Disappointing. A missed opportunity. Sure. But watching the U.S. soccer team has been riveting and we should be proud of their effort

June 27, 2010

This AP story/column about the U.S. team headlined "Loss Shows US Not Ready for Soccer's Big Time Yet" is one of the worst pieces of journalism I've seen produced about the World Cup. But I think it probably reflects the attitude of some casual and even some avid soccer fans have in the wake of the team's 2-1 extra time loss to Ghana on Saturday. I'm not quite sure who wrote it because it does not have a name attached, but I wonder how much this person actually follows the sport. It's written in an angry, sarcastic tone that makes it sound like the U.S. National Team did not just get beaten in a game, but that its players actually gathered before the contest and decided they were going to intentionally ruin the weekend for all Americans. He called the U.S. performance "a slap to every fan who turned on the TV and hoped for a win. . . " I'm hoping this column was just the result of some postgame disappointment coupled with some deadline pressure. But like I said, I think it's probably the way others are feeling, and I want to explain why it's so misguided. It begins: With a cushy road into the semifinals theirs for the taking, the Americans showed they're still, at best, a second-tier team. U.S. coach Bob Bradley and his players can bluster all they want about the progress they've made and how they can play with anybody at the World Cup. When they had a chance to move into soccer's elite, against a Ghana team they should have handled easily, the Americans came out looking flat and uninspired. Yes, by winning Group C, the U.S. ended up in the least imposing quadrant of the bracket, in which one of the U.S. Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea was going to end up in the semifinals. No Germany, Brazil, Argentina or Holland. That's represents a nice opportunity. But didn't folks learn anything from the group stages. The "easy" group with Slovenia and Algeria was not so easy after all. And Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea are all better than Slovenia and Algeria. The U.S. is capable of beating Ghana, South Korea and Uruguay. But I wouldn't necessarily even call the Americans the favorite among those four. They're probably all pretty evenly matched. A Ghana team they should have handled easily? Just because most Americans don't know the names Asamoah Gyan, Kwadwo Asamoah, Andre Ayew, Kevin Prince Boateng, Samuel Inkoom and Anthony Annan, does not mean that nobody else does. These guys are some of the hottest prospects in world football, who will soon command big transfer fees from well-known clubs in top leagues. Some of them helped Ghana win the U20 World Cup last fall (where they beat Brazil in the final), while many of them were part of the team that reached the final of the African Cup of Nations this past winter. Ghana has good players, and they played well. I thought their goalkeeper Richard Kingson was the weak link on the team, but he may have been his team's Man of the Match on Saturday. As for the author's claim that the U.S. are "still at-best a second-tier team". He's right. If the first tier is Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Holland and a couple others, then the U.S. is among a nice-sized group in the second tier. Even if the U.S. had reached the semifinal, it only would have proved again that the current U.S. squad, a second-tier team, is capable of playing with and beating an elite team on any-given day. That "elite" status has much more to do with the number of world class or close to world- class players a country is producing on a regular basis. The U.S. is producing better players than ever, who play for good clubs in the best European leagues. The way it's trending, the U.S. could be "elite" one day, but it wasn't going to happen based on results in this World Cup. The author does criticize the team's play, saying they "sleepwalked through their star turn" and that the "only player who played with any passion was Landon Donovan" He called out Bob Bradley's decision making, specifically starting Ricardo Clark over Maurice Edu. First of all, Bradley did make a mistake in starting Clark, which he basically acknowledged when he took him off for Edu in the first half. The move was one of Bradley's first mistakes in the tournament. It came back to haunt the U.S. not just because Clark gave the ball away that led to the first Ghana goal, but also because the Edu for Clark swap used up one substitution that would have been nice to have when the U.S. was pushing for a goal late. Some people also believe Bradley should have started super-sub Benny Feilhaber instead of Robbie Findley. Though I'm not as quick to criticize that move. Bradley clearly felt a forward like Findley could help stretch the defense and give Donovan