Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


BRAD FRIEDEL, USA’S BEST EVER?

Brad Friedel, one of the most decorated players in U.S. history, announced that he would retire at the end of Tottenham Hotspur’s English Premier League season.

The 44-year-old, who made his EPL debut 17 seasons ago with Liverpool and went on to play for Blackburn and Aston Villa, holds the league record for consecutive starts with 310 and made 450 overall.  He’s eighth all-time in career shutouts with 132, and he is only the second goalkeeper in league history to score a goal.

Friedel made 82 international appearances from 1992 through 2004.  He won the 1992 Hermann Trophy as a UCLA junior and two years later was the USA’s backup goalkeeper to Tony Meola, along with Juergen Sommer, at the 1994 World Cup.  He was the 1997 Goalkeeper of the Year, with the Columbus Crew, in his only season in Major League Soccer.  Friedel then left for England, where he made 450 starts–310 consecutively.  The Ohio native recorded 132 shutouts (eighth all-time in the EPL) and became only the second goalkeeper to score a Premier League goal, still only one of five to do so.

The 44-year-old Friedel, described by one writer as “follicularly fulsome” at the beginning of his career and bald as a soccer ball since, now brings his curious British/Midwestern accent to the tube as a full-time commentator for Fox Sports.  [May 14]

Comment:  For all the accolades that came Tim Howard’s way for his heroic performance in the USA’s overtime loss to Belgium in the second round of the 2014 World Cup, the greatest sustained  World Cup performance by a U.S. goalkeeper was Friedel’s at Korea/Japan 2002.

Friedel was the guy who, at France ’98, was known as the USA’s No. 1 1/2, losing to Yugoslavia, 1-0, after No. 1 Kasey Keller had lost to Germany, 2-0, and Iran, 2-1.  But four years later, he was the undisputed starter.

He saved penalty kicks against host South Korea and Poland in the first round, becoming the only ‘keeper to accomplish that feat since Jan Tomaszewski during Poland’s run to third place at the 1974 World Cup.  Friedel’s performance against Korea included three saves of shots from inside 10 yards–without those, the U.S. doesn’t survive with a 1-1 tie and doesn’t advance out of its group.  Then, Friedel doesn’t post his 2-0 shutout of Mexico in the second round.  And in the quarterfinals, maybe there’s a call on Torsten Fring’s goal line handball on the shot by Gregg Berhalter, maybe the U.S. takes the game beyond overtime to penalty kicks, and maybe Brad Friedel . . . .

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THE VERY QUIET ANNUAL WOMEN’S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

The U.S. National Women’s Team awoke in the second half to score three goals and cruise past Switzerland, 3-0, in an Algarve Cup match at Vila Real de Santo Antonio and take over first place in Group “B” with a 2-0-0 record.   Alex Morgan opened the scoring in the 54th minute, Amy Rodriguez doubled the lead with a brilliant finish off a goalmouth scramble in the 72nd and Abby Wambach, aided by a poor Swiss back pass, sealed the victory nine minutes from time.

The Americans will play Iceland three days later in Lagos their its final group match.  The two best group winners will meet in the first-place game; Brazil leads Group “A” (1-0-1) and France tops Group “C” (2-0-0).  [March 6]

Comment:  This 22nd Algarve Cup underscores how far women’s soccer has come . . . and how far it has to go in comparison to the men’s game.

Held in the tourist-friendly southernmost region of Portugal, it’s the biggest annual tournament in women’s soccer.  Nine of this year’s 12 national teams have qualified for this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.  With the exception of host Portugal (No. 42), every team is in the top 20 in FIFA’s latest Women’s World Rankings.  How tough is the competition?  The U.S. won two Women’s World Cups before it won the first of its nine Algarve Cups.  And Fox Sports is televising it live.

