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Sometimes it’s the coach’s fault

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The standards are rigorous. The data analysis is advanced. The metrics are sophisticated and the recruiting methods are advanced. Most importantly, when the U.S. Soccer Federation began its global search for a new men’s national team coach last year, it had something every successful soccer team needs: a multifaceted evaluation mechanism.

That’s not all. There’s more corporate jargon to come. Matt Crocker, technical director for U.S. Soccer, found that coaching a soccer team requires 22 elements, including driving “player engagement outside of training camp” and supporting “team audits,” as well as eight “core competencies.”

This list also ExhaustiveAny candidate for a head coaching position must possess a “vision-led identity” — which sounds a bit like a job posting for an optician — in addition to being a creative developer and passionate innovator, which we should emphasize are absolutely not the same thing.

When the search was over, Crocker and his team had done all the work and completed all the preparations, and the previous coach Greg Berhalter was replaced by himself. Looking back now, it is regrettable that the ninth core competency that the coach of the US men’s national team should have is: Don’t lose to Panama.

This week has been one of those weeks for American soccer. On Monday, just days after a disastrous defeat to Panama, Berhalter’s team lost to Uruguay and were knocked out of their home Copa America in the group stage. It was an especially painful humiliation considering that the United States will host the World Cup in two years.

The reaction was predictable. The players were filled with regret and sadness, and a bit of self-loathing. The fans were furious. The U.S. Soccer Federation responded by promising another thorough review, but that did little to quell the growing discontent: For most fans, the only viable outcome was obvious.

“It’s time for a change at the head coach position,” the American Outlaws, “the largest soccer supporters group in the U.S.,” said in a statement this week. (They phrased this nicely in corporate lingo, the native language of American soccer.)

It must be said that this is not too much to ask. Berhalter performed well in his first World Cup, leading a young United States team to a fairly tough group but falling in the round of 16. Go to the Netherlands.But in reality, this is his second time in charge of the national team and it has been frustrating, to say the least.

Although his side won the Nations League earlier this year, that was built on a 2023 Gold Cup semi-final defeat – again to Panama, their old rivals – and a friendly defeat to Colombia The performance at the Copa America was frustrating for a number of reasons, but it was hardly surprising.

Berhalter also did not use the youth of the team as an excuse, as he did in 2022. The core players of the American team are all in their 20s and are now approaching their prime years.

While some argue that the cost of playing soccer in the United States is too high for many families, limiting the country’s talent pool, this argument does not apply to the United States.

Only three of Berhalter’s Copa America squad play in MLS. He has six Premier League players and four Italian Serie A players, plus others who play in Spain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The United States may not have as much truly world-class talent as it might think, but that does need to be curbed. Venezuela and Panama both made the Copa America quarterfinals. Slovakia, Slovenia, Georgia and Austria all made the last 16 of Euro 2024. Switzerland made the quarterfinals. Their pool of players is no richer or of a higher quality than the United States.

Unfortunately, despite their far superior results, the coach has come under heavy scrutiny. It’s hard not to argue that Berhalter has failed to make the most of the resources he has at his disposal. And that, ultimately, is the job of an international coach.

While it’s easy to scoff at the U.S. Soccer Federation’s propensity for management consultant euphemisms, to dismiss its view that the worlds of Wall Street and Silicon Valley most closely resemble the complexities of elite sports, to mock the unique LinkedIn vibe that permeates the organization, it should be noted that Kroc is incredibly smart, deft, and well-respected.

His work at Southampton and the English Football Association (also a place historically keen on “thorough” review) is impressive. He has enough experience to know that knee-jerk decisions rarely lead to satisfactory results. There is a good chance that the saying “be quick to react, slow to repent” is deeply engraved in his soul.

Yet it’s hard not to wonder if, at some point, everyone involved in U.S. soccer forgot what a national team manager really entails. Not just the organization, with its PowerPoint presentations, personality profiles and “abstract reasoning tests,” but also the staff, the players and even the fans.

Berhalter often said that his job as a coach was to “change the way the world thinks about American soccer,” a philosophy that clearly rubbed off on his players.

