Friday, September 19, 2014
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American soccer's chemistry lesson

The annals of World Cup history are littered with tales of powerhouses whose dreams of glory were wrecked by chemistry problems on soccer's biggest stage. That has never been a problem for the United States men's national team.

American soccer's chemistry lesson

The annals of World Cup history are littered with tales of powerhouses whose dreams of glory were wrecked by chemistry problems on soccer's biggest stage.

That has never been a problem for the United States men's national team.

Granted, this country has never been a powerhouse. But one of its signature attributes going back well beyond Jurgen Klinsmann has been the strong bonds between its players on and off the field.

Indeed, it has been true under almost every coaching administration in the modern era: Bob Gansler in 1990, Bora Milutinovic in 1994, Bruce Arena in 2002 and 2006, Bob Bradley in 2010 and Klinsmann now.

The only exception was when John Harkes' affair with Eric Wynalda's wife led to Harkes' dismissal from the 1998 roster by Steve Sampson. And even then, the players who did go to France got along well, as they did in other World Cups.

(Or so it seemed from afar.)

How is this possible? And in particular, how is it possible as the U.S. team has become even more diverse over time, with players scattered in more and more places around the world?

The World Cup squad as ties to all manner of American states, plus Germany, Iceland, Norway, Colombia and Mexico. Its members ply their trades in leagues the U.S., England, Mexico, France, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and Turkey.

As it says on our currency: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

Heading into the World Cup, I talked to many past and present players U.S. national team players to get their insights on just why this is so. Just about every answer I got was a variation on the same theme: it's simply their nature to want to get along.

Yes, that sounds cheesy. And maybe it is. But when the Americans take the field against Ghana in Natal, they will need every advantage they can get.

Two decades ago, Philadelphia Union assistant coach Mike Sorber played for a U.S. team that faced even bigger odds than the current version. The American team that played on home soil at the 1994 World Cup was full of players who could only dream of the opportunities at home and abroad that the current generation enjoyed.

It had plenty of professional players, of course, and a fair few who were well-situated. Five players were based in Germany, five in Italy, and three - including Sorber - in Mexico. But none had the status of Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore or Jermaine Jones.

Just as importantly, there was no top-flight professional league in this country at the time. Three players on the 1994 U.S. team - goalkeeper Tony Meola, defender Fernando Clavijo and midfielder Hugo Perez - were officially registered to American indoor teams.

And that was all an improvement on the 1990 team. The squad got the U.S. to its first World Cup in 40 years was built mainly with American college players. Just four of the 22 men on the roster played for European clubs.

So from the very start of American soccer's modern era, team spirit and cohesion have been key to any chance of success the team has created for itself.

“We want to be the best [and] we have a hard work ethic already built into our culture,” Sorber said. “When we step on the field, we know that soccer-wise we might be a little behind, but collectively, if we work together and fight for each other, that is our strength, and that way we can survive. Little by little, we keep trying to make the soccer better, but that is a process that is going to take time.”

Chris Albright, the Union's interim technical director, was part of the U.S. team at the 2006 World Cup. Though he never played in the tournament, he also saw firsthand the importance of strong chemistry. And that U.S. team very much needed it. After a historic run to the quarterfinals in 2002, four years later the Americans managed just one point from three group games.

Some of the players on that U.S. team - especially midfielders Claudio Reyna and Landon Donovan - were cast throughout their careers as potential saviors of American soccer. To this day, they remain among the greatest players this country has ever produced. But they never carried themselves with the inflated egos that such hype can create in an athlete's mind.

“We don't really have any global stars or global icons,” Albright said. “When you go into the Dutch locker room and you look at a Robin van Persie or Arjen Robben, or you go to Italy or England, along with those big salaries and all that notoriety comes a different level of popularity. That notoriety breeds resentment from teammates too, and that's something we haven't had to experience yet.”

Indeed, only recently has professional soccer become as lucrative for Americans as the rest of the world - not to mention other American sports. Yet even the best-paid U.S. national team stars, such as Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, pride themselves on being good teammates.

“It will be interesting to see if that holds true 20 years from now,” Albright said, “when hopefully everybody is being paid commensurate with all of the other big stars around the world, if we're able to keep that infighting out of it and identifying with that underdog role.”

In the present, few players have benefited more from the national team's collective ethos than Jozy Altidore. His debut season at Sunderland was by a disaster by almost every measure. But throughout the winter, the Americans' top striker used his time with the national team as as a release from the pressure heaped upon his struggles.

When the U.S. World Cup squad gathered in California last month, Altidore was swamped with questions about a scoring drought that stretched back to December 4, 2013. After failing to score in the first tuneup game against Azerbaijan, those questions tailed Altidore into the national team's big media day in New York.

Altidore's confidence in himself and his abilities never wavered, though. Nor did the backing that coach Jurgen Klinsmann and all of Altidore's teammates consistently gave him.

Being in an environment where he felt comfortable and familiar clearly helped Altidore, and he knew it. Indeed, Altidore said he wasn't the only member of the squad who felt that way.

“I think a lot of guys, when they come to the national team, and this group, play better than they do with their clubs,” Altidore said. “When I play with the national team, I'm with a bunch of guys that I've played with for five or six years. I know them very well and they know me very well, and we seem to feed off of that.”

Though he's only 24 years old, Altidore is already one of the U.S.' veterans. His first senior national team appearance came back in 2007, and by the 2010 World Cup he was already the squad's top pure striker. In 2014, he is a leader both on and off the field.

