Leadership & Assimilation

Soccer coaches at all levels value a few key factors when choosing their lineups and rosters: past and projected performance (of course), but also match fitness, chemistry, experience. 

As my high school coach once said- it's not just the XI Best players you want (he was talking hoops, so he said Best XII.)  But it's the Best XI- the best group of players that compliment each other.

Coaches of national teams get to take it a few steps further: Recent playing time and performance for club teams, experience in pressure situations like World Cup qualifiers or tumultuous away game environments, and even extraneous factors like travel logistics or international work permit issues.

The question is: what's the best way to weigh a player's total experience vs. recent performance vs. the logistics of assimilating him into the team? 

It's not just a National Team issue.  Imagine a State ODP team where 6 of the kids are from the same town, and another kid is sloughing 3 hours across the state for practice (like Clint Dempsey did in Texas). There's travel issues on top of peer to peer considerations.

So it's not surprising that ahead of tonight's US Men's National Team qualifier against Costa Rica in Denver, a huge fervor broke out when Sporting News reported that there was dissent and second-guessing among the US Men's National Team pool players (among others) and a lack of support of Coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

We're in the camp that argues that all the attention is a great sign of the growing passion for our national team in the US.  And we won't deconstruct the incident, since it's been done so well by many others.

But the leadership issue is worth diving into. Even though it has been a focal point of the week, the exclusion of 7-year US captain Carlos Bocanegra still somehow doesn't seem to have had enough of the spotlight.

SI's Grant Wahl focused on Bocanegra immediately, and recapped Bocanegra's immense contributions to the national team:

Wearing the armband isn't easy, and Bocanegra had it for the 2010 World Cup (in which the U.S. won its group ahead of England), the '09 Confederations Cup (beating Spain and reaching the final), the '09 CONCACAF Hexagonal (winning the group) and the '07 Gold Cup final (a win vs. Mexico), among other occasions. Bocanegra has never been flashy, but he has been a consistent and terrific servant to U.S. Soccer over the years, and I can't help but feel that this transition could be handled better by Klinsmann.

And yet...the USMNT heads into to two critical games (home vs. Costa Rica, and in Mexico City on Tuesday night) without the clear-cut most consistent, most stable contributor and on-field leader of the last seven years- dating back to the 2006 World Cup.
The relevant questions to ask yourself:
What's the value of recent playing time vs. someone who's fit from training (if not matches), and has such a body of work?  Players can maintain peak fitness today without matches (as they do when they are in their club offseason.)
In other words, what value would a leader of Boca's caliber have in being on the roster and traveling squad, even if not a starter?
And at a deeper level: How long does it take to assemble 24 individuals in camp and assimilate each one back into the team culture? 
USMNT had roughly a four day camp this week ahead of tonight. That's not a long time to get over travel schedules and weekend match fatigue- let alone get back in the rhythm of playing together.  Granted, both teams face a similar timeline.  But the logistics of getting the team together and on the same page in time for kickoff is not to be underestimated.
(Soccernomics has a tremendous chapter on how even top flight European clubs, until recently, would often pay huge transfer fees for top players and basically drop them off in a new city, with new languages, new fans, new culture, and almost no help getting adjusted.  They finally got smart and realized it was worth the relatively tiny cost to basically offer relocation assistance.)
Bring it all back home:
Clearly the questions above are loaded toward our opinion that a player of Boca's leadership caliber SHOULD be in the mix.  Simply put, we think it's worth a spot on a 24-man camp roster for someone who has been through what Boca's been through and done it all with sheer focus and class. To inject that kind of continuity and poise when you're lacking other vets (Howard, Donovan, Cherundolo). If not to start, then to help a young backfield and overall inexperienced roster assimilate to the pressure cooker of the hexagonal...playing a critical game on Friday night in the snow and then flying to the unfriendly confines of Azteca for an impossible Tuesday task.
This is less about questioning the strategy, and more about calling attention to the impressive task of gathering up a team from all over the world and bringing them together for a tremendously important game- a task that requires leadership.
Regardless, we're forecasting, along with the snow, an unexpected explosion of offense from our blazing strikers, and a 3-1 home win that gets this campaign back on track.



Estadio Azteca

Club dominance