Six months ago who would have thought that fans of the U.S. Men’s National Team would be looking at Canada and feeling jealous about the consistency in their national team? When he was hired as USMNT coach last year, Jurgen Klinsmann promised to shake things up a bit, but few thought that he would cause the kind of storm he kicked up this week with his non-selection of Jozy Altidore and his selections of Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon. There is a case to be made for these decisions, but that will have to be left for another time. The point here is to illustrate the contrast between the U.S. approach to this round of World Cup qualifying and Canada’s.
Canadian coach Stephen Hart has gone to great lengths in his tenure to ensure stability in the Canadian program. He has consistently called in the same core players, even if they weren’t playing at a top club or evening playing well at the moment. He has been consistent in his playing style as well. Defense is the key for this Canadian team (also because they can’t seem to score and will be missing Dwayne de Rosario in the next leg), as well as building a strong midfield. Hart has called in the likes of Kevin McKenna, Dejan Jakovic, Ante Jazic, and David Edgar. He has also gone with the very stable and thorough midfield of Julian de Guzman, Will Johnson, Atiba Hutchinson (when healthy), and Patrice Bernier. All of this has allowed the team to establish a rhythm and consistency that has brought them success both at home and on the road.
Further, Hart has also been consistent about giving younger players a chance and utilizing the excellent youth teams in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. Players like Ashtone Morgan have had a chance to get introduced to the team and to get good minutes. It’s not just about building consistency now, it’s about building consistency in the program for years to come. Additionally, he has been patient regarding the Junior Hoilett situation. He has kept track of the situation, but has yet to force the player into a decision. This kind of behavior gives players what they want: an opportunity to shine and consistency.
Hart has had consistent communication with the media, fans, and players. He doesn’t treat the sport in Canada as a sub-sport that most Canadians don’t understand. He gets that Canada is a soccer-mad country, and he wants to tap into that. A large part of that has been playing multiple matches in Toronto. This strategy finally seems to be paying off large dividends as players know how long their flight is going to be, they know where they will be training, and they know what kind of pitch they are going to play on. Further, it has allowed the public in Toronto to coalesce around a team that is doing well (ahem, Toronto FC). All in all, this has given Canada an advantage they haven’t had in years. Now, with a spot in the hex on the line and three points desperately needed against Cuba at home, does anyone doubt they are going to get it?
Seemingly, the only thing consistent about the USMNT right now seems to be disagreement over Klinsmann’s selections. Well, rest assured U.S. fans, it’s not that bad at the moment. Thinking about things against the grain for a moment, most fans are going to let Altidore’s omission seep into the back of their mind once the U.S. qualifies for the hex. Klinsmann is able to leave Altidore off the roster because he has other strong options. Johnson has scored some nice goals this year (let’s not talk about why Gordon was called into the team but not his teammate Chris Wondolowski or even Steven Lenhart), and Herculez Gomez is as good as ever. Canada wishes they had those options. Hart is often forced to call-in players because there are no other options. It’s nice to have options.
Similarly, some of Klinsmann’s selections in this stage of World Cup qualifying have come down to player availability. If Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan are healthy in Kingston, does Jamaica still get the win? Possibly, but Bradley would have been an improvement on the makeshift midfield that played in that game. The ability of Donovan would have also occupied the Jamaican midfield and outside backs. When those players are healthy, the U.S. lineup is rather consistent and able to pick up big wins. That doesn’t excuse some of the lineup choices Klinsmann has made over the last year, but it does help explain them.
Additionally, the U.S. is becoming increasingly more consistent in their choice of venue. Columbus Crew's stadium has been and continues to be a favorite. It now seems that Livestrong Sporting Park is following in its footsteps. These venues are not only loud, but they provide the team with a decidedly pro-U.S. atmosphere. It’s no longer about pulling in a big gate; it’s about getting the best results.
Still, the U.S. team hasn’t performed the way they should and much of that has to rest on Klinsmann’s shoulders at this point. The last two games of this round should have been concerned with getting fringe players into the team for experience, not worrying about a result in Antigua & Barbuda. It’s very troubling that it has gotten to this point. Everyone knows that Klinsmann is a total coach that worries about his player’s nutrition, as well as everything else that impacts them, but maybe he should take a page from Hart’s book and worry more about ensuring basic consistency within the team .
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