The chasm between the women’s and men’s teams in U.S. soccer

The summer of soccer is over.

As a soccer fan, it’s been the best of times. There is nothing in sports that compares to the World Cup in soccer, men or women.

This time, the U.S. women repeated as Cup winners, beating the Netherlands in the final, 2-0, and leaving no doubt that they are the best team in the world, with four Cup victories since the start in 1991, and establishing their own hegemony in world soccer.

On the same day, last Sunday, the U.S. men failed to capture the Gold Cup, the top prize in the regional North- and Central American tournament, losing to the archrival, Mexico, 0-1.

The gap between the American women’s and men’s teams widened even further and is now a chasm.

While the American women won every match in the tournament in France, convincingly beating Sweden, Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands -– all strong, well-organized, athletic European power houses, which are closing in on the U.S. lead and threatening its long-term superiority — the American men barely made it to the final in spite of far inferior opponents: Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, Curacao, and Jamaica. The Americans won every match, but hardly convincingly, and in the final, Mexico was the better team. The U.S. never really threatened except for a couple of times in the beginning of the match, when, particularly Jozy Altidore, should have scored. After that, they never really caused any serious problems for the Mexicans.

How come this gap? How come this chasm?

Maybe it is simply so that this women’s team consists of superior athletes with a lot of talent, in contrast to the men, with some outstanding exceptions, primarily Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie. But it’s more than that, it’s determination and an incredible will to win. And the women are a team, as one of the team members described it for the New York Times: “The identity of this team is badass women, who fight to the death, who have each other’s back no matter what. The type of person this team attracts is resilient, gritty.”

This is, exactly, what the U.S. men’s team lack. It’s a team reeling after the debacle of losing to Trinidad and Tobago and, thus, not qualifying for the men’s World Cup last year, a team in generational transition, trying to find its way out of the darkness, and finding its own identity. I don’t know if they will succeed and if the new coach Gregg Berhalter is the man to guide them through these difficult times. He is trying and I hope he succeeds, but, so far, his cautious approach, his defensive formations, his unwillingness to throw everything he’s got at the opponent, do not bode well for the future.

Where the women showed speed and creativity and the importance of taking advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves during the match, the men plodded, slowed down, not, apparently, daring, not taking care of the opportunities. And, so, they lost in another lackluster performance and their days of glory are still far off.

Will those days ever come for the U.S. men? They should, with all the soccer now played all over the United States and with the stadiums full of fans. But it might take many more years. In the meantime, let’s rejoice with the U.S. women — the best women’s soccer team in the world – ever.

More on soccer: Maybe this is how good, or bad, we are?

Tomorrow, Tuesday, June 11, my two “home” teams, the United States and Sweden, will enter the battle for the championship in the women’s soccer World Cup in France. My hope is that not only will they both advance out of Group F but that they will later meet in the finals, for the American women’s fourth World Cup title, or for Sweden’s first, after two third place finishes.

But, meanwhile, let me, with your indulgence, of course, add some thoughts to my previous blog post, where I expressed the view that the future of U.S. men’s soccer, after a dreadful loss by the U.S. men’s team against Jamaica, 0-1, was to be found among the young Americans playing in the U-20 World Cup in Poland.

I stand by that statement, although the U.S. U-20 team then lost to Ecuador in the quarterfinals, 1-2, and is out of the tournament. The young Americans lost to a stronger team, but they could have won – it was close – and they continued to show courage and imagination, and continued to battle, until the end.

None of this was seen in the second dreadful performance by the U.S. men’s team as it was preparing for the Gold Cup, starting on June 18, losing to Venezuela, 0-3, after another listless, but also mistake-filled, performance.  Coach Gregg Berhalter had slightly changed the team’s formation against Venezuela, but, still, with only one striker at the top, a lonely Gyasi Zardes in the first half and a somewhat more involved Jozy Altidore in the second half. The team’s offense was toothless, and the team, as a whole had no speed and no energy.

A team is always a reflection of its coach – just look at Jürgen Klopp running up and down on the sidelines during the matches, and his Liverpool with its relentless energy, enthusiasm, and readiness to battle. Berhalter’s team has none of this. He says he has a plan, but what? Up to now, it seems more of the same, a tinkering with formations and the strategy of cautious and defensive soccer, where the two center backs strangely have most of the ball, passing it back and forth, back and forth before, maybe, advancing — boring; slow; unimaginative –no one dared.

Is that American soccer? Is that what we have been waiting for since the calamity of the Klinsmann/Arena era? America’s soccer fans do not have much patience for this waiting game. So without success in the coming Gold Cup, a victory, or, at a minimum, a loss in the finals after a tournament of fun, energetic, courageous, and imaginative soccer, Berhalter’s job might not be safe, although he has only had it for half a year.

Or, maybe, we simply have to realize, and settle for, that this is the state of U.S. men’s soccer today. This is how good, or bad, it is, and we can only put our hopes in the next generation and enjoy the U.S. women in their quest for another world title.

Soccer: The young Americans in Poland are showing the way

I love soccer, and I have for years closely followed the U.S. men’s national team, hoping, hoping, for that final breakthrough that would to put them among the elite teams of the world, like the U.S. women have been for years.

This week was one of stark contrasts. I saw the future of U.S. soccer when the U-20 team impressively beat highly favored France at the U-20 World Cup in Poland. Then I saw a U.S. national team preparing for the Gold Cup by losing to Jamaica in an utterly listless and boring match, promising nothing but more of the same for a team in deep crisis ever since it failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia last year.

Beating France 3 – 2 in the round of 16, the young Americans in Poland advanced to the quarterfinals where Ecuador, on Saturday, is the next opponent. The match was well-played and exciting, with the young Americans showing off skills and tactical savvy seldom seen even on the men’s national level. First leading, and then trailing 1-2, the U-20 team showed no sense of panic, or even nervousness, and roared back with a vengeance, scoring first the equalizer and then the go-ahead goal a few minutes before the end of the match.

The victory was well deserved. All the players, a mixture of U.S. and European based, can be proud of their performance. But some of them were more than good, they were excellent, in particular the center forward, Sebastian Soto, who scored two goals and has turned out to be a true poacher. Soto, who plays for Hannover in the German Bundesliga, made no mistakes when he twice, after excellent runs and equally excellent passes from Tim Weah of Paris Saint-Germain and Richard Ledezma of Dutch PSV Eindhoven, put the ball passed the French goalie.

The backline, in spite of a couple of mistakes, was also impressive, in particular center back Chris Richards, who plays with Bayern Munich, and the two fullbacks, Sergino Dest and Chris Gloster –- with Ajax in Holland and Hannover in Germany, respectively. And the midfield was solid, led by the captain, Paxton Pomykal, from FC Dallas.

There is depth and cohesion to this young American team and there is no reason it cannot go all the way, although competition will stiffen further as the tournament advances. They have been a joy to watch through the four matches so far. They attack, in a 4-3-3 formation; it’s a fun, exciting, with speed and creativity you wish the U.S. national team would copy, but, regretfully, lacked in its 0-1 defeat to Jamaica. The team’s defensive 3-4-2-1 formation, with one lone striker, generated little offense and just a couple of scoring chances. Jamaica’s win was never in jeopardy.

Yes, it was a friendly, and coach Gregg Berhalter was said to be experimenting, but a week before the start of the Gold Cup, time is running out. Much more is needed of what the young Americans in Poland are showing for the future success of U.S. soccer.