A few years ago, Christian Pulisic said, “We want to change the way the world sees American soccer, and to be honest, that’s one of our goals.”

“Four years ago, we set out to change the way the world thinks about American soccer,” teammate Weston McKennie said last year. “Now our motto is to change American soccer forever.”

The American Outlaws echoed that thought in a statement. “Every game is more than just the result. It’s a chance to capture America’s attention and build a lasting bond between new fans and the team. It’s a chance to draw new fans to the game and old fans to share the team with others,” the statement read.

It’s an admirable, if somewhat unrealistic, sentiment. Soccer is ingrained in American sports. Millions play it. Millions watch it. The domestic league is strong, vibrant, and well-attended. American players can be found across Europe. The U.S. women’s soccer team has long been the best in the world.

Soccer has been on the American radar for a while now. Granted, the rest of the world might not pay much attention, but that’s not unusual. Aside from the English Premier League, no domestic sport really grabs the attention of foreign audiences. Italian fans aren’t crazy about watching the latest Bundesliga game. Soccer is local, and that’s the beauty of it.

But more immediately, the belief that the U.S. team was playing not to win games but to win hearts and minds put undue pressure on the players. It created an unnecessary sense of urgency and panic among the fans. And, crucially, it clearly distorted the way the tournament’s authorities were thinking.

During Crocker’s hiring, and Berhalter’s reinstatement, he rejected the narrow-mindedness of a “legacy coach” who focused on “the next game, the next result.” Driven by an unquenchable desire to advance the game, U.S. Soccer decided it needed the opposite, someone with a big picture view, a fourth-level galactic brain.

That was all well and good until the loss to Panama meant the team was eliminated on home soil, with impending humiliation – and the biggest chance squandered – looming.

U.S. Soccer’s job is to think about tomorrow, about where the game is going, and to project a vision-driven image. The coach’s job is to take McKennie, Pulisic, Gio Reyna and all the other players and turn them into a team that can win a few games and even make the quarterfinals in 2026. There aren’t eight core competencies for a national team coach. There’s only one, and it’s very, very obvious.

So far, Euro 2024 has not been a classic. Sure, there have been some standout moments. There are always standout moments. Mert Gunok’s stunning save to preserve Turkey’s win over Austria. Georgia’s thrilling, exciting win over Portugal. Hungary’s ultimately pointless win over Scotland. Ruben Vargas’s clever curling effort to send Switzerland through to the quarter-finals. Jude Bellingham’s acrobatic shot to save England from embarrassment.

And the colors are also rich and varied: Dancing Dutch fans,camp Extreme football fans in blackthe passion and pre-match pageantry of fans in Turkey, Albania, Georgia and Romania (though not necessarily from those countries). It’s all good fodder.

But the tournament as a whole seemed to struggle for momentum. That may well be structural. The group stage is necessarily slow going: 24 teams start but only eight are eliminated, which tends to concentrate the drama in the final round.

This also had a knock-on effect in the round of 16, as too many matches featured clear advantages: Switzerland vs. Italy and Austria vs. Turkey were the only exceptions. Often, the rest of the matches took the form of a determined underdog trying desperately to stem the tide, but ultimately failing.

However, there is good news for the next two weeks: the quarter-finals are going to be very exciting. France and Portugal will not be a particularly intense clash in this tournament, but there will be tension between two teams with championship ambitions.

Switzerland will provide their first real test against an out-of-form England side; a match that will test whether a skilled, well-coached side can triumph over a team with plenty of individual talent.

Spain is the best team so far in the tournament, and their opponents Germany have home advantage and the intentions of their city rivals.

However, just as Turkey’s match with Austria was the most interesting game in the previous round, its match with the Netherlands may well be the most exciting game in this round.

The Netherlands are traditionally favourites to win even without all of their first-choice midfielders, while Turkey is dynamic, driven and ferocious, with two of the best players in the tournament in Arda Güler and Fedi Kadioglu.

So far, the euro has been flashing sparks. Now should be their moment to shine.

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