Few of Altidore's temmates know that better than Aron Jóhannsson. The Icelandic-American forward picked the latter country over the former in part because of Altidore's influence.

“Jozy has helped me a lot,” Jóhannsson said. “He told me good things about the [U.S. Soccer] Federation and about the team, and he was just one of many that talked really well about the team.”

Their relationship dates back to January of last year, when Jóhannsson joined Altidore at Dutch club AZ Alkmaar. At the time, Altidore was AZ's top striker. In the 2012-13 season, he scored 31 goals in 41 appearances. Then he left for Sunderland, and Jóhannsson took the mantle.

While Altidore struggled in England, Jóhannsson took off in the Netherlands. He scored 26 goals in 51 appearances during the 2013-14 season. American observers started wondering if Jóhannsson could succeed Altidore for country as well as club.

Jóhannsson never gave any such impression. Sure, he's competitive - you have to be to succeed at international level and especially under a coach as demanding as Klinsmann. But the friendship between Altidore and Jóhannsson is strong enough that the U.S. depth chart doesn't affect it.

That bond showed its worth when Jóhannsson first joined the national team for its game at Bosnia last August. Here was a newcomer who hadn't lived in the U.S. since he was three years old. Even if - as he showed on ESPN's recent TV series - he can still break out an Alabama twang, Jóhannsson still had to fit in the group.

He did so seamlessly.

“I was there two or three days and already felt like I was part of the group,” he said. “It's hard to describe it, but everybody is so welcome and opening... There's no issues in the locker room, there's no problems whatsoever. Everybody is trying to help each other.”

Mix Diskerud is another member of the dual-national caucus who enjoyed an easy welcome to the national team. Like Jóhannsson, he was also “recruited” to the American squad after growing up abroad - and Diskerud wasn't even born in the United States. He was born in Oslo. That made his decision to pick the U.S. over Norway even more difficult.

Indeed, back in 2009, Diskerud publicly said he didn't care which national team he played for. Not long after that, though, the U.S. Soccer Federation convinced him to pick their side. Bob Bradley gave him his first cap in a 2010 friendly against South Africa.

Diskerud has become something of a cult hero among American fans over the last few years. He's a wonderfully creative midfielder, a dynamic personality on social media and a great talker. So it was no surprise that when I asked him to explain what makes the U.S. team tick, he had plenty to say.

"I think it's the American mentality," he asserted. "I've been with the Norwegian team when I was younger, the under-19 team and under-18 team, and it's a little bit different. Here, every time you meet an opponent you think you can win. It doesn't matter who it is, if it's Brazil or Russia or Serbia or Bosnia."

As Diskerud continued, he couldn't help cracking his trademark smile.

"That's what I love about soccer, because it comes down to how you feel that day and the mentality of all the players," he said. "If you have 11 players who think you can win, and you have a nation behind you, anything is possible."

No one in the U.S. squad has more World Cup experience than defender DaMarcus Beasley. This will be his fourth World Cup. Though he isn't the oldest player on the team - indeed, he's behind five other players - he brings an unrivaled wisdom to the American locker room.

“I think guys look up to me a little bit because I've been around for so long,” he said - but he was quick to add that “everybody can be a leader in his own ways.”

The Fort Wayne, Ind., native has seen dozens of players come and go from the national team in his career. So he knows better and most what it takes to make a squad unite.

“We make anybody feel welcome when they come to the team - they 100 percent know as soon as they walk through the door what it's like and what it takes to be a U.S. national team player,” he said. “For me, if they're good players, they have American backgrounds, or what have you, bring 'em... If they want to be a part of the American team, if they buy into what we're trying to do with our team, of course I'm all for it.”

Beasley knows that his experience is balanced by the youthful exuberance of some of his teammates. And whether young or old, the overwhelming majority of the American squad has never played in a World Cup before.

“For me, it's not about how many World Cups you've been to,” he said. “The guys that haven't played in a World Cup, they have no fear factor, because they don't know what to expect... I think that does well in our favor, because they're going to go out there like I did in '02 and just go out there and play.”

That 2002 World Cup, when Beasley's electric wing play helped the U.S. to the quarterfinals, is a huge part of his legacy.

“It didn't matter if I was playing against [Luis] Figo, it didn't matter if I was playing against. Rui Costa,” Beasley said of the Portuguese legends who the U.S. stunned to open the tournament. “I just went out there and played my game, and like Landon [Donovan], just tried to go out there and played the game that brought me to the national team.”

Now Beasley wants to see players like Diskerud, Jóhannsson and Altidore make history of their own.

“Enjoy it, because you never know when you'll get another World Cup, and you'll always enjoy this moment for your whole life,” Beasley said. “I'm excited to see some of the youth movement and some of the guys that haven't been to the World Cup, and see how they perform, because I know if they'll do the business down in Brazil, we'll get good results.”

The time has come to find out whether the business gets done. As confident as Beasley is in his team, he knows that there's only one acceptable outcome against Ghana.

“We can't lose - there's no ifs, ands or buts about it,” he said. “We need to get at least one point. Obviously, we're going for three. That's the American mentality, and it has always been that way: we play to win, we don't play to draw.”

So the stage is set. The stakes are perhaps the highest they've ever been. Soccer has never been more popular in America, and now the Americans take to soccer's biggest stage by playing the team that has knocked them out of the last two World Cups.

Chemistry alone won't beat Ghana, or Portugal, or Germany. Individual skill and talent matter just as much. And on those counts, the U.S. faces long odds.

But if, as Beasley said, “camaraderie off the field can help on the field,” then it's clear that his team will benefit.

We'll soon find out just how much.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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