Category Archives: US Soccer

Promotion and Relegation in the United States

The past month has been very exciting for US Soccer. It’s been quite a successful month for MLS, with announcements of future expansion and the acquisition of USMNT standout Clint Dempsey by the Seattle Sounders, one of the league’s most successful franchises. The American game has also seen the return of an historic team, as the New York Cosmos of the NASL took the field for the first time in almost 30 years. The sport has taken big steps forward, but there has also been a backlash against the structure and rules of MLS and calls for an overhaul of the US Soccer pyramid from fans, journalists, activists, and the NASL commissioner alike. Soccer fans in this country are energized by the progress the game has made but divided over how it should move forward.

Let’s start on July 23rd, when I came across a post by Chris Jones of Has Been Sports. Jones listed all the teams in the top three divisions of the US Soccer pyramid as if there were promotion and relegation between each division (MLS, NASL, USL Pro). His post inspired me to take a closer look at how pro/rel could work in this country. But as I started to lay out how I thought it could be implemented, the story kept changing.

On the night of the MLS All-Star Game, a week after Jones took a hypothetical look at pro/rel in the US, MLS commissioner Don Garber announced that the league will expand to 24 teams by 2020. The announcement sparked an unprecedented call for promotion and relegation from soccer fans in America, many of whom have been calling for pro/rel for some time, especially with the resurgence of the NASL as a potentially viable second division.

Other reasons for fan backlash include FIFA guidelines, stating that a first division should not exceed 20 teams to protect players from playing too many games. Even assuming that somehow does not apply to MLS, further expansion beyond 24 teams does run the risk of diluting the product. This happened in the United States with the NBA and NHL, leagues which were and are the pinnacle of their respective sports, which MLS is not, and sports that draw from a global talent pool as soccer does.

So far MLS has not responded to the calls for pro/rel, instead touting the incredible growth that both the league and the sport of soccer have seen in the US in the past decade. We’ve already known for a few months about NYCFC, the joint partnership between Manchester City and the New York Yankees which in 2015 will become the 20th MLS team. Now MLS wants 4 more by 2020. These new MLS franchises could be existing clubs that currently reside in the lower tiers, but that is by no means a guarantee. There is a lot of buzz in Miami surrounding a potential expansion franchise part-owned by David Beckham, which would be a completely new team. If Miami is one of the four as many suspect, it would make sense to bring in Orlando as well, creating a Florida rivalry. For the final two teams, MLS could look to other cities like Atlanta, St. Louis, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Detroit, markets which are already home to lower division clubs. But will MLS bring those existing clubs up to the top flight or create completely new ones?

Meanwhile, the NASL reached a major milestone with the New York Cosmos returning to the field on August 3rd. But another huge move by MLS overshadowed the return of the Cosmos. Clint Dempsey signed with the Seattle Sounders, returning to MLS after seven seasons in the English Premier League. The details surrounding his move, such as his large contract compared to the league average, and the fact that MLS paid his transfer fee rather than the Sounders, caused fans to voice more concerns about the MLS single entity structure and the lack of clarity over the rules.

Throughout all this, the NASL has done its best to make news. As noted, the Cosmos have started playing at Hofstra University, but the current second tier also moved forward with expansion plans of its own, recently announcing the addition of franchises in Oklahoma City and Jacksonville for the 2015 season. By then, there will already be a USL Pro club in Oklahoma City, as a yet-to-be-named team will begin play in 2014. Sacramento Republic FC will join the USL Pro division for the upcoming season as well.

NASL commissioner Bill Peterson has also lent his voice to the growing discussion. Last Tuesday, he revealed his vision for US Soccer in an interview with Empire of Soccer’s Dave Martinez. That vision includes promotion and relegation as a byproduct of a successful MLS. Peterson believes that the fans want something different than what MLS has given them, which echoes the sentiments voiced by those in favor of pro/rel or unhappy with the lack of transparency within MLS.

