By Charles Boehm - WASHINGTON, DC (July 5, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Spain’s triumphant defense of their European Championship trophy would seem to offer telling vindication of US Soccer’s recent rejiggering of their long-term player development strategies. Besides the comforting fact that the USA, shock 2-0 winners over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup, remain the only opponents since 2006 to defeat the world champs in the knockout phase of a major tournament, the Iberian nation has more or less been the Federation’s prototype.
Jurgen Klinsmann and his colleagues on the technical staff routinely cite the FC Barcelona system as their primary technical and tactical inspiration, the same Barcelona that groomed so many influential members of this Spanish side to carry forth the gospel of “tiki taka” at international level.
In keeping with the coaching curriculum laid out by youth technical director Claudio Reyna last year, millions of children – both male and female – in leading clubs and associations across the US are being raised with the 4-3-3 formation as their default setting, inculcated with an increasingly sophisticated set of tactical concepts and a reverence for possession and attacking play.
Collectively, US Soccer leaves little doubt that they dream of someday fielding a national team capable of beating all comers with something approaching Spain’s skill, speed (of thought as much as foot) and suffocating control of the ball. That day may remain a vision of the distant future, but it’s the goal nonetheless.
There are surely some lessons the States can take from La Furia Roja’s sustained success, starting with a sobering reality check: We are indeed in the early stages of a long, difficult path with few shortcuts.
Spain spent decades wandering the desert despite a conveyor belt of top talent, a deeply-rooted soccer culture and a high-quality professional league. Three major titles in six years is a belated harvest from that fertile environment and our own domestic soil will not produce quite so reliably for some time. Our system remains a long way from churning out fluid, instinctive players like Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez with any semblance of regularity. Doing so will require continued evolution on the part of Major League Soccer and grassroots stakeholders like youth clubs, not just the Federation’s own programming.
Looking further, though, the aforementioned relationship between Barcelona and Spain bears some examination. Our country’s foremost authorities have decided that the Catalan club’s style is worth copying, and justifiably so, given the routine beauty of their play and the many championships they’ve earned. Yet their bitter rivals Real Madrid are reflected to nearly the same extent in the National Team, where former Madrid manager Vicente del Bosque included eight FCB stars and five RMFC luminaries on the Euro 2012 roster (though their two most prominent injury absentees are David Villa and Carles Puyol, both Barcelonistas and likely national team starters).
Reigning Spanish champions and perennial UEFA Champions League contenders, Madrid boast phenomenal talent across the board and are capable of breathtaking play in their own right. Yet there’s an important ideological distinction between them and Barcelona. The purist Catalans base their identity on the manner of their play nearly as much as its success, while the club from the capital can be said to treasure winning, and winning big, above all.
It’s a generalization, to be sure. Still, del Bosque seems to have decided that his team needed that Barcelona stardust to be undergirded by some steel and savvy from Madrid. Giving the snazzy aesthetics a bit of practical grounding has reduced Spain’s vulnerability to the bunker-and-counter approach. After all, that was Barcelona’s Achilles heel in high-profile losses to the likes of Inter Milan and Chelsea.
I’d contend that this pragmatism is reflected in the much-debated “boring” tag lately applied to Spain. They have grown comfortable grinding out 1-0 results when confronted with packed defenses, confident that their superior mental and technical talent will win out in chess matches as well as track meets.
The “new and improved” US National Team is going to have to be every bit as flexible and sensible as it pursues its vision of the future. To use the examples of the past month, the Yanks must learn how to match wits with Brazil without forgetting how to mud-wrestle in Guatemala, because international soccer is no place to pursue ideological purity for its own sake.
Spain rolled through most of Euro 2012 with six midfielders and no out-and-out strikers on the field in order to nullify their opponents’ strengths and maximize their own, not for the pursuit of lofty ethical goals. The USA’s own breakthrough will require a similarly honest assessment of the resources and attributes on hand, even as we labor to improve them for the days ahead.
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