wherein DF travels to Deutschland for the 2006 world cup to follow the US men's national soccer team

Monday, June 26, 2006

USA-GHA II: the aftermath and aftermyths

So the final whistle blew in Nuernberg, and that far-from-great chapter in US soccer history ended. In the intervening days a ton has been said about the fallout from the USA's bleak performance, much of it excoriating criticism in the mainstream media. It's taken me a while to sort through all my thoughts, and there's certainly no reason to rehash the simple theme of disappointment and finger-pointing at players, so instead I'm going to choose a few themes that have emerged that I don't think quite work as well as some that do.

Myth #1: The World Cup exposed the US as a subpar soccer nation. I don't buy this one, any more than I think the 2002 WC proved that we're one of the leading soccer nations. While I bristle at the practice of assigning empty adjectives to teams ("first-tier", "world-class", etc.), I do think you can get a rough sense of where we are in relation to other teams. I'd peg the US as somewhere in the top 20-25 teams in the world, certainly nothing like their FIFA ranking suggests (no knowledgeable fan ever thought there was anything to this). This means they can be expected to and deserve to qualify for the WC, but aren't odds-on likely to make the second round, although they might if they play well and breaks go their way. This could change given the emergence or fading of certain players, but as of now I think that's where we stand.

Non-myth #2: Our big players didn't step up. It's a real shame to have to acknowledge this, and some people have been too critical, but there's no way around it. LD was a non-factor except for about a half-hour of the Italy game; Beasley is nowhere near as bad as people have been saying (remember he was involved in the only two plays where the US put the ball in the net), but still didn't look anything like the brash young firebrand who broke out against Portugal in 02; and even KK didn't have the superhuman WC that I know he's capable of (I've seen him stop breakaways before but he didn't manage that against Rosicky or Draman; his bad distribution led to the first CR goal; and Friedel stopped two penalties in 02, which KK did not). Thing is, it just doesn't seem to me that our players have realized the promise they showed in 2002 and earlier. It may be that they haven't challenged themselves (but Bease is playing in Europe, which weakens the "LD must go to Europe" theme).

Myth #3: Arena must go. I don't know if he'll stay but the criticism of him doesn't seem quite right. His use of the 4-5-1 was a reasonable concession to our incredibly weak forward pool, and included three attacking players in midfield to make up for the single striker. And as for the accusation that he lost his nerve in using a 4-5-1 against Ghana, I'm not convinced that the lineup was the best, but let's give Bruce credit for the relatively gutsy move of starting two young untested players (Convey and Dempsey). While Bruce may go (because of his own choice or the USSF's), I don't see it as mandatory because I'm not sure what the alternative is. I really doubt Mooch Myernick would do a better job. As for foreign coaches, they're in short supply and also it's not clear whether this group of players would work well with a foreign coach, as opposed to someone who's very familiar with the distinctive US Soccer situation).

Non-myth #4: The US fell apart psychologically. "Fell apart" may be a bit harsh, but I don't think it's far off the mark. In the runup to the World Cup, the team began to sputter in the Germany game where we lost 4-1, and then looked tepid and unimpressive in the pre-WC friendlies (losing to Morocco, then beating Venezuela, Angola and Latvia by narrow scorelines). The Bruce seemed to me unusually testy and irritable with the media in the month before things started up, and then Beasley spouted off with the press. I'd always thought the US had a distinctively well-disciplined and unified camp, but I began to doubt that as the WC approached. I think the discord off the field showed in our play.

Myth #5: We didn't get any breaks. Not entirely so: in the Italy game we got a massive one: the equalizer that Italy scored for us, and that basically kept us in the World Cup. But also let's not forget Boca's clearing header that clanged off our crossbar. If that ball is five inches lower, we lose that game and are eliminated after two. We battled hard against Italy and deserved the draw, but good breaks helped keep us level with them. Now it's true that bad breaks--most notably many of the calls against Italy (cards included), hitting the post twice at crucial moments against CR and Ghana, the really poor penalty call against Ghana, and the non-call on the Reyna foul that led to Ghana's first goal--really hurt us in that game and others. So I think we can say that we got more than our share of bad breaks this WC. But good teams make their own luck, and luck wasn't responsible for the horrible game we played agaisnt CR or the flat one we played against Ghana. What was missing for us was that extra edge of brilliance on occasion that put us on the map in 2002--Friedel's saves, McBride's and Donovan's goals, the overall sense of purpose and intensity that made me proud of every game we played four years ago (ok, not Poland).