Now, it’s certainly no surprise that the commissioner of the current second division would want pro/rel. But let’s go back to Chris Jones for a second. According to his Twitter profile (@CJonesHBS), Jones is one of the founding members of Nashville FC, a club which is “100% supporter owned and non-profit.” Nashville FC’s stated goal is “to compete in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) within the first three years of [their] existence.” The NPSL it is currently the fourth tier of the pyramid, roughly equal to the USL Premier Development League (PDL) in the eyes of US Soccer and a long way from MLS at the moment.

Implementing pro/rel in some form in the United States would give clubs like Nashville FC – clubs that are created organically from the bottom up instead of being awarded by MLS – the ability to advance through the soccer pyramid with the goal of one day making it to the first division. It would allow the current NASL clubs to have that same chance, the chance to compete against the best. It would give every fan in America the opportunity to one day see their local team play against the top teams in the country. This is about more than just an ambitious commissioner of an new pro league, or the idealistic vision of a founding member of a club with no players. It’s about an opportunity that association football clubs and their fans have everywhere in the world – everywhere, that is, except the United States.

It is evident that US Soccer will soon reach a tipping point. MLS wants 24 teams by 2020. NASL is more hesitant to make declarations but could be targeting 18 by 2018. USL Pro is on 13 and counting. There will likely be 60 different teams in the top 3 tiers of the pyramid within the next 6 years. The US national team draws from the deepest talent pool in its history. Interest in soccer is greater than it’s ever been, as new TV deals give Americans unprecedented access to games from leagues all over the world. The popularity of the sport is exploding.

As all three of these separate leagues continue expanding, some sort of merger including promotion and relegation must at least be on the table for serious discussion. But many fans are not convinced, and arguments against pro/rel abound. Teams couldn’t survive the loss of fans or money if they were relegated from the first division. Travel costs are prohibitive for teams in the lower tiers. Americans don’t understand and/or won’t accept promotion and relegation in this country. These are all reasons given as to why the system wouldn’t work. But probably the biggest hurdling block to adopting pro/rel in this country is this: MLS owners would never agree to it due to the financial risk associated with possible relegation. This is a legitimate concern as these owners hold a lot of the decision making power.

One way this could be solved is by offering a buyout to every owner as the league switches from a single entity to individual organizations that own the rights to their players. If MLS owners truly fear losing value on their investment by being relegated, they can be bought out at the market price for their franchise, which will almost definitely be higher than their initial outlay. If the sport continues to become more popular and successful in America, other owners will be lining up to purchase teams that are already in the top flight. After all, a number of Americans have purchased teams in the English Premier League, where there is always the possibility of relegation. That hasn’t deterred them from making what is generally acknowledged as a savvy investment. MLS owners have invested a lot of money in their teams, but any owner wanting to start in the lower levels will have to invest a lot to make their team good enough to earn promotion to the top flight. Furthermore, even with pro/rel, the powers that be could still set standards for promotion, which would include financial backing, strategic vision, fan support, and stadium situation.

But the opposition goes beyond the owners who may not be 100% committed to the sport and the fans, or are worried about being overtaken after they were the first to invest. Many argue that pro/rel is suicide for the business model of MLS altogether. This is true in the sense that MLS as a single entity closed system is fundamentally incompatible with pro/rel. But as long as the second division is stable and successful, relegation would not be the death of any MLS franchise. This is where the growth of the NASL comes in. Implementing pro/rel before US Soccer is ready for it would be far more disastrous than not implementing it at all. But the NASL is on the right path, and more competition can only be a good thing. If the NASL can prove that a second tier league is sustainable, then relegation will not be the end of MLS teams, nor the end of the professional soccer business in America.

High costs for cross country travel can be subsidized with a portion of the league’s shared revenues. With an improved product on the field, the lower divisions could command decent television money that would help support the cost of traveling long distances for games. This might seem like a long shot at the moment, but remember that we are not talking about pro/rel just now, but closer to 2020. Sports television rights continue to increase in value, and 5 to 10 years from now, there could be legitimate interest in the second division in many large US markets.