and Dempsey some open space to maneuver. That didn't' really work, though Findley did have one nice scoring chance, which he didn't take very well. But Bradley was just one member of the U.S. contingent who had a tough day. The Americans came out flat, though turned it around late in the first half, and really played quite well for much of the second half; The U.S. did give up another early goal; Defensive mistakes led to both Ghana goals, though both were phenomenal individual finishes; Tim Howard, as great as he was all tournament, did get beaten near-post on the first goal and up high on the second; Steve Cherundolo struggled against Ayew early; Jozy Altidore failed to get shots on target; Fatigue seemed to set in late and when it did, Donovan and Dempsey had few answers but to send hopeful balls into the box. In other words, the U.S. did not play its best game. Far from it. But when there are two evenly matched teams, the game is usually decided by little mistakes. Some of the U.S. mistakes were of their own doing, others were caused by Ghana. But I thought the U.S. left everything it had out on the field in terms of effort. To say they "sleepwalked" through the game . . . well I don't know what game he was watching. Also "the only one playing with any passion was Donovan." Did he see Michael Bradley and Edu turning up anywhere there was trouble, winning balls and getting into the attack, Dempsey, Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra sacrificing their physical well-being for headers at both ends of the field, Jonathan Bornstein turning in another confident display against some talented wingers and Howard joining the attack as the U.S. pushed for a late equalizer? Finally, the author talks about a missed opportunity for soccer in this country: You want soccer to be a major player in the U.S. sporting landscape, like the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball? Then you can't sleepwalk through your star turns. But that's what they did Saturday night, and by doing so, gave a slap to every fan who turned on the TV and hoped for a win, if not a last-minute miracle. And Later: Yes, the Americans reached the round of 16 -- further than defending champion Italy and 2006 runner-up France got. But this was their tournament to make a mark. Never before had the folks back home been so interested, so invested in the World Cup and a U.S. team. Celebrity fans are the ultimate form of street cred, and check out the All-Star lineup in the VIP seats at Royal Bafokeng Stadium on Saturday night: Former President Bill Clinton. Mick Jagger. Kobe Bryant -- in a U.S. jersey, no less. Soccer gets its turn in the spotlight once every four years. By the time the World Cup kicks off in Brazil in 2014, Donovan will be 32, Dempsey 31, and Bocanegra and Howard both 35. They all could still be playing, but there's no telling if they'll have lost a step or three. The United States does have some talented young players, but there's no way to predict how they'll develop. No, this was the time for the Americans to grab hold of their opportunity and do something special. And they blew it. Yes, this was a missed opportunity. I think everybody associated with soccer or who follows soccer in this country would have liked the U.S. team to be the hot topic of conversation for two more weeks. But Saturday's game, and each of the four U.S. contests for that matter, have been riveting television. The Ghana game ended in disappointment. But in the sports bar I was in, a standing-room only crowd, many of them no-doubt casual fans, were glued to the television for two and a half hours, gasping at every miss, cheering Donovan's penalty conversion, shouting for additional penalty calls and biting their nails during the extra time. I imagine it was like this at sports bars and in living rooms all over the country. If you enjoyed the U.S.'s valiant effort against England, the comeback against Slovenia, the late drama against Algeria and were ooohing and aaahing and hooting and hollering during the Ghana game . . . guess what? You are a soccer fan. Even though you are disappointed by the loss, you still enjoyed the ride. Fans haven't come away with the satisfaction of reaching a semifinal, but they apparently have been entertained along the way. It's too bad that unlike the European, African, Asian and South American teams, the U.S. will not participate in a highly competitive continental tournament between World Cups. The CONCACAF Gold Cup includes too many minnows and simply won't register much with casual fans. But there is plenty of soccer out there on television and at your local MLS stadium. If folks were truly entertained by what they have seen the last few weeks, it seems they would be doing themselves a disservice by not indulging in a little soccer viewing in the next 48 months.
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