Sometimes it’s the coach’s fault.

The standards were rigorous, the data analysis was advanced, the evaluation criteria were sophisticated, the hiring methods were cutting edge.Most importantly, when the U.S. Soccer Association began its global search last year for a new men’s national team coach, it came equipped with the one thing any successful soccer team needs: a multifaceted evaluation mechanism.

But that’s not all. There was plenty more corporate jargon: Matt Crocker, technical director of the United States Soccer Association, concluded that coaching a soccer team requires 22 elements, including facilitating “out-of-camp engagement with players” and supporting “team audits,” as well as eight “core competencies.”

This list also It was thorough.Candidates for the head coaching position had to be creative developers and passionate innovators as well as have a “vision-driven identity.” This may sound like a job posting for an optician, but it’s important to emphasize that the two are not one and the same.

When Crocker replaced Gregg Berhalter as head coach and the search was complete, he and his staff must have felt they had checked all the boxes and ticked all the boxes, but unfortunately, in hindsight, the U.S. men’s national team head coach needed a ninth core skill. Don’t lose to Panama.

It’s been such a week for U.S. Soccer. Just days after a heartbreaking loss to Panama, Berhalter’s team lost to Uruguay on Monday, crashing out of the group stage of the Copa America on home soil — an especially bitter humiliation considering the country will be hosting the World Cup in two years.

The reaction is, well, predictable. Players are regretful, sad and a little self-loathing. Fans are furious. The U.S. Soccer Federation’s promise of another overhaul has done little to quell the growing discontent. For most fans, the only viable outcome is clear:

“The time has come for a change in head coaching position,” the American Outlaws, “the largest supporters group in U.S. Soccer,” said in a statement this week. (Good thing they phrased that part in U.S. Soccer’s native corporate slang.)

It’s not an outlandish request, it has to be said: Berhalter had a mediocre performance in his first World Cup, leading a young USA team through a relatively tough group before losing to the Netherlands in the round of 16. But what was essentially his second time in the job has been disappointing, to say the least.

His team won the Nations League earlier this year, but only after losing in the semi-finals of the 2023 Gold Cup (again to Panama, who are proving to be formidable opponents) and being soundly thrashed by Colombia in a friendly. Their disappointing showing in the Copa America made a lot of sense, but it wasn’t much of a surprise.

Berhalter also doesn’t have the excuse of having a young team, as he will in 2022. All of the U.S.’s main players are in their mid-20s and approaching their primes.

While some argue that the cost of soccer in America is prohibitive for many families, limiting the country’s talent pool, that doesn’t apply here.

Just three players from Berhalter’s Copa America squad play in Major League Soccer: six from the Premier League and four from Italy’s Serie A, with others playing in Spain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The U.S. may not have as much truly world-class talent as it likes to think it does, but that needn’t hold it back. Venezuela and Panama have both reached the Copa Cup quarterfinals. Slovakia, Slovenia, Georgia and Austria have all reached the last 16 at Euro 2024. Switzerland has made it to the quarterfinals. Their roster is not significantly deeper or better than the U.S.’s.

The fact that they performed so much better unfortunately casts a harsh light on the manager. It has to be said that Berhalter didn’t make the most of what he had. And ultimately, that’s the job of an international manager.

It’s tempting to scoff at USS’s embrace of the tortured rhetoric of management consultants, dismiss its notion that the complexities of elite sports best resemble the world of Wall Street or Silicon Valley, or sneer at the LinkedIn vibe that surrounds it, but Crocker is smart, skillful and well-regarded.

His work at Southampton and the English Football Association (a place that has a history of favouring “thorough” overhauls) was impressive, and he knows all too well that impulsive decisions rarely lead to happy outcomes – it’s possible that the saying “react hastily, regret slowly” has been etched into his mind.

But I can’t help but wonder if, at some point, everyone in U.S. Soccer lost sight of what a national team coach actually does — not just the organization with its PowerPoint presentations, character profiles and “abstract reasoning tests,” but also the staff, players and fans.

Berhalter has often said his job as coach is to “change the way the world looks at soccer in America,” and that message has clearly been drilled into the minds of his players.