So if those are the business oppositions to pro/rel, then what about fan concerns? We’ve heard that MLS teams will lose fan support if they go down. But far fewer point out that MLS teams should be well placed to go right back up, so true fans should be able to stick with their team even if it drops to the lower level for a year or two. Clubs in MLS have the advantage of being established at the top flight for some time and should have greater financial capability to attract quality players and market their product effectively to the local fanbase. On the flip side, many soccer fans who are not MLS fans complain that there is no team in a reasonable vicinity for them to support. With pro/rel these fans become MLS fans even if they don’t have a current top flight team in their area, just because their team has the chance to reach the top. This unifies US Soccer fans, as they’ll all be cheering for teams with the same chances in the pyramid. For every group of casual fans that a relegated team loses, many more passionate fans will be added when their local team is promoted, and MLS as a whole will gain fans.

Finally, there are those whole feel pro/rel is an alien concept that is incompatible with sports culture in the United States. Some can be heard saying things like this: “This isn’t Europe, so why should we adopt European rules? The Eurosnobs can go watch La Liga for all we care.” Besides being close-minded, this is based on a fundamentally incorrect premise. Promotion and relegation isn’t just some European rule that a small minority of “Eurosnobs” want to impose on America. This is the way it’s done in nearly every other professional league in the world. It’s what the large immigrant population in this country, which has yet to fully embrace MLS, views as the norm. It also raises the stakes higher, punishing teams who aren’t good enough to compete at the top level. There is no tanking for top draft picks when the worst teams get relegated. Promotion and relegation is based on values that Americans prize highly: survival on merit and equal opportunity for all. Far from being a European rule, the concept of pro/rel is as American as it gets.

So if those are the arguments against promotion and relegation, what about those in favor of it? Well for one, it would create a more authentic soccer culture in the country. Clubs can be built from the ground up, like Nashville FC is attempting to do. Academies will be important to the development of the club in many ways. With no draft, teams will have to develop homegrown players to succeed. They could also sign free agents or purchase players’ rights from another club, but the academy is the best way to produce cheaper players who have a strong association with the club. Local communities will have a stake in the academies and thus be more likely to support the club as it progresses up the pyramid.

These changes would greatly benefit US Soccer as a whole. Integrating all the leagues with a functioning ladder up and down the pyramid unifies everyone under the same goal. It means stronger lower leagues with a better system to loan out players. Without the single entity structure, independent clubs can invest more money in their squads, making them better able to compete in CONCACAF Champions League and hopefully soon the Copa Libertadores as well.

US Soccer will also gain more respect from the rest of the world by implementing the system that is the norm everywhere else. More top players will be willing to come to MLS if they have the freedom to choose their team, and their movement is not restricted by the league owning their contract. If a team gets big enough, the American league could eventually become an attractive destination for world class players in their prime. An owner could decide to pay a large transfer fee and high wages that would otherwise burden MLS if the league as a whole had to pay it.

Most leagues around the world have a cup competition which gives clubs in the lower divisions the chance to win a trophy competing against the best. It is the same in the United States, where the US Open Cup has 100 years of tradition. Fans of clubs in the second or third tier will still have a chance to see their team play the best every year in the US Open Cup. But with the change in system, lower division clubs could aspire to another thing, much more beneficial in the long term: promotion to the top flight.

This is part of the most basic and maybe most significant argument, which has been stated a few times already: with pro/rel all teams would have equal opportunities. This is important because there are enough markets in this country to support many more first division teams than any league could handle. Chris Jones listed 44 teams in his hypothetical three divisions, not accounting for any of the new expansion teams. At least 10 clubs will join the various levels of the pyramid in the next few years, bringing the total count of teams in the top three tiers above 50.  Mike Firpo of Soccer Newsday recently wrote a very interesting article about MLS expansion and how the league should focus on what he calls “rivalry bubbles” by expanding to different cities close to current franchises. Of course his ideas are purely hypothetical, but his complete map of rivalry bubbles includes a total of 60 teams. It’s not unreasonable to assume that most, if not all, of these teams would ideally like to compete in the top division if possible.

