US Scheduling Tough Friendlies Almost Too Much
It seems the US Soccer Federation is eager to prove some of the critics of the game in this country wrong thanks to upcoming friendlies against Spain and potential friendlies against England and Argentina. Those critics who rightfully pointed out that between 2003 and 2006 we didn’t play many tough friendlies on the road have no recollection of the type of scheduling that the US undertook before and after the 1998 World Cup disaster and the scheduling that almost killed the team in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. They do not recall the US beating Mexico on a Wednesday night in Columbus in an epic qualifier (at least in the eyes of US supporters) with Josh Wolff and Earnie Stewart scoring goals and then flying across two time zones to L.A. to nationally televised (on ABC) Saturday afternoon friendly against Brazil. That whole scheduling debacle took a toll on the team as we subsequently collapsed in qualifying, going as far as losing to Honduras at RFK Stadium. The temptation of Bruce Arena as it will be for Bob Bradley was to put his “A” team in against Brazil and thus wear them down for upcoming qualifiers.
In those days the majority of National Team players were in MLS and the ones that weren’t were generally in Germany. The toll the aggressive scheduling had was to put the US in jeopardy of missing the World Cup. In 1999, the U.S. played Germany, Chile (at that time a respectable footballing power), Mexico and Argentina shortly before playing Brazil, Germany and Mexico in the Confederations Cup. (An event some of the very same critics write off as meaningless, but how can playing Brazil, Germany and Mexico on foreign soil be meaningless? Does an event these days need Real Madrid or Manchester United to mean something?)
These same critics don’t recall the U.S. playing Argentina in Miami before flying off to France for the Confederations Cup in 2003 and then flying back to start Gold Cup play right away, where we’d be eliminated by Brazil in extra time on a golden goal. (The Brazil game was interesting- I was at the match and the number of Argentines and Colombians who turned out to cheer AGAINST Brazil was shocking) The same happened in 1998 you could argue when the U.S. played an ambitious schedule after qualifying, and then ended up flat for its three pre World Cup friendlies against inferior sides in May. By playing Holland, @ Belgium, Paraguay, and @ Austria in a four week period we ran down our players and allowed internal dissension to mount, something Steve Sampson was never able to deal with. The scheduling looked good at the time, but it was obvious in hindsight the decision by Sampson to begin yanking some veterans and playing youngsters or newcomers to the national team created a dynamic which in some ways still haunts US Soccer. ( Sampson made the decision to insert Chad Deering and Brian Maisoniueve altogether, as well as Frankie Hedjuk and Brain McBride in more prominent roles during these friendlies casting aside the very players who had been the core of the US team in 1994 and the successful qualification for the 1998.)
The problem is fixture congestion on the club level has led national teams to be less and less flexible in its scheduling. This isn’t the early 1990s when Bora was able to demand any American that wasn’t playing for a respectable club abroad, stay in residency with the National Team, and thus have a full team available for any friendly. These days you get released by your club 48 hours before a match and often times the players are weary from the travel and condensed club fixture schedule. In the case of Major League Soccer they aren’t even given a break during internationals. I am all for tough scheduling especially on the road but a balance must be struck so we don’t endanger our qualification to World Cup 2010 simply to satisfy some loudmouth critics of game in this country.