Winning a soccer game requires two things: an off-field plan and on-field execution. The first part is a coaching challenge; the second is one for the players, who need to prevail in dozens of individual battles all over the field.
Against Canada in October, the United States men's national team had the first in head coach Gregg Berhalter's much-discussed "system" but failed in the latter. All over the field, the Americans lost to their northern opponents in specific moments. There were obvious failures, such as Alphonso Davies' outworking Aaron Long and DeAndre Yedlin to the back post to tap in Canada's opener, and subtler ones, such as 50-50 ball after 50-50 that went to the Maple Leafs. The result was a 2-0 loss, the first since April 1985, a frustrating and lackadaisical effort too reminiscent of many lost matches under Jurgen Klinsmann.
Defeats are excusable. Not showing up isn't.
After the match, Berhalter noted as much. "We need to compete on every single play in games like this," he said. "I don't think it was lack of effort. I don't think it was purposeful, but I wasn't happy with the desire we displayed tonight to win the soccer game. Too many 50-50 balls we lost, and that hurt us."
Trying hard is an intangible thing, tough to measure with stats but obvious enough to teammates. Is a player giving everything, the proverbial 110 percent, or is he slacking? More importantly, who will hold accountable a player who isn't? Doing that requires strong leadership, an individual willing to say the unpleasant truth and get results. For too long, the American team has lacked this person.
"We've been waiting for this leader to step into the role," said Jay DeMerit, a former U.S. captain who knows something about leadership.
So far, Berhalter seems to be searching for a leader. Although his Columbus Crew captain, Wil Trapp, got the armband eight times in the U.S.'s 11 2018 matches, Berhalter has picked 10 players across 18 games in 2019. The list is long and varied. Tim Ream leads with six times as captain; Aaron Long, Zack Steffen and Christian Pulisic have done so two times; Trapp, Yedlin, Michael Bradley, Matt Miazga, Omar Gonzalez and Weston McKennie have each gotten it once. This is, at least in part, by design.
"The group has done a good job of sharing leadership," the coach said in a news conference before the Canada fixture. "When I think about meetings we have, there's not two players that speak up. There are probably 15 players that speak up. When we analyze video or talk about team goals or talk about expectations, it's by committee ... For us, it's been refreshing. There's not two guys talking and the rest being quiet. It's many guys sharing leadership, and we think that's been effective."
Ream echoed the sentiments of the manager. "There are guys like myself, Michael [Bradley], Brad [Guzan]," he said. "We've been around the block. We've played a lot of games, a lot of meaningful games. We can kind of pass on our expertise or not, whatever these guys want to know, but it's more leader by committee. The young kids aren't shy. That's fantastic."
Shared experiences, multiple opinions and a plethora of ideas are valuable things, but so is having a player or two to hold everyone accountable.
"Guys that may not be the prettiest on the ball, but they will put their head through a wall for the team," DeMerit said. "Is there enough of that right now? I don't know."
"Roy Keane is a strong personality. You don't even see that. Somebody who is kind of an a--hole out there. I think we lack that a little bit," former U.S. defender Jimmy Conrad said. "Sometimes your best 11 players aren't necessarily your most talented 11 players. A lot of that does come down to chemistry, report and trust -- and counting on guys in tough moments, having personalities on the field. Who is going to step up and hold people accountable? All that stuff matters."
Spend enough time around the team, and it's clear that there's a lack of personality, at least outwardly. McKennie, likable and fun in Germany, is dull and demure. Others, such as Tim Weah, have electric personalities that are muted with the national team. It's a trend that started under Klinsmann, so desperate to be the largest personality in the room, and has continued through a vanilla 2018 and 2019. It's too bad, considering that there's nothing wrong with showing a little bit of personality. Look how doing so, combined with success, vaulted the women's national team into the popularity stratosphere over the summer. In the past, the men weren't the best in the world, but at least they were interesting.
"Bob Bradley did a great job creating character within the dressing room," DeMerit said. "If you look down the line at teams we have from 2008 through the 2010 World Cup, we had a wide range of characters. We had a wide range of leaders. Guys like Michael Bradley, fantastic work ethic, people who came in, kept their head down. Guys like me and Clint [Dempsey] riding their horses into training camp, saying, 'Let's go!' I think Bob appreciated that about me, how I brought that renegade spirit to the group. Frankie Hejduk comes in and brings a bit more character."
Although being a leader and having a personality aren't the same thing, the lack of both is an example of how the U.S. keeps falling short of its potential. It isn't an intractable problem, but it's one that needs to be fixed for the team to progress.
Tyler Adams, a natural and intense leader who willed himself to the Bundesliga, has been absent for months. Could he be the answer when he rejoins the squad? Let's hope he steps up or someone else does. Otherwise, the Americans are in danger of remaining a collection of individuals, desperate for someone to show them the way.