Yet despite the prestige and world-class quality of this event, attendance puts the Algarve Cup on a par with a decent NCAA Division I women’s match.  The U.S.-Switzerland game at Vila Real de Santo Antonio’s Estadio Municipal drew a crowd generously listed as 500; the USA’s 2-1 win over Norway at the same site two days earlier also attracted “500.”  Not all five of the Algarve Cup venues have bothered to report turnstile counts, but through the first two rounds of group play the biggest turnout was 769 for Sweden’s 4-2 upset of top-ranked Germany.  Denmark appears to be a particularly hard sell:  133 patrons watched the Danes lose to Japan, 2-1, at Stadium Bela Vista in Parchal, and another 45 returned to see them get thumped by France, 4-1.  How seriously are the Portuguese organizers taking all this?  The U.S.-Iceland match cannot be televised due to inadequate lighting at Municipal Stadium in Lagos.

This is not unusual.  The local Portuguese have a history of being completely indifferent to this showcase of women’s international soccer.  Most matches have been played before crowds in the dozens–a stark reminder that outstanding women’s soccer doesn’t always draw.  A women’s Olympic soccer gold-medal match?  Sure.  And the 2015 Women’s World Cup final on July 5 in Vancouver will fill the 55,000-seat BC Place.  As for last year’s Algarve Cup final at Estadio Algarve in Faro, 600 bothered to show up for Germany’s 3-0 rout of defending world champion Japan.

Imagine, then, a men’s Algarve Cup, an annual tournament involving the world’s 12 best national teams–virtually a combination of the European Championship and Copa America.  To the critics of the expansion of the men’s World Cup over the years, this would be a Hyper-World Cup with none of the long-shots and no-hopers from Africa, Asia and CONCACAF (apologies to the U.S. and Mexico) that those critics dismiss as mere fodder.  Play it in Portugal, where the national team is currently ranked seventh worldwide, and you’ve got No. 1 Germany, No. 2 Argentina, No. 3 Colombia, No. 4 Belgium, No. 5 Holland, No. 6 Brazil, No. 8 France, No. 9 Uruguay, No. 10 Spain, No. 11 Switzerland and No. 12 Italy.  Not bad.  And chances are it would out-draw the Algarve Cup.

 

 



ONE LAST VOTE FOR LANDON DONOVAN

Landon Donovan went out a winner on his last day as a professional player as the Los Angeles Galaxy defeated the New England Revolution, 2-1, in extra time at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA, to capture its third MLS Cup in four years and its Major League Soccer-record fifth overall.

Donovan, 32, announced in August that he would retire after the MLS season.  Thanks to the Galaxy’s victories over Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders in the playoffs, his season was extended through November into December.

Though he had an unspectacular afternoon against New England–drawing a caution at the end of the first half and missing on a 20-yard free kick in OT that would have put L.A. ahead–Donovan in the end lifted the MLS Cup trophy for a record sixth time.

He also exits as MLS’s all-time scoring leader and assist leader, and he holds so many other league regular-season and post-season marks that the only ones left involve either goalkeeping or defender-of-the-year awards.  His list of U.S. international records is equally long.  Donovan’s 57 goals include five in the World Cup and 10 game-winners, nine multi-goal games, 14 goals scored in the final 15 minutes of a match, nine alone in 2007 (tied with Eric Wynalda for most in a year) and 15 penalty kicks in 15 attempts.  His 58 assists–10 of which were recorded in 2009 alone–are 36 ahead of No. 2 on the list, Cobi Jones.  Donovan is second all-time in international appearances at 156 games, and if he weren’t left off the U.S. roster for the 2014 World Cup, he might have picked up seven more caps (three World Cup warm-ups and four games in Brazil itself), leaving him one behind Jones’ American mark of 164.  Of course, if Donovan, who logged nearly 13,000 minutes–nine days on the field–for the national team, hadn’t been dumped by U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann, he might have continued adding to his numbers into 2015 and beyond.  (He’s only 32.  Galaxy teammate Robbie Keane, 34, says he expects to play until he’s 38.  The great Pele retired just shy of his 37th birthday.)

The individual awards in his trophy case are topped by the Golden Ball he was handed as the best player at the 1999 FIFA Under-17 Tournament, and he was voted the 2002 World Cup’s Best Young Player.  [December 7]

Comment:  Donovan has won several other individual honors during his career, including the U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year (2003, ’04, ’09 and ’10) and Futbol de Primera Player of the Year (2002, ’03, ’04, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10).  His exclusion from the U.S. World Cup team, of course, left him out of the running for either trophy this year.