I think even the most ardent MLS expansionists would agree that 50-60 teams is far too many for the top division, so what happens to all the teams on the outside looking in? Is it fair for them to be permanently stuck in the lower divisions with no possibility of promotion? Should we as US Soccer fans accept only the teams MLS gives us as the top flight teams, and write off other clubs and cities as ones that simply didn’t make the cut?

I personally don’t think that’s fair, and I think there are many that would agree. The only way to give equal opportunities to all clubs in this country is to adopt pro/rel in some form. The question then becomes how, and when?

The plan

With MLS announcing 4 more teams by 2020, we now have a time frame we can work with for the implementation of pro/rel.  When MLS reaches 24 teams it will be the largest first division in the world. It does not make sense to go beyond that number for many reasons. After 2020 or 24 teams, whichever comes first, if the league wants to expand further it should do so by implementing promotion and relegation. Three nationwide divisions are already established, and they all continue to look towards expansion. There is no reason why, after a bit more development at the lower levels, these divisions cannot be unified with promotion and relegation between the three of them. NASL commissioner Peterson has indicated that his league will look to expand to 16 teams over the next few years and then reevaluate. With MLS now working towards 24 teams, it could soon be the perfect time for a merger.

Depending on the state of the NASL and USL Pro by 2020, MLS should look to have between 18-24 teams in each division, with 2-3 teams going up and down from each division every season. The NASL could keep its name and remain the second tier with pro/rel, but for the purposes of this article we will call it MLS-2. Assuming pro/rel does not cause the financial implosion of franchises as some claim it might, the new MLS could wait a few years and then integrate USL Pro as MLS-3. These divisions could even go up to 20-24 teams with future expansion when clubs are ready for it.

Ideally, MLS-1 would be organized as a 20 team single table, with all teams playing each other twice. Due to the size of this country, it may make sense to have a top division that’s a bit larger, but 24 should definitely be the limit. One divisive issue with MLS at the moment is the playoffs. Currently, 10 of 19 teams make the playoffs, which is definitely too many, and seriously devalues the regular season. With a 20-24 team top flight, no more than 8 teams should make the playoffs. I would prefer to see the top 6 teams qualifying for the playoffs, with the top 2 seeds receive a first round bye. This makes the regular season much more important than it is under the current format. Many American fans want to keep playoffs as they find it a more exciting way to determine the champion. I’m fine with keeping playoffs, but wouldn’t mind if a single table round robin determined the champion. MLS needs to find a balance between a meaningful regular season and exciting playoffs.

Playoffs should be 2 legged for the quarterfinals and semifinals, with one final game held at a neutral site. At first, the bottom two teams would be relegated from MLS-1 every year. The winner of the second division automatically earns promotion, while the teams finishing 2-5 have a playoff with two legs each round for the second spot. These playoffs could be some of the most exciting games of the year at any level. The league could eventually decide to promote and relegate three at a time, if everything progresses as planned. There would be also be no relegation from the second division at first, to ensure stability while undergoing a drastic change.

Eventually, USL Pro would be integrated as MLS-3 and all the teams contained within this division would be given the opportunity for promotion. Each year they would replace teams being relegated from MLS-2. This would complete the professional setup at the national level. Below MLS-3, we have the regional leagues, where new clubs begin play and less ambitious clubs remain. It would be prudent to delay relegation from MLS-3 for a time period, again to maintain stability. Since relegation from tier 3 really could be disastrous for teams that started at the top, there may need to be some kind of safeguard established. A system like the one in place in Argentina, where teams with the worst three year averages are relegated, could work for MLS-3. One terrible season in the third division wouldn’t guarantee relegation, but if a club is that bad for long enough, it deserves to drop.

Below the third division we currently have the NPSL and USL PDL, which are already regional leagues. There must be some sort of agreement on how to combine and organize the regions amongst the levels below D3. These lower tiers will be where new clubs join the pyramid and begin play. Leagues below regional could be organized by states, with teams first registering in the state leagues and then winning promotion up to regional. The system should allow for the possibility of any club being formed and eventually working its way up the pyramid to the top flight on its own merit.

