There’s something comforting about knowing what to expect from your team when you sit down to watch a game. You know that they won’t have as much talent if they are up against a top flight opponent. You know that they will work hard defensively and be positionally disciplined. As always the team will be lacking any true imagination or brilliance, but that’s ok. Hopefully there will be one or two moments of above average skill, and those will be enough to create the winning goal. It’s not a gourmet meal, it’s comfort food, like chicken pot-pie, or mac and cheese. Does the story seem familiar? It should, but today I’m not talking about watching Everton play (although I easily could be). Today I’m talking about the U.S. Men’s National Team. That fact is, the USMNT has a lot more in common with Everton than just Tim Howard and Landon Donovan. Don’t believe me? Well, take the jump and be persuaded.
Before I highlight the similarities let me stipulate some differences. While the two teams may have ended up at the same place, Everton and the USMNT come from very different pasts. The historical gulf between the two teams cannot be compared. On the one hand the U.S. has never accomplished anything on the international stage. Their best results outside of North America are a Confederations Cup final and a quarterfinal at the World Cup in 2002. At best they are relative newcomers with a long way to go to fulfill their potential, and at worst they are completely irrelevant. Everton on the other hand have a deep and rich history to draw on. We all know the numbers, but I’ll repeat them anyway just for funsies. They’ve won the league 9 times and come in second 7 more. They have 5 FA Cup wins, and they’ve lost in the final a further 8 times. And, of course, let’s not forget the 1985 European Cup victory. But, all of that is ancient history, with no trophies in over 15 years and only 1 in the last 25.
Hopefully Everton is not in the midst of a long term freefall, and hopefully (for me anyway) the U.S. is working its way through a long slow slog to the top. But regardless, the two teams find themselves in a similar place. Neither team bothers the elites of the sport. But, either one can on their day out in a defensive shift, nip a goal against the run of play and walk away with a victory. Everton did it against Man City, and on Wednesday the U.S. did it against Italy. Those victories aren’t dramatic announcements of a new power arriving. Rather, they are simply reminders that soccer is a hard game to win, and that sometimes a superior team will lose to a committed organized gritty side. And likewise both teams show the disturbing tendency to play down to their level of competition. Defensive grit doesn’t break-down a supremely untalented Wigan side, in Everton’s case, or score goals against Costa Rica.
The fact is, both squads have access to limited talent. For Everton the reasons are obvious, and financial and don’t need to be further rehashed. For the USMNT it’s a more difficult question to answer. Large wealthy countries do not usually have trouble finding talent. But, combine the lack of soccer tradition with lots of other professional sports drawing away the best athletes and the USMNT is clearly picking at the scraps of the talent pile…at least for now. That leaves coach Jurgen Klinsmann in the same situation as David Moyes, scrapping the most talented scraps from all around the world. In much the same way Moyes has brought in little known guys like Stracq from Argentina or Vellios from little known Greek team Iraklis, Klinsmann scoured the Bundesliga for players Like Danny Williams, Fabian Johnson and Timothy Chandler for German born players with U.S. eligibility.
For years the linchpin of Everton’s team was Tim Cahill. His ability to both get forward and put the ball in the net as well as drop deep and be a pest in midfield defensively let Moyes have the best of both worlds. Dempsey now plays that role for the US. (with the added benefit that depending on personnel Dempsey can also push out to the wing). He’s the main goal scorer for the Yanks, and their most important player. Between him, and Donovan they have a more potent attack than Everton with an aging Cahill, and gaping Donovan sized hole on the right. On the flip side though, Everton’s back line is much sturdier than the U.S. If you’ve ever wondered why Tim Howard is so sharp in goal, you can probably thank a USMNT side that makes a habit of losing runners, not closing out aggressively enough, and in general just being half a step slower than they need to be. And while right back Steve Cherundolo is a willing and able runner on the flank, he has neither the speed nor attacking bite of Leighton Baines.
In other words if you ever wished Everton had slightly more potency going forward, and a lot more instability at the back, well the U.S. Men’s National Team is probably for you. Also, if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like for Everton to change, then you might want to start tuning in. Klinsmann has pledged to change the culture for the men in Red, White and Blue. He wants to move away from utility over style. He wants more playing the ball out of the back, and short passing in the midfield. Will it work? It’s impossible to know, but watching the experiment is sure to be instructive for Everton fans. So, if you can bear it I highly suggest taking a gander at the Stars and Stripes, it may be painful, but it’s sure to be constructive.
*Updated Thursday morning, because I apparently stink at copying and pasting and the first paragraph after the jump was missing.