The USMNT were dismantled 4-2 by Colombia on Thursday night. The defeat was a perfect illustration of the problem with U.S. sports culture and its fit with football.
The US Men’s National Team returned to action earlier in October. Hosting Colombia on Thursday night, the USMNT looked to again challenge the might of the South Americans on home soil. It didn’t go to plan.
The match may have been tied at 2-2 midway through the second half, but Colombia were much the better team, eventually running out comfortable 4-2 victors.
They had 62.3% of the possession, out-shot the U.S. 17 to five, forced Zach Steffen into two saves, while not making a single one themselves, and could have scored far more than the four that they did. This was domination.
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Colombia were the better team through two key attributes: skill and technique on the ball; and tactical awareness in and out of possession. The U.S. simply couldn’t match the quality of the Colombians in possession, and then failed to replicate the defensive structure out of possession. This was a footballing victory for Los Cafeteros.
Perhaps the most telling statistic came in the passing game. Colombia completed 602 passes. The U.S. were a little over half of that, at 358. Moreover, Colombia maintained a pass completion rate of 90%. The U.S. were at just 83%. That disparity becomes even starker in more advanced positions of the pitch.
Colombia completed 81% of their passes in the attacking half and 80% of their passes in the final third, two extremely high figures. The U.S. were at 68% and 58% respectively, figures not even in the same ballpark. The Colombian’s skill on the ball far outweighed the USMNT’s.
Moreover, tactically, Colombia were much better than their hosts. In a microcosm of the match, James Rodriguez had his way with Antonee Robinson down the Colombia right flank. Rodriguez is not quicker or stronger or more agile or has better balance. But he is smarter. His manipulation of space was masterful, pulling Robinson inside, outside, never letting his position settle, and then exploiting the zones that were parsed as a result of the movement. Rodriguez, in essence, like Colombia did to the U.S., schooled Robinson.
And this speaks to a deeper problem with U.S. sports culture. Take the combine in ‘American’ football (I am English, I apologise). There is a school of thought in the NFL when it comes to the draft that you should simply take the best athletes with best measurables at the combine and that the technique of whatever position they play and the scheme of the coordinator and team can be taught.
But in football — soccer — the same is not true. The best athletes are not always the best players — I should state that this is also true in the NFL, but is largely restricted to the quarterback position, not every position of the sport. How many great defensive ends do you know that are not extremely athletically gifted in one way or another? At ever position on the pitch, the best players often tend to be the ones who are the best tactically and technically.
But the U.S. don’t build players like that. They look for best athletes and then try to teach them the game. Unfortunately, football doesn’t work like that. The best athletes aren’t necessarily the best players. Colombia proved as much on Thursday night.
The USMNT is improving in comparison to the rest of the world. They are catching up, slowly. This is a wonderfully gifted crop of young players. But there needs to be a shift in perspective at the very basic level to ever truly challenge the footballing elite. The U.S. sports culture is actually the problem, not the solution.