Steve Davis' weekly column, drilling down on five hot topics in American soccer
1. Jürgen Klinsmann hot takes – plenty out there
If you can’t find a scalding hot take today on increasingly embattled U.S. men’s national team manager Jürgen Klinsmann, well, you’re just not trying. If “Klinsmann out” suggestions were wind and rain, we’d all be glued to the Weather Channel, dealing with storm-of-the-century stuff.
The ship pretty much capsized on Tuesday as you surely know. The inquest and examinations are plentiful, so no need to waste more time here outlining the man’s ongoing, high-density cycle of blunder and alibi.
Let’s move this story forward with a couple of things to consider. We know that Klinsmann makes a peachy living, taking home somewhere north of $2.5 million annually. (In terms of what the financial industry calls ROI, we’re getting’ soaked pretty good here. But again, let’s move the story forward … ) Plus, if the man is feeling a bit cash poor at the moment, he’s got this to bulk up the checking account.
So, that big cash prize (a contractually obligated one) could be a hindrance in any big decisions ahead. It’s a consideration, at very least. Which is getting to be a problem for a certain U.S. Soccer president. Because now people are asking more questions about Sunil Gulati, the ultimate decider in his role as U.S. Soccer president (and longtime chief engineer on the Jürgen Klinsmann Express).
NBC Sports’ Kyle Martino, a former national teamer and typically a calm and respected voice, asked this pertinent question Tuesday on Twitter: “If size of severance is prohibitive in removing ineffective coach, then whoever created that problem's job should be in jeopardy no?”
See, it’s gotten to the point where Klinsmann is becoming Gulati’s albatross. Picking up the shovel from Martino and digging a little deeper, allow me to pose the next question along these lines: Was there never a Plan B?
And if not, should there have been? The answer is “yes.” Of course, there should have been. Because – and let’s be really super clear on this point – “hope for the best” is not a Plan B. Nor any kind of plan at all.
2. There’s still a place for the 30-something in MLS
It’s a bad time to be a player of a certain age and looking for wages in Major League Soccer.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Yes, there is ample evidence that “brand name” players of a certain age aren’t worth the princely price tags that often come attached. But just because Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard didn’t work out as planned – and I don’t care how many shirts they sold, they couldn’t possibly be worth their combined two-year salary of around $24 million – that doesn’t mean that every single 30-plus is washed-up old rag that needs throwing out.
There are plenty of examples of the 30-plus crowd serving usefully.
Jelle van Damme just finished second in MLS Defender of the Year balloting, and he’s 33. That’s the same age Maynor Figueroa turned in May – and the enduring Honduran international just turned in a series of solid outings for Supporters Shield winner FC Dallas.
David Villa is 34. That man still knows where the net is and still has the physical ability to get there, clearly. Didier Drogba “did” in MLS before he “didn’t” – and he was 37 in that previous year of being The Man around Montreal. By now you may be saying, “But midfield is different.” And you would be correct … to a point.
Kyle Beckerman is 34, still a midfield force for Real Salt Lake. Osvaldo Alonso is 31, coming off a fantastic season for Seattle. Marcelo Sarvas, 35, was a significant part of a fairly restorative year around D.C. United.
Which all brings us to Bastian Schweinsteiger, 32, who may be circling the outer markers at Chicago’s busy soccer runways. Again, we remind all: these conversations should not happen in a vacuum. There are lots of apples to pick on this bountiful tree of consideration: How much? What is the cost in salary and MLS acquisition currency? How does he fit the personnel on hand and the larger personnel plan? Is he willing to be a mentor?
We don’t have the answers to these questions. Then again, we don’t need them – Chicago Fire officials do.
We do know this: He may be “dinged up,” but that’s not the same as damaged goods. His current address, after all, is Manchester United. No, it’s not the mighty Manchester United of glory days. And, yes, the Premier League isn’t the league of super humans that its collective branding might have you believe. All that said, falling out of favor at Old Trafford doesn’t mean you’re all washed up.
Arne Friedrich, like Schweinsteiger a former German international, was 33 when he marshalled the Fire back line so splendidly in 2012. That was the last Chicago Fire team really worth watching, certainly the last one to make the playoffs. He was equally valuable as mentor and game-day performer. I spoke with Friedrich about it in 2012, and he was quite serious about his role as tutor and counselor.
This is a good case against Chicago adding Schweinsteiger; it does well in illustrating why the German midfielder, in his current construct, may not align with the present Fire dynamic. But if he’s willing to fit in, to be a mentor and on-field shepherd to all the young talent around Toyota Park (and all at the right price), isn’t it worth tweaking the system a bit?
One final thing to consider: David Beckham is another former 30-something who worked well in MLS. Over his last couple of years, Beckham completely changed his game. No longer able to rampage up and down the right, he became a more reserved, but highly capable deep-lying playmaker.
3. Seeing the FCD influence at work
Here’s something of a counter argument to the item above – although it’s more “big picture thinking” than “individual, case-by-case decision.”
It’s hard to look around MLS right now – a time that feels like a real shape shifting moment in MLS – and not think that Oscar Pareja’s ongoing project at FC Dallas is having a major influence. “Play the kids,” we keep hearing and saying. And it was ever thus.
So an increasing number of clubs are looking at FC Dallas and its MLS-high 15 Homegrown signings and hoping to emulate the academy success. Dallas is selling players like Alex Zendejas and using others (Kellyn Acosta, Victor Ulloa and Jesse Gonzalez as the best examples) to win games, all the while reaping the financial windfalls of a doctrine that says “produce (from within) over purchase.”
We also know from Newton's third law that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Sure enough, we seem to be seeing a reaction, one that looks like a game-changer in our soccer nation’s longstanding, and probably destructive, infatuation with aging stars from abroad.
