By Charles Boehm - WASHINGTON, DC (June 28, 2012) US Soccer Players -- The steady growth of the United States National Team’s popularity has given rise to levels of media coverage and mainstream relevance that players from past generations could only dream of. Part and parcel of that visibility is an increased amount of punditry. Some are useful and incisive, others less so, focused on progressively finer points of tactics, performance and decision-making. It’s what you might call the ESPN-ization (“Pardon The Interruption”-ism?) of the National Team.
The shape and effectiveness of the team’s attack has been a regular topic in this vein. Who should Jurgen Klinsmann pick? Which formation works? And, maybe most intriguingly, how many strikers should even be on the field?
USSoccerPlayers.com recently chatted with former USA striker Josh Wolff. He shared some unique perspectives formed over his decade in the program, the time he spent in Klinsmann’s homeland, and his own cultured take as a manager in the making.
A prolific hitman over a long club career spent in MLS and Germany, he played a role in several of the most iconic goals in US history. This season, Wolff has begun to transition into the next phase of his career as a player/coach with DC United.
“It’s a process,” Wolff said of the tactical changes being pursued under the charismatic German’s direction. “Obviously you have new leadership in there, with new ideas. So it’s always going to take time for that to manifest on the field. At times it’s been OK, at times it hasn’t been great. I think we’re still trying to identify who our strikers are. I think we’ve looked a little more cohesive and dangerous in a 4-4-2, for my liking, but they’re trying to build something and we don’t get to see day-to-day what it looks like.”
Wolff made 52 appearances and traveled to two World Cups with the National Team, spending most of that time as a mobile striker in the 4-4-2 system usually utilized by former coach Bruce Arena. He agrees with the idea that most American players, especially frontrunners, traditionally have that formation deeply imprinted in their understanding of the game, which he believes reflects more general shortcomings.
“I think for our soccer, and our society, tactics kind of isn’t ingrained in an early enough age, so we are hitting it a little bit later,” he said. “Whereas, around the world, they’re introduced to it a little bit earlier. So there’s understanding and players are groomed by position, so that they get a feel for what their role is and what the game’s going to look like, over and over and over, from their position.
“We haven’t been introduced to a 4-3-3 properly,” he added. “You see some teams doing it in our league now, or some version of it, and some are a little bit further along. I think Kansas City does a good job with the system that they have, whether it’s a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, whatever. They’re very coordinated and they understand each other. It’s a club team, so you have the time to really rehearse it and get it right. With the National Team, you’ve got guys coming and going. It’s a new system, per se, for our country, and its normalcy from club to club.”
Wolff spent two years with 1860 Munich in the 2.Bundesliga, where he got exposure to many of the ideas that probably inform Klinsmann’s approach.
“I did play in Germany, and we played a 4-2-3-1, and a lot of the teams there did play that, or some version of 4-3-3. You need coordination, you need it to be very understood within the group,” he explained. “You’ve got guys like (Michael) Bradley and certainly Jermaine Jones that can get a pulse of things in the middle. But you’ve got to have those front five guys on the same page, and if they’re not, it can look a little disjointed. I like Jozy (Altidore) up top, Jozy and somebody else – Jozy and Herculez (Gomez) would be good.
“But it gets tough when your high guy gets stranded, for sure. At times, that’s what it’s tended to look like. Certainly we’ve got enough guys, with Jozy, Clint Dempsey as well. Herc has been in great form. We’ve just got to find out how we want to play and stick to it. If we move around, it’s tough for guys to have that consistency individually, but then [also] as a group.”
Wolff repeatedly emphasized that those outside the current National Team setup have an inherently limited picture of the choices and information in front of Klinsmann and his staff. But he clearly keeps a keen eye on the team as a fan and budding coach as well as an alumnus, and adeptly summed up the balancing act that began with the outset of CONCACAF qualifying earlier this month and will continue for the foreseeable future: overhaul the approach, without sacrificing results.
“I think we all want more, as a country, from our soccer, and what we can achieve,” he said. “We want to be like the best in the world… the Englands, the Italys, the Germanys. But there’s some evolution to it. We’ve got to bridge that distance. We’re not going to get there by just changing formation or changing the coach, per se. So it’s a work in progress.
“As we hit more marks with our youth, and those guys filter into the system, then I think there’ll be a little more backbone to it. But for us to just change coaching system, it’s not quite there. But I don’t see us having too much difficulty getting through qualifying. It should still be attainable for us, and in that, maybe they can continue to work on what they’re trying to do.”
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