and in no way reflect some intention by the attacking side. Maybe some of the results were unexpected, but in the end the two best teams in the tournament reached the final. Italy might not have out performed England to win, but they did come away with a trophy.

In a similar way, the USMNT won two trophies this summer. However, they didn’t exactly do it in style. The Nations League was won after the first choice team struggled to overcome Honduras and then played an absolute shambolic classic against Mexico to win the championship. In the Gold Cup, the Stars and Stripes similarly won but failed to do so in style. The win against Mexico was a fairly lucky result, though the team deserves credit for the defensive work that they did against El Tri and throughout the tournament as only one goal was allowed across six games.

In all of the matches the USMNT stepped up and got the needed results, yet fans criticized how the team played. In general, the sentiment seems to be that the team is underperforming given the talent on the roster and is not simply sweeping aside teams like Honduras, Jamaica, and Qatar. Blame for this is mostly directed at Gregg Berhalter for calling in the wrong players or for calling in the right players but not getting them to play better. This is not only despite winning, but despite him calling in young players lacking national team experience in the example of the Gold Cup and not only winning, but getting the additional and perhaps more important benefit of bringing players into the team to get valuable experience and familiarity with depth before qualification starts.

Berhalter is in a situation where the tactics he wants the team to play and the team’s performance are his responsibility and his only. If the team loses it’s his fault because the tactics are bad, if it wins it doesn’t matter because they didn’t execute the tactics he wants to use to the exact degree which the game plan seemed to say they should have been. If a player has a bad game, it’s also Gregg’s fault for picking him.

The USMNT is in a somewhat unique situation when it comes to the top sides in the world. In Concacaf the team is the favorite to qualify for the World Cup and reach regional tournament finals as a given. This is despite until recently not having the soccer talent to consistently excel against the best teams in the world. In the end, both the expectations and the regional success of the team are exceptions to the rule in international soccer. Yet, even when the team wins two trophies in one summer with both the top and lower level talent, criticism is lobbed at the manager. The results continue to be positive, yet the judgement and criticism of the team continues to focus on the negatives to a hyperfocused degree rather than being understood as things that either don’t matter or can be addressed as the team continues to build toward the World Cup.

In the end, qualification will be a success if the team goes to the World Cup. Anything in addition to that is a bonus. Finishing as highly as possible to be in the best position for group seeding, the spirit of the team, how well the players and manager make adjustments and react to adversity, tactics, and who gets called up, should respectively follow when judging the team and its manager.

Soccer is hard. There are hundreds of passes, thousands of moments, and infinite decisions that define a game. The concept of control and who has it is ephemeral and at any moment randomness and luck can have an outsized impact on the result of a game. A manager can create tactics, but at best are putting the pieces on the board with only a few chances to exert influence on the result once the action starts. Assigning responsibility to individuals for overall outcomes is fraught and difficult to objectively illustrate. Results end up being the most important way to evaluate a performance since getting results is what ultimately wins trophies. Everything else is just posting.