The United States play Mexico on Wednesday night in Glendale, Ariz. (11:15 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN), in a warm-up game ahead of the World Cup in Brazil.
Roger Bennett spoke to former USMNT player and ESPN FC TV analyst Alexi Lalas about the difficulties of this split-squad approach.
Roger Bennett: The question came to me roughly 10 minutes into last month’s Ukraine game in Cyprus. As Andriy Yarmolenko ran through the gut of the experimental U.S. midfield toward the makeshift defense, I wondered just how far the Ukrainian would have progressed if Michael Bradley had been patrolling the middle of the field. Why does the USMNT continue to play split-squad games with the World Cup 70 days away, and speeding toward us at a nosebleed clip? Alexi Lalas: It’s simple. For the March FIFA blackout date, there has been an understanding between U.S. Soccer and MLS that has been in place for years that the guys from the States will not go.
Bennett: That is factually true. What I am interested in is the impact of that understanding this close to a World Cup in which the U.S. team is under more scrutiny than ever. They are about to field half a team with barely a foreign accent amongst them, which you might like, because it reminds you of the golden days back in the early ‘90s.
Lalas: Don't do that! Don’t paint me like that. Split squads have been our tradition forever. I was on a split squad back in 1990. In fact, I remember a single day on which we fielded two international teams at the same time. One took the field at Rutgers and the other, I think, played somewhere like Vancouver. Back in those days we would play whenever with whomever.
Bennett: What does that do to team chemistry, Alexi? Especially when dividing the squad into its MLS- and European-based components plays into one of the cultural fault lines of the team -- reinforcing a sense of footballing Jets and Sharks? Now MLS has gone “all-in” on U.S. international talent, their self-interest is self-aligned with U.S. Soccer’s desires to have a strong World Cup.
Lalas: Jurgen Klinsmann has been given a tremendous amount of resources and the benefit of the doubt. But because the FIFA blackout date is MLS’s opening week, as big and powerful as Jurgen is, there are others who are more powerful. While I agree the split squads are not the best way to prepare for Brazil, Jurgen’s relationship with MLS will last longer than that, and so it is seen as more important that the (North American-based) players remain behind and respect the MLS agreement. Bennett: To what extent is team chemistry set back if half of the best players are not present for two consecutive games? International players have precious few chances to bond and prepare as it is.
Lalas: I agree. With the World Cup so close, the need to integrate so many players from so many backgrounds is critical. The split-squad approach does play into the rivalry between your traditional American players and your “new” American players. Wow! Even as I say them, I realize we really need a better name for those terms.
At the same time, it might be a positive for Jurgen. It gives him a built-in excuse. He can always point to the glass as half full. If the team lose, you can always claim “if only the full team were here.” If the U.S. win, you can say, “And imagine how much better we would have done if the whole squad had played!”
Bennett: What does it do to team morale if the U.S. loses a couple of games? In Cyprus, there was one world-class player on the field and he eviscerated the Americans.
Lalas: It is not that big a deal if you are not at full strength and you have players clearly missing.
Bennett: OK. What does it do to fan morale and the weight of media narrative ahead of the World Cup?
Lalas: In the case of Wednesday night, because it is Mexico, and knowing what this rivalry stands for, how good the U.S. have performed in recent years, and the fact that the game takes place this close to the World Cup, Mexico appear to have all of the upside. They can draw a line under the uncertainty of 2013, and demonstrate the 2014 Mexico are very much back on track.
For the U.S., a second loss is not the sum of all fears but the sum of many fears. And one that will definitely start to creep into the consciousness is that we are 70-something days away from Brazil and all is not good.
Bennett: Does the fact the U.S. perseveres with the half-squad tradition suggest that at these minicamps Jurgen learns more from watching the players train and live together, which men lift each other’s morale or challenge the rest to raise their game in scrimmages, than in the 90-minute game itself?
Lalas: You said yourself, as an international coach you have so little time with your players. These three days are a gift for Jurgen, even though it may be with half his squad. But know the 90 minutes trump all. There are plenty of (players) who play on international teams who are complete jerks one-on-one. All a coach cares about is success on the field over 90 minutes and in this game, that will mean looking at the back line, watching Julian Green, and seeing if Chris Wondolowski has what it takes to play in a World Cup.
Bennett: Close your eyes. Look into the future. Can you see a time when the United States’ split-squad tradition will be no more?
Lalas: No. This Mexico game is about the World Cup, but it is also about making a huge amount of money by playing your biggest rival in an otherwise meaningless game. U.S. Soccer will continue to do this, even if they would need me to suit up to make it happen. We played Mexico in the Rose Bowl two weeks before the 1994 World Cup. 100,000 people came. 100,000 Mexico fans. Roy Wegerle scored the only goal and we won 1-0.
So, this tradition will not be going anywhere. Yes it plays to the fault lines between the American- and the European-based members of our squad, but both groups need each other. We have to trust that they will find a way to figure it out.