From Lalas to Landon: What Is The American Style Of Play?

The idea of a distinctive national style of play is not entirely foolish, but the stereotype — being a stereotype — is not exactly a straightforward representation of reality.

There are many examples of this, but I’ll give you a timely one from Gabrielle Marcotti today on the English belief about the robotic German style of play, one ever undermined by how numerous German players actually play:

Many have noted the fact that Germany has a truly multi-cultural side at this World Cup, one which draws its heritage from a dozen or so nations as diverse as Turkey, Poland, Ghana and Brazil. That part is great, if perhaps not an absolute first: indeed, in that sense, it’s a lot like France in 1998. But whoever suggests that Germany’s mulit-culturalism is what helps the side produce creative, free-flowing football is either another lazy stereotype merchant or is not too familiar with the team’s history.

It’s not as if, before the wave of recent immigrants were integrated in the team, Germany were a bunch of giant, muscle-bound Robocops (or Stefan Effenbergs, if you prefer). This is the side that produced Pierre Littbarski in the 1980s and Tomas Haessler and Andy Moller in the 1990s. Players who were uber-German and uber-talented, blessed with flair and creativity, as well as sterling technique. Come to think of it, so is Thomas Mueller and he’s as Teutonic as they come.

The fact of the matter is that German football has a long history of producing flair players: it’s just that we tend not to see them as such for the mere fact that they’re… well… German.

So that said, what is an “American” style of play?  It should be remembered that outside the rather small bubble that is CONCACAF, American soccer is not well known to the world. America’s fleeting moments at the 1930 and 1950 World Cups were followed by a deafening silence for forty years, America gone from the world’s stage until after the fall of the Berlin wall. Since 1990, though, the United States has appeared at every World Cup, one of a handful of teams to do so — so certain ideas about how the team plays have surely developed around the world, right?

I’ve lived in America too long now to offer a genuinely outsider perspective on the US, to give you a simple stereotype of their style: once you’ve lived and breathed inside a country’s soccer bubble, it’s hard to step outside it. But the English media seemed to offer a fairly consistent view of the American style of play ahead of the England game last week: the Americans were respected as hard-working, physical, doughty. However, there seemed to be a certain unease about commentators reaching for those conclusions, perhaps because some of the best-known Americans abroad have been wildly distinctive in their personas and styles: Alexi Lalas to Brian McBride to Landon Donovan is one hell of a stream of different styles to be the best known international representatives of your country. Not to mention Freddy Adu, or goalkeepers (if anything, American soccer is simply known as the home of Good Goalkeeping: many English observers assume Tim Howard is better known in the U.S. than any other soccer player).

So that’s all a little confusing. Which is perhaps why Jesse Pennington at the New York Times’ Goal blog has a grander vision for the American style of play’s future than as a nation emulating David Batty:

When Landon Donovan rifled a shot right at and over the Slovenian keeper — in the soccer equivalent of chicken — I couldn’t help thinking as I played the goal over and over that, well, it seemed like such an American thing to do.

A striker, or winger, operates as a kind of maverick on the field and certainly has the option to attack the keeper directly. But the law of angles dictates that this path yields the least fruit. With such proximity, the keeper cuts off the angle almost entirely, reducing the scoring opportunity to something out of the N.H.L., where the window for a goal is minuscule and shrinking. That is why a striker, if he has the ball at the edge of the field to the right or left of the goal, will typically pass the ball into the box, dumping it off like a Jason Kidd alley-oop in the hope that a member of his squadron is there to pummel it home on a wider target. Countless soccer drills embed this impulse until it becomes rote. Players use a shake, a wiggle to buy a fraction of time, and then pass into the middle. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred this is what the Spanish, the English, or the Dutch will do. Furthermore, a forward is also taught to shoot low. Donovan ignored that too.That’s why it seemed like such a quintessentially American moment. The orthodoxy of the game was shredded, in one blissful and bold moment, in favor of cowboy logic. A kind of American impatience with custom and formality brought forth a different sensibility, a bit more roguish one. Think Indiana Jones blatantly disregarding politesse by scoffing at (and then shooting) the scimitar-wielding thug in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Think Han Solo blasting down Greedo in the “Star Wars” canteen before the green dude knows what hit him.

This was probably a bad World Cup to make the argument that Landon’s shot from an angle was something only an American would do, that otherwise “Players use a shake, a wiggle to buy a fraction of time, and then pass into the middle.” Maicon from a silly angle (yeah, OK, we can argue that one), Luis Fabiano. Still, I suppose it’s conceivable that the kinda rough idea that Americans play a powerful, physical game could morph into a cowboy-motif if they shoot straight often enough.

Most likely, a stereotype about the American style of play will develop internationally, as the United States keeps appearing at World Cups and probably, soon enough, goes far enough in the tournament that the world pays attention to it for long enough to make a judgment: exiting at the group stage, second round or even quarter-finals doesn’t provide enough focus on any team for enough casual observations, resentments or jealousies to generate casual, common viewpoints around the world. Whatever the American style of play is, the world has yet to tell the United States about it.

