The US Men’s National Team’s weaknesses were on display as they prepared for the World Cup in a friendly game vs Japan last week, and those have been well documented. But in a fascinating 90 minutes we also saw several stretches of possession-based play from the Americans that almost looked like what we’d expect from the best club teams in the world—patiently and skillfully passing the ball down the field, creating opportunities with clever movement of man and ball. The Americans should be lauded for attempting to play in this style and for doing it reasonably well. But as was evident against Japan, they often lack an element that even masters of possession can find themselves without: an aspect of inspired creativity that springs to life in the attacking half of the field, loosens any knots tied by the defense and opens a path to goal. Maintaining possession sets the stage for brilliant creativity, but obsession with possession can lead to stagnant play. A team too concerned with hanging onto the ball at all costs can be reluctant to take the risks needed to break through well-organized opponents, and can become predictable and easy to defend. What America needs most is the equivalent of a rogue performer bursting through a door, announcing himself on the stage to thunderous applause—signaling that something brilliant and unexpected is about to happen. Something like this:
While the USMNT hasn’t achieved the lofty heights of Seinfeld (the winner of a huge amount of awards and accolades, featuring individual and collaborative excellence more akin to the success of Brazil’s Seleção), they are inching their way toward a spot on Must See TV. But in order to crack the prime-time lineup this World Cup, the Americans need to understand the difference between a formula for success and formulaic output. Seinfeld’s cast worked together seamlessly, and you can spot similar archetypes on the American team: Brenden Aaronson’s hyper-active work rate channels George’s anxiety, Weston McKennie’s sporadic excellence echoes Elaine’s hot/cold personality, and Christian Pulisic is the Jerry of the group: operating at a high level of polish ready for a tight 5-minutes on the Tonight Show. These foundational elements are fantastic together, but require an element of unpredictable creativity to become truly great—something to throw a storyline off its axis or turn a conventional conversation upside-down. Team USA did produce plenty of unpredictability vs Japan, like McKennie’s horribly misplaced pass that led to Japan's first goal, but they’re not looking for more self-inflicted wounds. To break through defenses at the highest levels, what they need is the soccer equivalent of someone who might use butter as suntan lotion. Someone who’ll install a hot tub in his living room on a whim. The kind of guy who conjures up a mail fraud scheme when his friend’s stereo stops working. In order to reach Seinfeld levels of excellence, and to avoid the predictable stagnation of lesser shows, the Americans need a bit more Kramer on their stage. A talented, highly-skilled expert at surprising everyone, including himself, with his positive creativity.
Let’s look at the above play from the USMNT's defeat to Japan. The Americans do well to patiently and reliably work the ball down the field. But at the moment when they most need a burst of creativity they instead play it very safe. Jordan Morris is almost Ross Gellar-like in his predictability here. He wants to keep possession so badly he wastes an opportunity to create a scoring chance. He could have played the ball to the feet of striker Josh Sargent, hoping for a quick give-and-go into the box (something you might see between the Leo Messi/Luis Suarez partnership of yore) or giving Sargent a chance to quickly turn and shoot. Instead he plays a very safe and predictable ball back out wide—just what Japan is expecting and hoping for. Japan wants America’s attacks to be as predictable as an episode of Law and Order, Morris gives them just what they want, and this gives Japan the chance to solidify their defense in front of the goal. With the opportunity for creativity wasted, USA has to settle for a high, arcing cross into the box—very easy to defend when the defense has been allowed to settle in. As we see in this clip, possession is always better than the alternative. But maintaining it at all costs is a recipe for predictability and a likely group stage exit.
As a point of contrast, see this play from earlier in the match above. The defender plays a clever pass between two strikers to the midfield. McKennie cleverly dishes to Gio Reyna to advance the ball. Renya then plays a long, terrifically creative pass out wide to find a winger. Reyna had two or three conventional options in front of him. But instead he surprises everyone by playing out wide. This new width in the American attack forces the Japanese defense to adjust when they’d much rather defend in the center of the field. As the defense gets stretched wider than they’d like, gaps appear in front of goal. A perfectly placed cross from the winger gives an American striker a chance that he heads over the goal.
Consider these two plays: both feature movement from the center of the field to wider areas, both feature crosses into the box looking for a striker’s head. But the nature of the first sequence—very predictable, easy to defend—results in a harmless attempt. Reyna’s unexpected creativity in the second sequence forces Japan to make adjustments and stretches their team—giving USA’s striker a much better eventual opportunity. Playing in the Kramer role, Reyna gives the Americans their best shot at turning possession into danger. His ability to transform monotonous passing sequences into defense-twisting attacks is unique among his teammates and the USMNT will need more of this to advance in the tournament. At the moment, the only thing certain for the Americans is an early exit. Unless they’re able to evoke more Kramer on the field, this episode will end with a predictable group stage exit from a tournament that could benefit from an unexpectedly great performance.