All clubs must reach certain benchmarks relating to finances, strategic vision, fan support, and stadium situation in order to progress from the regional leagues to the national divisions and on to the first division. This allows MLS owners to retain some control over the future of the league, while at the same time giving access to any club that earns it, not just the ones willing to pay the expansion fee. It’s a necessary measure to ensure that teams do not get promoted if they cannot handle what promotion brings. It means that any club that does reach Major League Soccer will have a solid ownership group, an executable business plan, an established market of fans, and an appropriate stadium in which to play. Clubs can also decline promotion if they do not feel they have the ambition or resources to one day become a top flight club.

There is also the question of salary cap. MLS currently is pretty restrictive in this area, with the designated player feature the only real way for teams to work around the cap and sign top talent. A solution that could give teams more freedom but also maintain parity is a soft cap with a luxury tax, like the NBA utilizes. This would hopefully guard against having the same teams dominating every year like in Europe, while still allowing teams in bigger markets or with the financial capability to attract the best players in the world.

This is a basic outline for how promotion and relegation could be implemented in the United States. Obviously there are still many more issues to be addressed on the path to making pro/rel a reality, but that is why it is important to start a serious discussion now. A system like the one outlined above may hurt a few current MLS teams in the long run, but it would be greatly beneficial to US Soccer as a whole. Eventually, the league must align with the long-term goals of the sport in this country in order for America to become a true power in the world of soccer.

Notes:

1. I use the terms club, team, and franchise interchangeably to refer to professional soccer organizations in this country.

2. Although I use just pro/rel far more often, the changes I’m proposing include both promotion and relegation and an elimination of the single entity structure. I believe these two things go hand in hand.

3. Although I only mention the United States, everything stated here can be applied to Canada as well, as Canadian teams currently compete in the same pyramid as American teams.

Works Cited:

1. http://www.hasbeensports.com/9/post/2013/07/relegationpromotion-in-the-us.html

2. http://www.nasl.com/index.php?id=3&newsid=5055

3. http://www.empireofsoccer.com/give-them-what-they-want-bill-petersons-vision-for-nasl-us-soccer-centers-on-promotion-relegation/

4. http://www.nashvillefc.net/

5. http://www.soccernewsday.com/usa/a/968/expanding-mls-with-rivalry-bubbles

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A Tale of Two Border Wars

Two great rivalries in world soccer were on display for ESPN viewers in America yesterday. Spain versus France kicked off in Paris at 4 pm EST on ESPN2, and the United States took in Mexico in the Estadio Azteca at 10:30 on ESPN. Both battles featured bordering countries fighting to book their places in the 2014 World Cup. It’s always a treat to watch your two favorite national teams play in the same day, and I sat back and enjoyed the football feast.

Spain came into Paris needing all three points to return to the top of Group I, as it looks to avoid a one-off playoff against another European side in order to qualify for Brazil. World and European Champions Xavi and Xabi Alonso returned to action for La Roja after missing the Finland game with injury knocks, and were vital to Spain’s domination of the midfield.

Xavi did not have his best game in a red uniform, blasting over an open net in the 5th minute and generally lacking sharpness, but the diminutive Barcelona man still combined well with the rest of Spain’s attack. Alonso, on the other hand, had a monumental performance, with his metronome-like passing finding the boot of nearly every target. Andres Iniesta once again showed why he is the best attacking midfielder in the world, popping up almost everywhere on the pitch. Along with Sergio Busquets, who won the ball back with a number of good challenges, Spain’s midfield was too much for France’s young but promising bunch.

Perhaps Spain’s best two performances came from those who do not typically start at their position for la seleccion. Nacho Monreal filled in for the injured Jordi Alba and was instrumental in both defense and attack. Monreal played the ball in for Xavi to blast over early on, but his cross to Pedro in the 58th minute was converted for a goal, albeit very sloppily. The recent Arsenal signing also made a huge stop in the second half, when a France corner went over the head of Gerard Pique and fell at the feet of Raphael Varane, who could have sent it home if not for Monreal’s foot. And then of course there was Victor Valdes, starting for injured captain Iker Casillas, who made some huge saves to deny a result for France. Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque has to be pleased with the play of his reserves in such an important game. Spain took all three points back down south and now controls its own destiny in Group I.