Howard was the clear favorite for both awards as he set U.S. records for career wins, 55, and goalkeeper appearances, 104, blowing past the now-retired Kasey Keller (53 and 102).  His 15 shutouts in 2013-14 helped his club, Everton, finish fifth in the English Premier League.  And there were those World Cup-record 16 saves in the USA’s 2-1 overtime loss to Belgium in the second round in Brazil.  Howard won the U.S. Soccer award with 64 percent of the vote from a panel of U.S. players, coaches, administrators and others; midfielder Jermaine Jones was second with 19 percent.  Some 200 journalists made Howard the runaway winner in the FDP balloting, giving him 363 points to Jones’ 160 and Clint Dempsey’s 147.

Anticipating the Howard landslide, one FDP voter gave Donovan one final first-place vote (with Howard second and Jones third).  However, it was based not on sentimentality but a nagging doubt.

Naming Donovan the best player in America in 2014 requires a look through a different prism.  That is, Donovan may have demonstrated his value to the U.S. National Team at the 2014 World Cup not through his presence but through his absence.

Watching players who took his place on the roster, like Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski, struggle in Brazil, must have made Donovan squirm.  Couldn’t the greatest player in American history, perhaps a year beyond his prime, have made a difference in this or that situation?  Should he have been left behind in favor of 18-year-old Julian Green, and could he have scored the goal Green scored against Belgium in overtime?  Many would say no and yes–Donovan wouldn’t have mis-hit his shot like Green’s star-kissed volley.  As for what Donovan might have done with Wonolowski’s chance at the end of regulation against the Belgians . . . .

This upside-down look at a player’s value isn’t new.  Long ago, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, coming off an NBA championship in his rookie season, suffered a serious knee injury midway through his second, in 1980-81.  The Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, and the argument was raised in many quarters that Johnson proved that he deserved the league’s Most Valuable Player award because the Lakers struggled and ultimately crashed without him.

As for Donovan, it was only one Futbol de Primera vote in the face of a landslide.  It mattered not.  It was worth using it to lift the question “What if?” into a statement.

 



BELGIUM 2, U.S. 1, AND AMERICA’S FUTURE

In a match that looked like a re-enactment of the siege of the Alamo, Belgium pounded away at the U.S. defense for 93 minutes before breaking through and ultimately winning, 2-1, in overtime to earn a World Cup quarterfinal showdown with Argentina.

Midfield dynamo Kevin De Bruyne and substitute striker Romelu Lukaku combined on both Belgian goals, beating an exhausted U.S. defense that was bombarded with 38 shots.  Three minutes into extra time, Lukaku beat U.S. defender Matt Besler down the right wing to set up De Bruyne for the first goal, then a pass by De Bruyne allowed Lukaku to score on a powerful short-range shot.  The desperate Americans staged a furious comeback and were rewarded in the 107th minute when 18-year-old substitute Julian Green volleyed home a chipped pass into the box by Michael Bradley, but the rally fell short.

The game was played in Salvador, and fittingly the man of the match was the USA’s savior, Tim Howard, who put on a two-hour goalkeeping clinic.  He made 16 saves, many of them spectacular, in sparing his side an embarrassingly lopsided defeat.  It was the most saves in a World Cup game since the statistic was first kept in 1966.

Remarkably, the Americans nearly won the game in the final seconds of regulation added-on time.  Substitute Chris Wondolowski, a natural poacher, latched onto the ball in a goalmouth scramble but put his shot over the bar in an effort to lift it over sprawling Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.  [July 1]

Comment:  Now, following the handwringing, the postmortems start.  Americans caught World Cup fever in a big way for the first time.  But the Belgian police banged on the door and broke up their party, and they want the next party to last beyond midnight.

How can the U.S. get better and go farther at Russia 2018 (the team’s qualification being a given)?  A stronger Major League Soccer?  An expanded U.S. academy program developing more and more young talent?  The U.S. goal will soon be in the capable hands of Brad Guzan–unless the unpredictable Juergen Klinsmann tries to make Howard, now 35, the USA’s answer to Dino Zoff.  DaMarcus Beasley isn’t likely to play in a fifth World Cup, so there is a need for a left back, and forward Clint Dempsey will be 35 in four years.  Whether it’s Besler or Omar Gonzalez or Geoff Cameron or a newcomer in the central defense, Klinsmann needs to find the right duo and stick with it.  And the midfield must somehow get better without a Xavi or Andres Iniesta on the horizon.