Non-myth #6: We suffer by not playing enough high-level games. This has got to be true. We play a mere handful of friendlies between WCs, and then we expect to be able to play at the highest level against these teams? No way. Geography puts us at a disadvantage on this score, but I think it would help a ton to participate in the Copa America and to take seriously the Confederations Cup (as opposed to using it as a proving ground for rising MLS players). The problem as I see it is that when you play as we do against Concacaf-level opposition for the most part, you can get away with the kind of errors that will kill you at the highest level. The more we play against higher-level opposition, the more we'll be punished into learning to play a less mistake-prone game. More games against top-level opposition will also acclimate us to the higher level of intensity that will be necessary to succeed at the WC.

Myth #7: The US doesn't have enough talent to succeed at the World Cup. This one is self-evidently false, as anyone who watched in 2002 will readily understand. But it is true that the US isn't in a position of a team like England who can play at a sub-par level and still get relatively far in the tournament. If we're going to have success, we're going to have to play at our absolute highest level and also get a few breaks, just like in 2002. Compare, for example, the South Koreans. They play with an out-of-their-minds intensity for every minute of every game, and as a result they overachieve based on their talent level (e.g., semis in 2002). But even that wasn't good enough for them this time as they ended up going out when they couldn't beat the Swiss despite enormous effort (and some tough breaks). I believe we saw that from the US against Italy, but one game does not a World Cup make.

Non-myth #8: This World Cup was a big disappointment for the US. Easy call here--of course it was a disappointment. But let's be clear: it was a disappointment not because the US went out in the first round (many people correctly said before the tournament started that given the level of the opposition, the US could play excellent soccer, better than they had in 2002, and still lose all three games), but because of how they went out. I'm still not sure what happened agaisnt the Czech Republic, but I remain shocked that in what was our most important game in four years we came out looking almost as bad as I've seen us look in the entire time I've watched this team. And against Ghana, I expected to see the US play with the ferocious intensity they showed against Italy, but they looked, well, mediocre (and Ghana, while by no means brilliant, simply did what they needed and took both chances that we and the ref gifted them). If the US had battled hard all three games but fallen short (such as South Korea did), I could have regarded the World Cup as a qualified success. But the general sense of testiness the team showed and their inconsistent performance on the field didn't leave a lot to feel happy about.

Myth #9: The US was overconfident. This is one propounded by a lot of the media back home, and I just don't see it. No one ever said this team had a shot to win the WC. Bruce and others explicitly disavowed the inflated FIFA rankings. Everyone who knew anything about soccer understood the difficulty of the group and the possibility that the US wouldn't get out of it. The US did, to be fair, go into the WC with a posture that suggested "we're a damn good team and we're ready and able to compete with anyone." And while the performances didn't bear that out, that wasn't an unreasonable approach to take to the tournament--it seems like at the very least you have to bring that kind of attitude to have a chance. I think the buildup was dead-on, and I think people who misunderstood that are primarily types who just don't understand the context of world soccer.

Non-myth #10: The US fans were awesome. If there's one bright spot for the US after this WC (aside from Clint Demspey, whose success was by the way, presciently foretold on this very site), it was that US soccer has a broad and enthusiastic following willing to shell out for a trip around the world to follow a team despite their underdog status. One of the most bittersweet moments for me came at the end of the Ghana game, when we had just been eliminated, and the great supporters section just kept cheering and cheering the team--despite their disappointing play--as the players came over and showed their appreciation for an effort that quite frankly impressed me far more than the USA's play on the field did. More than anything, it was a chance to feel--for a change--like I'm not one of two or three people who actually cares about this team. With distances so far apart in the US, and friendlies relatively rare, it's not often that the entirety of the devoted US soccer fanbase gets together in one place, but this happened in Germany 2006 and it was great. The fans were the real US stars of this world cup. Every fanfest before every game--in Gelsenkirchen, Kaiserslautern, and Nuernberg--made the experience an unforgettable one that I wouldn't have missed for the world.


Anonymous Susan said...

Airfare to Germany--$800?
Trainfare around the country--$300?
Food & beer--$300?

Discovering that you're not one of "two or three" people who support US soccer--priceless!

Thanks again for sharing your World Cup odyssey with us.

4:35 PM, June 26, 2006


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