Warshaw: US national team fans beware – Arena's team still has work to do

Bruce Arena - September 1, 2017

I’m about to say something, and not support it, because I’m pretty sure you know it’s true: The subconscious is stronger than the conscious. This girl is right for me; this girl is definitely not the one. My mom keeps driving me crazy; I should call my mom. It’s okay for me to leave only a 12 percent tip for this guy; I’m a bad person.

We can work really hard to want something or to make the logical decision, but it never compares to the subconscious desire within us. We are always kinda at the mercy of the little seed planted deep in our minds.

It’s the same for the players you see out on the field. Players can say the right things – “It’s gonna be a battle out there and we’re gonna have to fight for every inch” – and do the right things like showing up early to training or staying late to do extra work in the weight room. But they can’t change the little thought in the back of their brains.

US still has work to do

The country celebrated Friday evening when the USMNT trounced Panama 4-0, but it may have all been a bit premature.

The US still is not mathematically set for Russia. In fact, it’s not even totally logically locked.

Bruce Arena and Co. currently lead both Panama and Honduras by two points. It’s a super slim margin given 1) Panama and Honduras both play at home and 2) both Panama’s and Honduras’ opponents, Mexico and Costa Rica, have already qualified and do not have anything to play for and 3) it’s CONCACAF.

As such, it’s very possible that both Panama and Honduras could win on Tuesday night, forcing the US to need at least a point on the road in Trinidad and Tobago.

As US fans, we tend to take matches like T&T for granted. But I remind you once again, it’s CONCACAF; and an everything-on-the-line game. Put both of those in a pot and find out what comes in an hour-and-a-half. It definitely won’t be whatever they had on the box.

The USMNT needs to plan to get a point on Tuesday to qualify for the World Cup. And yet, those words are more easily logically understood than subconsciously registered. 

Like, we can all mathematically say we know the US needs a point, but Friday was so amazing! And are Panama and Honduras really going to win? Panama was so bad last game. And even if we don’t play our best, we can still beat Trinidad, right? I mean, it’s Trinidad. And they don’t even have Stern John anymore.

See what I did there? It’s really easy to convince yourself that the game isn’t important, that you don’t need to bring the I-will-kill-you-for-this-seemingly-and-probably-worthless-loose-ball-in-the-middle-of-the-field mentality.

Human brains are lazy. Players are no different. If you give a player an inch, he will take a mile. National team players are a little different, of course – it’s how they got to make the national team. But they are still human. They still have sub-conscious tendencies; they’d still prefer to coast at 4-0 than fight to the death at the end. If the brain gets a sliver of a sense that it can relax, it will.

Complacency: It happens

It’s happened to every player. You look at the schedule and you see what should be an easy game coming up. It’s kind of nice to see; it’s nice to get a break from the never-ending grind. You’re just so tired. You tell yourself, though, not to get stuck in the trap.

You promise to double your efforts in the week to stay sharp. You do your reps and your preparation. You show up to the stadium a few minutes early to make a mental statement. You go through the usual pre-game routine, maybe doing a couple extra knees-to-chest to make sure the body know what’s coming.

Then the game starts and you are a second slow on everything. Your brain isn’t clicking at the same speed and your muscles aren’t firing with the same intensity. The dude who has no business running by you is running by you. You hate yourself for letting it happen.

You did everything you could, but your brain never got past the “easy game” thought. The subconscious won.

If there’s one line I will use over and over and not apologize for it: The margins at the top level are slim and every percentage point makes a huge difference. If a player drops his intensity or focus by one percent, he loses his margin of advantage.

Think about all the players who have moved down a level and struggled; their ability hasn’t diminished, they just haven’t been able to get their brain to same level of desire. If your subconscious brain thinks it’s going to be easy and drops your focus by that one percent, you’re not going to be the same player. And it’s really hard for the logical part of your brain to convince your subconscious to change.

Can they avoid the trap?

What can a player do to protect against the complacency? I wish I had a better answer, but I don’t know. Tell me how to manipulate the subconscious and we’ll go make a billion dollars together.

Some players naturally have a high level of intensity. When you hear players mention each other’s professionalism, this is largely what they mean: how much desire does he bring every day to the job? Does he provide the same work rate in everything he does? It generally aligns with what you’d guess from watching on TV.

A coach plays a huge rule, as well. The staff can show clips of the opponent's best moments, creating a sense that the team is better than previously perceived. Some coaches also just have that sense of “if you drop your intensity for one second I will kill you with my bare hands” vibe. Or sometimes a manager can rotate players, and start a group who will be excited to be on the field at all.

Training environment, too, has a huge effect. If a player or team trains at a certain level all the time, it doesn’t have it in its muscle memory to drop its performance. Again, though, it’s tough to get humans to that level every single day. Coaches who try don’t tend to last very long.

Complacency is one of the top problems all teams and players face. It’s always lurking around the corner. You even know it’s there. But it’s only when you stop looking for it that it pops out.

The USMNT might not need a result on Tuesday. But call your moms, y’all.

Bobby Warshaw is a former MLS player who played three seasons in the league (2011-2013), drafted No. 17 by FC Dallas after an accomplished college career at Stanford University. He also has experience playing professionally in Scandinavia. A columnist and podcast host for Howler magazine, Warshaw has also appeared on ExtraTime Live and ExtraTime Radio.