The USA – Mexico game was covered on ESPN with a full hour pregame show leading up to kick-off, but I couldn’t help switching over to the Spanish language coverage on Univision for parts of the game. It was interesting to note the contrasts between the two telecasts. The crowd volume was much, much louder on Univision, and there were many more camera shots of the areas behind the goals, which were packed with fans. The ESPN cameras focused more on the empty seats near the touch lines, and the commentators were clearly heard over the crowd. I’m not sure if these differences were intentional, but the Univision broadcast certainly made the atmosphere appear much louder, more hostile, and more intense.

Mexico is the technically superior side, and obviously had a big home field advantage, but the Americans were determined to overcome these facts and get a result. Michael Bradley is developing into a world class midfielder with AS Roma and the national team. He did a great job receiving the ball from the back four and distributing out wide and up the pitch, and also made some good runs forward. I really liked what I saw from Graham Zusi, who was often looking for the ball, took nice touches, and tracked back to make some important defensive plays. Unfortunately he was pushed out wide to the right and did not see as much of the ball as I felt he should. Up front, Herculez Gomez, Jozy Altidore, and sub Eddie Johnson were largely ineffective as the US managed just one shot at the Mexican goal.

The main bright spots for the stars and stripes were the center back pairing and goalkeeper. Omar Gonzalez answered many critics who’ve claimed he is not ready for big time international football, intercepting countless passes and doing a very solid job of sticking with speedy forwards Javier Chicharito Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos. Matt Besler, on only his second cap for the US, also performed admirably. He picked up a yellow card early on but was relatively mistake free for the rest of the match. Brad Guzan was huge, keeping his second straight clean sheet filling in for the injured Tim Howard. He has been in great form all season with Aston Villa, and these last two performances may create some controversy over Team USA’s #1. Personally, I feel Guzan deserves to keep starting at least until he allows a goal in qualifying.

The defending was exceptional for the US, but I must touch on the two no-calls that could’ve been penalties for Mexico. In the first half, Bradley looked to have pushed over Chicharito in the box, but the forward wasn’t exactly involved in the play and the referee waved off the linesman’s flag to signal play on. Fifteen minutes from full time, Maurice Edu knocked over Javier Aquino in the box, with the replays showing it was clearly a foul, but the ref did not make the call there either. Oddly enough, the Univision crew screamed for a penalty when Chicharito went down but at first did not feel the Edu tackle was worthy of a spot kick. After a few replays, the ESPN commentators conceded that it should have been a penalty, but USA fans won’t dwell on the call for too long, and a hard earned point was won in the Azteca.

It’s obviously a gigantic stretch to compare Spain to the USA, but there are some things to be learned from La Roja’s style, and Jurgen Klinsmann may have a few players who can emulate the best team in the world. Spain controls the game with its trivote of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, and Xavi, passing even the world’s elite such as France to death. The US definitely did not control the game last night, but Michael Bradley showed signs that he can be a Xabi Alonso-esque distributor with the way he collected the ball from his defenders to start attacks and showed up in the final third. Edu did his best in the ballwinning Busquets role, and Graham Zusi is no Xavi but he did appear composed on the ball and very intelligent in his movements, two distinct traits possessed by the Catalan maestro. With Dempsey playing the Iniesta role running between the lines, it is possible to envision the US playing a (very very very) poor man’s version of Spain’s game. They may not be able to run the show against a France, Italy, or even Mexico, but Team USA has the talent to dictate the game against most CONCACAF foes.

Eventually, though, the ball will need to start finding the back of the net more often for the Americans. Playing in a blizzard and the Azteca won’t be the norm going forward, but the lack of ideas in the final third is disappointing nonetheless. The absence of Landon Donovan still hangs over the team’s collective head, but he should be back with the LA Galaxy soon and could yet feature in upcoming qualifiers. Brek Shea made a late cameo last night, and if he finds his form with new team Stoke City, he could provide a different dimension for the US. Klinsmann will now look ahead to friendlies against Belgium and his home country of Germany before the qualifying begins again in June. Things have changed drastically in the span of a week for the man charged with turning around US Soccer, and the national team now finds itself in a great position in what appears to be a highly competitive hexagonal.