“Honestly, we want to change the way the world looks at American soccer. That’s one of our goals,” Christian Pulisic said a few years ago.

“Four years ago we set out on a mission to change the way the world viewed soccer in the United States,” teammate Weston McKennie said last year, “and now our motto is: Change soccer in America forever.”

A statement issued by the American Outlaws echoed that sentiment. “Every game isn’t just about the result,” the statement read. “It’s an opportunity to capture America’s attention and create lasting bonds between new fans and our team. It’s an opportunity to invite new fans to watch the games and to invite longtime fans to share their team with others.”

It’s a fanciful but laudable idea. Soccer is already ingrained in the American sports landscape. Millions of people play soccer, and millions watch it. There’s a strong, resilient, and well-attended league in the country. American players are spread across Europe. The women’s team has long been the best in the world.

Soccer has been on America’s radar for a while now. Sure, the rest of the world may not have paid as much attention, but that’s not unusual. Outside of the Premier League, no domestic tournaments capture the attention of foreign audiences. Italian fans aren’t avidly tuning in to the latest updates from the German Bundesliga. Soccer is characteristically regional, and that’s a good thing.

But more directly, this belief that the U.S. is playing for hearts and minds rather than to win games puts undue pressure on players, it creates an unnecessary sense of urgency and a willingness to panic among fans, and, crucially, it clearly distorts the thinking of those involved in the sport.

In Crocker’s hiring process, the process that led to Berhalter’s reinstatement, he dismissed the “next game, next result” focus as the narrow-mindedness characteristic of a “legacy coach.” Driven by an insatiable desire to grow the game, U.S. Soccer decided it needed the exact opposite — someone who could see the bigger picture, a fourth-level, galactic-level mind.

And that’s all well and good until a loss to Panama would mean domestic elimination, with the fear of impending humiliation – and of missing their best chance – looming just over the horizon.

The job of the U.S. Soccer Federation is to have a vision-driven identity that thinks about tomorrow, that thinks about what the game is going to be. It’s the coach’s job to lead McKennie, Pulisic, Gio Reyna and all the rest of them into a team that can win some games in 2026 and hopefully get to the quarterfinals. There aren’t eight core competencies you need to be a national team coach. There’s one, and it’s really clear.

Euro 2024 hasn’t been a tournament of great matches up to this point. Of course, there have been some. There are always great matches. Mert Gunok’s incredible save saved Turkey’s victory over Austria. Georgia recorded a thrilling win over Portugal. Hungary recorded an ultimately meaningless victory over Scotland. Ruben Vargas’s deft curling shot sent Switzerland into the quarterfinals. Jude Bellingham’s acrobatic strike saved England from embarrassment.

And it’s full of rich and diverse colors. Dancing Dutch fansThe hordes of black-clad ultras, the passion and the pre-match pageants by Turkish, Albanian, Georgian and Romanian fans (not necessarily from their countries of origin) are all good material.

But the tournament as a whole has felt like it’s struggled a bit to gain momentum. This may be a structural issue. The group stage was necessarily slow-paced, and with 24 teams to start but only eight eliminated, the drama tended to be concentrated in the final round matches.

The effects rippled through the round of 16, with so many clearly favored matches like Switzerland vs Italy and Austria vs Turkey, while the rest of the matches were essentially about underdog teams in high spirits desperately trying to stem the tide, but ultimately failing.

But there is good news for the next two weeks: a fascinating quarter-final line-up. The match between France and Portugal is not expected to be particularly competitive given the tournament, but it will be a tense encounter between two teams with realistic ambitions of winning the tournament.

Switzerland will be the first real test for a struggling England side, an experiment in whether a clever, well-drilled team can prevail against one packed with individual talent.

Spain have been the most impressive team in the tournament so far, with opponents Germany having home advantage and a rallying point.

But just as Turkey’s match against Austria was the most intriguing in the last round, the match against the Netherlands could be the most intriguing in this one.

Traditionally, the Netherlands would be favourites to win even without their entire first-choice midfield, but Turkey are full of energy, drive and fuss and feature two of the tournament’s best players in Arda Güler and Ferdi Kadioglu.

So far the euro has only been a flicker and a spark. Now should be its time to shine.


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