Even after 101 years, the United States has failed to develop a national playing style. If Jurgen Klinsmann wants to do so, he should look, unconventionally, south.
It was great fun, wasn’t it? The determination, the refusal to quit, the passion, the belief that running until it was physically impossible to run anymore was easier than acceding to defeat. Oh, yes, the United States at this World Cup gave Americans a team to be proud of, but it did not deliver on Jurgen Klinsmann’s 2011 promise to play progressive, attack-minded football. While the U.S. had grit, it lacked a coherent national style.
The development of a national playing style, or even general philosophy of how the game should be played, is an important moment in a country’s footballing history. A nation’s playing style is the language it uses to communicate to the rest of the world its beliefs about how the game should be played. It provides a blueprint not only for how the national team will play, but how the youth of the country will be developed from that point forward. Klinsmann, a manager who has always wanted his teams to attack, wants the same out of the US.
But the senior team lacks players capable of playing the possession, attack-based style that Klinsmann wants. Many of the players at the World Cup were trained in typical US fashion, something that Major League Soccer’s Matthew Doyle believes is actually the national style of the US: stay compact, be difficult to break down, and break as fast as possible on the counter. Though this style has allowed the United States to conquer CONCACAF, sticking to this blueprint will prevent the US from truly competing at the highest international levels and improving the technical development of the younger generations. The vogue model for national reinvention is now Germany, the reigning World Cup champions and another nation that used to hang its hat on being defensively solid and efficient in attack. However, the United States should instead look south.
Seven years ago, Chilean football was so close to rock bottom it could taste the stone. Beaten 6-1 by Brazil in the Copa America with disciplinary problems off the pitch, Elisa Figueroa, the country’s greatest ever player, lamented that Chile lacked a national footballing identity. “We’ve tried to imitate Argentina,” Figueroa said, “We’ve tried to imitate Brazil. We’ve tried to imitate Germany and Spain.” None of it worked. That is, until an eccentric Argentine took over and transformed Chilean football culture in a whirlwind three years.
Marcelo Bielsa accomplished more for Chilean football in three years than his predecessors did in previous 77 years combined. Though he didn’t win a single trophy with Chile, he did instill a national playing identity, and in his three years in charge he ingrained it into the national psyche so much that it is now the only style the Chilean public (and players) want to see. So much so, that when the unpopular (and un-Bielsa) Claudio Borghi was relieved of his coaching role of the national team, there was only one man to replace him. Another Argentine, and a self-confessed disciple and obsessive of Bielsaism: Jorge Sampaoli.
The question is how was it possible for Chile to accomplish this so quickly, and are there any lessons to be learned for the US. First, they had a force of nature as their manager. Bielsa swept aside past failures and inferiority complexes and left seeds of his ideology in his wake. Now, practically every team in the Chilean Primera Division practices their own form of Bielsaism. Second, he had a group of young, talented players with open minds and fresh legs coming of age. A young player looking to prove himself is much more willing to run and press all game, the new Chilean style as seen this World Cup in Brazil, longer than an older, more established player, and are usually much more willing to buy into a new system. Finally, and most importantly, Chile had no old identity to push against the new one. They were, similar to the US, a blank canvas that Bielsa could paint in any way he wished.
Chile does not have the funding of a Germany or Brazil or even Argentina. Their development was something very organic, not orchestrated off of a long-term plan. There are lessons to be learned there. The US is ripe for a coming of age when it takes the next step. There is a group of young, talented players who can still be molded in whatever way Klinsmann wishes. There is now, more than ever, an emphasis on developing a style that will make the US admired for more than just their never-say-die attitude.
The country is ripe for a revolution in football, to let it pass would be negligent. Chile went all in with Bielsa and his ideas, even when they occasionally backfired. The US should now do the same with Klinsmann. This is not to say what worked for Chile will work for the US, but for the US to take the next step, it must draw inspiration from wherever it can. If it can improve the youth development structure within the US, along with a full immersion into Klinsmann’s vision of an attacking, technical, intelligent philosophy, then the sky is the limit for the US. The time for being reactive is over. Now is the time for that old, American pioneering spirit to come to the fore once again. It’s time to take the next step.