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USA looking for win to jumpstart WCQ campaign

The US Men’s National Team takes on Costa Rica this Friday in Colorado, needing a win to get things on track in the CONCACAF hexagonal. After falling 2-1 away to Honduras in early February, the heat is on coach Jurgen Klinsmann to get a result at home. Following reports this week that Klinsmann has lost his grip on the locker room, he can ill afford another setback in the World Cup qualifying campaign, especially on home soil.

The roster announced yesterday certainly lacks experience at the back, and soccer fans who don’t closely follow the MLS may have never even heard of defenders Tony Beltran, Matt Besler, and Justin Morrow. Those three have yet to play a minute for the US – although Besler did receive a call up for the Honduras game – but at least one of them will get the start on Friday with only 6 defenders on the roster.

Things do appear a bit better when we consider the midfielders and forwards. In the center of the park, Michael Bradley will be the key for the Americans, and should be handed the captain’s armband with the absence of Tim Howard and Carlos Bocanegra. Bradley has continued to improve this year in his first season with AS Roma, developing into the best box to box player on the USA roster.

There are other bright spots on this squad aside from Bradley. Jermaine Jones and Sacha Kljestan have featured in the Champions League this season, although neither have managed to replicate their club form with the national team. Joe Corona just faced defending champion Corinthians in the Copa Libertadores last Wednesday, and is a promising young player for Xolos de Tijuana. Brek Shea recently made the jump to the Premier League and is starting to ease in with Stoke City while recovering from a foot injury. Graham Zusi is blossoming into a star for Sporting Kansas City. Clint Dempsey hasn’t lit it up with Tottenham like he did last year for Fulham, but he is still the only true world class player that the USA has. Meanwhile, Jozy Altidore just broke Dempsey’s record for the most goals in a season by an American playing in Europe, currently sitting on 25 in all competitions with AZ Alkmaar.

Unfortunately, the individual skill of the above players has not quite added up to produce results so far in Klinsmann’s reign. There are varying theories as to why this is. A lack of training sessions together, long travel time from the players’ respective clubs, and fatigue from the grind of a long season certainly play a part in all international fixtures. Some question the tactical acumen of Klinsmann himself, while others claim that these players collectively are simply not up to the standards of top class international sides.

All of the above has played a part in Team USA’s mishaps over the years, but I’d like to believe that Klinsmann, despite any tactical shortcomings, is the right man to help improve US Soccer from the ground up so it can compete with the elite teams of the world. Many top US players are not Klinsmann’s disposal this weekend, including Howard, Timothy Chandler, and Landon Donovan. The absences make the job harder for the German, but such is the life of any manager. His roster appears to have a solid mix of experience and potential, and if the back line can come together he could field quite a decent side.

Klinsmann will need to send out the right combination of skill and grit in order to dictate the game against Costa Rica. Team USA must be wary of the pace of Arsenal youngster Joel Campbell, currently on loan with Real Betis in Spain, as well as the guile of Real Salt Lake man Álvaro Saborío. As the defense is clearly the weak link of this roster, the team will have to keep possession well, be disciplined at the back, and most importantly, score a few goals. A solid win can help deflect pressure off the coach and bring some optimism back to US Soccer.

My ideal line up (4-2-3-1):

Guzan
Cameron   Gonzalez   Goodson  Besler
Jones     Bradley
Zusi        Dempsey       Shea
Altidore

Full Squad:

Goalkeepers (3): Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, Nick Rimando

Defenders (6): Tony Beltran, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson, Justin Morrow

Midfielders (9): DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Joe Corona, Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Brek Shea, Graham Zusi

Forwards (5): Jozy Altidore, Terrence Boyd, Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez, Eddie Johnson

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