While the country anticipates the return of America’s game tonight (Mike and Dave’s Black and Gold Pregame Show starts at 6:00!), a couple of American teams are approaching pivotal moments. The US Men’s National Soccer team was thumped by Brazil (4-1) in their last match together before the October 10th showdown against Mexico at the Rose Bowl, the winner of which moves on to 2017’s Confederations Cup. Earlier that same day, US Captain Jay Haas used his two captain’s picks to select Bill Haas (his son) and Phil Mickelson, rounding out the squad of 12 the US will take to South Korea to compete against Nick Price’s International team. I realize that the Presidents Cup and a brand-new CONCACAF Confederations Cup Playoff aren’t the brightest stages, but they both represent important examinations for the “Team USA” versions of two of the sports I care most about, and few things in sports fandom are more fun than cheering for Team USA.
Since the loss to Belgium at last summer’s World Cup, US manager Jurgen Klinsmann spent a full year experimenting with his lineup, tinkering with formations, introducing new players into the national team program, and auditioning every central defensive pairing imaginable, all in the hopes of finding new combinations of talent that would propel the USMNT to victory in this past summer’s Gold Cup. The semifinal loss to Jamaica in that event was a massive disappointment, and made this one-game playoff necessary. More troubling than the loss is the fact that all of Klinsmann’s experimenting has led to very few discoveries. When the US plays Mexico next month, they’ll rely on Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore, Jones, and likely lean on Beckerman, Gonzalez, and Besler (although I have NO IDEA what JK has in mind at center back….every single combination he tries seems a bigger disaster than the last). Other than Gyasi Zardes, and brief flashes from Jordan Morris, no player that has debuted with the national team since the World Cup has made much of an impression. There’s still buzz on Gedion Zelalem, but nothing tangible for USMNT fans to hold onto as of yet, and the stalled development of Julian Green may temper some fans’ willingness to hang their hopes on the shoulders of a talented-but-green European prospect.
Klinsmann’s job is safe, regardless of the result of the playoff against Mexico. That match will roll into World Cup qualifying, and the cycle will begin anew with JK in charge. He will have the opportunity to fulfill his contract through the 2018 World Cup, and his role will be reevaluated at that time. However, losing this playoff at the Rose Bowl, and thus missing out on the 2017 Confederations Cup, will affect his legacy. The Confederations Cup is the dress rehearsal for the World Cup, and, outside of the World Cup, offers the only real chance the United States has to compete against the game’s truly elite competition. After Brazil 2014, Klinsmann stated that his goal for the 2018 World Cup was to make the semifinals. That type of run would be significant because it would represent true progress. The farthest a US team has ever advanced in the World Cup was the quarterfinals, in 2002. For the US to turn that type of ambition into a reality, they need to compete against the best teams in the world. Tuesday night, in Foxboro, against Brazil, in the final tune-up before that decisive match against El Tri, the US showed how far this team has to go before making those dreams a reality. Brazil embarrassed the US. They were quicker, they were stronger, they were more organized, they were technically superior, and they knew it. They put on a show. Sure, it was “just a friendly,” and the US had a strong performance against Peru a few nights earlier. But Peru ain’t Brazil. You need to be a lot closer to Brazil to make a World Cup semifinal. Qualifying for the Confederations Cup will be the only measuring stick before Russia 2018.
The problem in American golf is more political. The Presidents Cup holds a weird place in the sport. Many American fans (myself included) view the US vs International event as a vastly inferior version of the Ryder Cup (US vs Europe). The US has only lost once since the event was founded in 1994, and, understandably, you don’t get the sense that a hodgepodge of South American, South African, Australian, and Asian players truly come together as a “team” the way the Europeans do. European dominance in the Ryder Cup has been one of my most-hated sports developments of the past few years, and I’d love to see some younger players get the opportunity to cut their teeth in team match play with a trip to the lower-leverage little brother. Instead, Jay Haas picked his son and Phil Mickelson after the top 10 on the points list automatically qualified.
I take little issue with Jay Haas choosing his son. Bill Haas was 11th on the points list, and the only instance of the 11th player on the points list NOT being chosen was 2011, when Fred Couples passed on Brandt Snedeker to select…..Bill Haas. Haas hasn’t been playing great, but his position on the points list, coupled with the fact that HIS DAD IS THE CAPTAIN, made this an easy, defensible choice.
Maybe it seems strange that I’d question the choice of hall-of-famer, second-best player of his generation Phil Mickelson. He’s been a part of every US Ryder and Presidents Cup team since 1994, and the only time he’s been a captain’s pick before this year was 1994 (he missed that whole season with a broken leg and didn’t qualify on points, but was an obvious addition). Jay Haas cited Phil’s experience and his influence on the younger players in the team room as his qualifications for a pick. That makes sense on face value, but doesn’t hold water. Sure, guys in the room like him, and his reputation for taking younger players under his wing and “mentoring” them in his Tuesday money games is well-known. However, it’s not like Phil is a force to be reckoned with in team events. His career record is 36-35-17 (W-L-D). Lefty’s match play record is the epitome of average, and veteran experience in a past-his-prime player might not be worth as much in practice as it is anecdotally. The US’s top 3 point-earners in last fall’s Ryder Cup were Patrick Reed, Jimmy Walker, and Jordan Spieth. All three were Ryder Cup rookies. Quite simply, Phil hasn’t been playing well. He was 29th on the points list. 29th!!! Giving an opportunity to Brooks Koepka, Robert Streb, or Billy Horschel to get his feet wet in the pressure cooker that is team match play would’ve been a more admirable decision.
I want American teams to dominate the world in every sport, and I love golf and soccer. I want the Ryder Cup back, and I want to keep it for 10 years. I want the USMNT to win a World Cup someday, and I’d be over the moon if they made the semifinals in 2018. Both of those American teams are in need of an influx of young talent, but neither are willing or prepared to throw the available young players into the fire. The weekend of October 10th, Teams USA have the opportunity to show the world where they stand as the big-boy events approach. Will we see the future, or more of the same?