9 thoughts on “From Lalas to Landon: What Is The American Style Of Play?

  1. A. Ruiz

    I’m not sure what the style is, but watching them play Slovenia and England, it struck me how much playing in CONCACAF is influencing the American team. The midfield can actually can move the ball if you give them enough time and space. Sure, we’re not exactly moving it as slickly as Mexico. But we’re not booting the ball nearly as much as we used to. It wasn’t long ago that we were a team just happy to be there and trying not to be embarrassed. Now we’re embarrased that we didn’t punish England or Slovenia and not making the 2nd round WOULD be a disappointment.
    Plus the influence of immigration cannot be understated. Jozy’s haitian parentage, Dempsey growing up with Mexican-American kids, Bradley playing keepy uppy withStoichkov and Nowak. when he was a kid. It’s hard to pin down just one American style. It’s influenced by all sorts of players.
    But in the same way, it’s hard to describe America itself that simply. If someone asked me what America is like I’ll just shrug. I only know my little piece of it, the rest is a much as mystery to me as it is to foreigners.

  2. withaplum

    it is silly. Especially since Donovan said that he was looking for the pass, looking for the pass, looking for the pass before he finally decided to shoot.

  3. Tom Dunmore Post author

    A. Ruiz – agreed, on a team as diverse as the United States’ is, ascribing one characteristic seems unlikely. But I still think at some point, the rest of the world will do so….unless the US turns out to be “exceptional”, to open up another can of worms.

    withaplum – that’s a really good point. You could clearly see on the replays Donovan searching for the right pass to the middle, checking several times before deciding shooting was the best option; I was very impressed by that. Which is obviously the reverse of the style Pennington is attaching to him.

  4. Alex Usher

    Here’s my take on the US.

    The US arent slick, as you noted. They play very simple football. They are very athletic but don;t fetishise pace the way the English do. They play as a team. They rarely give up – going down a goal or two doesn’t faze them. And, as you noted, they tend to have good keepers

    It is very similar, I would argue, to the US hockey team at the winter olympics – they can hold their own against more skilled teams simply through good team play and a hot ‘keeper.

    Is the team ethic maybe a product of (the other) football culture? I can’t imagine Bradley giving the locker-room speech from “Any Given Sunday”…but I think I can imagine Bruce Arena doing it.

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  6. Rob

    Apart from the fact that their style seems to be effective for them, the US style appears to be mostly direct play. I have not had a chance to watch US v ALG (save for the first 15 minutes), but our team eschews possession through the midfield and seems to prefer winning 50-50 balls in our offensive third. Either a defender, or a mid who has tracked back to a defensive position, will launch a ball to a forward or a mid essentially playing almost even with the forwards. Sometimes the ball gets through to the touch line, or the goalie, sometimes to a defender. Sometimes we get it, or win it back. But there is little flow to the game; it is pretty stressful.

    I don’t know why we play this way as opposed to generating forward movement via spacing and passes other than the required skill level is not consistently available for a more flowing style of play.

    I think that playing direct is one weapon in an arsenal, but you need more than that to go deep into the tournament.

  7. Matt

    This is an interesting topic, but I think it is one that gets a little overblown in the face of actual competition. Certain countries certainly uphold various styles of play over the years–the Italians and the Dutch, for example–but most countries adapt their styles to suit their personnel, the philosophy of their current coach, and the changing tactical imperatives within a game.

    Brazil, it could be argued, changed mostly because of Dunga, but you could also make a case that in the absence of a truly transcendent playmaker like Ronaldinho in his prime it makes more sense to play a well organized defense first system. Kaka is a great playmaker, but not the kind of improviser that Ronaldinho was. Likewise, Fabiano is a great striker, but not quite the genius that Ronaldo was.

    The US team is probably more talented than ever, and I think that the style of play changes based on who has the ball and who is in form. With Altidore developing before our eyes into a world class target player the US can at times rely on him to win possession and lay the ball off to its attacking midfielders. But just as often in the past two games the attack has come from Michael Bradley deep in the midfield (Bradley is emerging as the best player on the team, I think) linking up with the forwards and the wings. And most of the (few) moments of individual brilliance are still coming from Donovan and Dempsey when they link up with Bradley or with the fullbacks.

    The current US style, I think, is simply to win no matter what. They play a very pragmatic game, taking what the defense gives them and capitalizing on opportunities wherever they are on the pitch and with whoever happens to be there. I think that the emphasis on the end result over any predominant style or philosophy is in itself very American.

  8. Tim Smith


    First, I would say – 4-4-2. Here in Oregon, at the youth club level, high school, and college, everyone plays the flatback 4. Same as the USMNT and the USWNT.

    Second, physical fitness. Jurgen Klinsman’s first comment about the goal last night was to point out the fitness of the 5 players involved in the breakaway that lead to the final goal (Donovan, Altidore, Dempsey, Buddle, and Bocanegra?)

    Third, we like fast breaks. In fact, Tim Howard’s pass was just like an outlet from an offensive rebound that sparks a fast break in basketball.

    Tim Smith

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