Frank Lampard is gone. So is Steven Gerrard. But it’s beyond just bidding adieu to broken down Englishmen. In Utah, Real Salt Lake has shed longtime Rio Tinto Stadium stalwarts Javier Morales and Jamison Olave.
RSL needed to get younger. It’s tough. It hurts. And we can argue about how it was done, about whether the purge needed to be so thorough, etc. (especially as some report have Nick Rimando on the way to Atlanta, as well). All that’s ripe for debate. But they had to get younger. And what is happening at FCD will keep driving that home for clubs.
Teams around MLS will simply find it harder and harder to look at a club like FC Dallas while watching their own house grow older and more stale.
4. Who thought what when Tim Howard fell?
Thoughts come racing in fast and furious upon the moment of bewildering trauma. Good example: the moment U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard fell awkwardly last week in Columbus, pretty clearly injured and quite possibly out for lengthy spell. (We know now that is the case, indeed.)
American soccer fans had the same reaction: “It stinks. But … Brad Guzan! We have fertile fields of goalkeeping gold, and it starts with Guzan. So, yeah, we’re still good.”
Except, for course, for the one place where that wasn’t exactly the reaction. In Denver and area thereabouts, fans of the game were likely falling over backward from the concussive blast waves of fear and disappointment. They had just seen Howard almost single-handedly deliver them into the Western Conference finals with two splendid penalty kick saves. Plus, all that experience was sure to help Howard stand tall when MLS playoffs resumed. After all, while CenturyLink can be a thrilling, perhaps even intimidating place to play, it’s a Sunday with friends compared to visiting Anfield Road as the “away” team in the Liverpool derby, isn’t it?
So, in comes Zac MacMath. And from here comes a calming word balm, perhaps, to Rapids fans – or just a “heads up” to any interested bystanders without a dog in this fight: relax. Seriously, it’s not that bad.
All things considered, of course you’d prefer to have trusty Tim Howard, not just for his courage, ability and experience, but for the guidance he provides to the back line.
There are compelling numbers that seem to say “Colorado was better under MacMath.” Here’s a good look at the data-driven hope from the Burgundy Wave blog. It’s worth pointing out that a good chunk of MacMath’s time corresponded with the time Jermaine Jones’ was on the field in the spring, when the club went unbeaten in eight games (5-0-3).
Still, aside from a couple of early hiccups, MacMath was fine in Colorado’s goal. All that aside, here are two reasons Rapids fans really need to keep their chins up.
First, this isn’t the talented-but-mistake-prone youngster that so many of us remember from Philadelphia. MacMath was barely 20 when he became the Union’s starter in 2011. We’re all more mentally fragile when younger, which means being more prone to lose temporary focus. More importantly in this case, without larger stockpiles of confidence, it’s harder to bounce back from these things. He’s 25 now. He’s been through more. He’ll presumably be tougher and more resilient of mind and spirit.
This part, though, is more important: Now he’s the backup coming to the rescue. It’s a completely different mindset, one that should play well for him.
Once he made a couple of mistakes at Philly – again, as a 20- or 21-year-old – he was the kid straining to show everyone he could handle the job. He was the starter, but everyone was just waiting for the next booboo, the next reason to say, “See, the kid’s got talent, but he doesn’t have it upstairs.” It’s a tough ask of anyone.
Now, he’s the begrudged, more “veteran with a point to prove.” Where he went in thinking “Don’t make a mistake” before, now he’s thinking more aggressively, more assertively. Now he’s a guy with a chip on his shoulder.
He may not be Tim Howard, but with that rock-solid defense in front of him – one that allowed the Galaxy just 5 shots on target over almost two and a half matches of playoff soccer – and with an older, tougher, mentality, being Zac MacMath will be good enough. The Rapids may or may emerge from the series with Seattle, but the MacMath margin is unlikely to be the deciding factor.
5. The Little Five
5a. With Klinsmann dominating the conversation, a few other ongoing U.S. issues aren’t getting proper attention from fans and media. For instance, the last two matches remind us that while the U.S. player pool remains in a pretty good place, this country’s ongoing inability to develop fullbacks really needs addressing.
5b. And this, as well: John Brooks was doing so well before his outright fiasco Tuesday in San Jose, quite possibly the worst night for a U.S. center back since … well, maybe since the U.S. Soccer began qualifying for World Cups back in the late 1980s. Is it as simple as missing Geoff Cameron, the veteran back line guiding voice? Because the more time I spend around the game, the more I understand that maturing center backs are best when paired with a wise, on-field mentor.
5c. Or, is there another explanation on Brooks? Credit ESPN announcer for this suggestion as posted on Twitter: “JK threw Brooks under bus for Mexico winning goal. Should have kept it in house. Brooks responds with worst game ever for #USMNT”
5d. How does Morales, now out at Real Salt Lake, sound as a stopgap playmaker for FCD? You know, while Mauro Diaz mends? It makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways. As with all of these situations (see item above on Schweinsteiger), it’s about asking price and about accepting roles. If he’s not looking for starter bucks (nor for promises of starter minutes once Diaz heals up) then it might make a lot of sense.
5e. Whenever I look at artist’s renderings of stadiums under construction, I always have the same two thoughts: 1) I know in my heart the final product won’t shine quite as brightly as the clean, perfectly picturesque artist versions. 2) I don’t care. I love looking at them anyway. Here’s the latest from D.C. United.
Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since is first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for FourFourTwo and co-hosts the weekly radio show/podcast ESPN Soccer Today on 103.3 FM in Dallas. Davis is also the radio play-by-play voice for FC Dallas on 100.7 FM.