One of the consistent messages about the USMNT in recent years has been how its leaders want to change the perception of the team in international soccer. Gregg Berhalter had a frequent mantra of wanting to “change the way the world looks at American Soccer.” The team probably didn’t do that by coming second in the group getting an expected result by beating Iran, dropping a lead against Wales in disappointing fashion, and getting a gutsy draw in a well played game against England and then being outplayed by the Netherlands.
While I don’t presume to speak for the entire world, finishing second in the group and then losing an elimination game to a group winner is probably what was expected.
Yet again, a leader who is charged with setting the tone for the USMNT program has waded into setting grand expectations for the team. This time, it’s new US Soccer Sporting Director Matt Crocker who told reporters about the USMNT “we are going to be a nation that will be feared.” There’s no doubt that the USA can be a dangerous team, especially if a starting no. 9 emerges, and that can be scary At the same time, teams that strike fear into others like France, Argentina, Brazil, England, Holland, Italy, Spain or the USWNT cause actual dread in their opponents whose best outcome is often hoping to contain the damage.
These teams have strong benches with players running five deep at every position in the top leagues in the world. The USA ran itself into the ground and barely rotated in Qatar. As recently as last Spring the story about the USMNT was that there were nearly a dozen players playing in the Champions League and the conveyor belt of youngsters going from American academies and MLS teams to top five leagues in Europe was running full speed.
Now several of those players are fighting relegation with Leeds, have moved to stronger teams where they are fighting for playing time, are in the Championship or other second division leagues hoping for promotion, can’t seem to stay healthy, or can’t get into a starting XI. Meanwhile, there’s been a list of players who seemed to have been set for promising careers after making transfers that haven’t been heard from in quite some time. That’s not to say in three years that players in the pool currently and those emerging from the youth teams won’t move forward and can’t grow into a nation that is feared, but recently the steps have been sideways or backwards.
As a sporting nation, Americans love athletes and teams that are ambitious and back up their aspirations with trophies and do cause fear in the hearts of their opponents. Crocker and previously Berhalter reflect the optimism and ambition that sometimes borders on delusional that is a core value of Americans. Still, there’s another type of sporting narrative that inspires Americans: the underdog. Individuals and teams that overcome incredible odds, don’t back down and through nothing more than sheer self-belief win despite being outmatched has a sacred place in the American sports consciousness.
Currently, the USMNT is much closer to the later than the former and yet the team’s leadership constantly sets the bar at “changing perceptions” and “being feared.” The USMNT has won two games at a World Cup once. Just once. Winning two games at a World Cup would be a great achievement and winning more than that would be astounding. It might also cause more fear for opponents if the USA is only concerned with winning and will do it whatever the odds and however it looks as opposed to trying to have more verticality.
Aside from semantics though, Gregg Berhalter’s notion of changing the optics of the team to the world may have gotten in the way of how the team performed, his management of games, and prevented him from getting the best out of the players he did have rather than trying to get them to fit an ideal mold he had for the team. Crocker hitching his wagon to similar goals is concerning if it influences his decision making in bringing in another coach who is more focused on the aesthetics of the team rather than results.