Who knows if a “Group of Death” awaits the U.S. if it reaches Russia.  And if it reaches the second round there, will its opponent be Belgium, or a side like Ghana (2010), or Mexico (2002) … or Brazil (1994).  But it is a sure thing that the U.S. will be better–by how much is unknown, but it will be better.

The U.S. is nowhere near reaching its considerable potential.  Participation figures that exceed 20 million and our soccer infrastructure say so.  There’s also that intangible, the slowly continuing evolution of the soccer culture here.  Since the Pele Generation of the 1970s, the sport has improved on the grassroots level by leaps and bounds–and, admittedly, sometimes by small increments–but it has improved, and that improvement goes on uninterrupted .  Compare that, then, with countries where soccer is well-established and yet the fortunes of the national team waxes and wanes, like Belgium.  Or Chile, or Portugal, or Uruguay, or Romania, or Holland, or Norway, or Colombia, or Costa Rica, or Paraguay, or Sweden, or the remnants of the former Soviet Union or former Czechoslovakia.  Most are left awaiting the emergence of its next “golden generation,” which may require several generations of waiting.  A nation like Spain played in the first World Cup in 1930 and didn’t win one for 80 years.  Hungary peaked in the early 1950s with one of the greatest teams ever and has been mostly an international soccer afterthought since.

The U.S. isn’t any of those nations.  Plot the national team’s progress on a graph and the red line continues upward, sometimes sharply (Korea/Japan ’02), sometimes not (France ’98).  It’s why many of the countries in the soccer-playing world would trade their past and present for the USA’s future in a heartbeat.



PREDICTIONS, PREDICTIONS

The 20th World Cup will kick off Thursday, June 12, in Sao Paulo when host Brazil plays Croatia in a Group “A” match.  The Brazilians go into the 32-nation, 64-game tournament as an 11-4 favorite to lift the World Cup trophy for a record sixth time.  Oddsmakers also have established Argentina as a 4-1 pick to win it, followed by defending champ Spain and Germany, both at 6-1.  The United States is a 250-1 longshot.  [June 11]

Comment:  Here are predictions for Brasil ’14:

o  Argentina will defeat Brazil in the final on July 13 at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium, site of Brazil’s nightmare 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the last match of the 1950 World Cup.  This time, the Argentines will win an end-to-end thriller, 3-2, to capture its third world championship and its first in 28 years.  Why?  Because of Lionel Messi, who four years ago in South Africa played a part in several Argentine goals but scored only one.  This time, the four-time FIFA World Player of the Year runs wild.  Along with Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, the Argentine attack builds momentum against soft Group “F” opponents Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria, a momentum that only grows in the knockout rounds.  In the third-place match, a banged-up Germany defeats an aging Spain … unless an outsider crashes the semifinals.  Uruguay and Belgium are popular picks for that role, but Switzerland lurks.

o  The U.S. will confound the experts, defy common sense, and advance out of Group “G”, the so-called “Group of Death”–and it won’t require a brutal tackle on Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo.  Juergen Klinsmann’s side has enjoyed an encouraging run-up to Brazil without suffering injury, and its considerable fitness level gives it an edge in the heat of coastal cities Natal and Recife and the Amazon jungle’s Manaus.  Under Klinsmann the U.S. has become the attack-minded side it was not under then-coach Bob Bradley four years ago, and he has established a culture of winning, from placing first in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers to taking the 2013 Gold Cup to beating Italy in Italy.  More important, he has instilled in his team the belief that it’s not just Germany that’s capable of a late miracle comeback.  The U.S. enters its seventh straight World Cup without international stars, as usual, but as goalkeeper Brad Friedel, hero of the USA’s 2002 quarterfinal run, said in a recent interview, the Americans can do it as a team, if every player earns a 1-to-10 rating of 7 for every match.

o  World Cup television viewership in the U.S. will dwarf the ratings numbers established at South Africa ’10.  No matter where a World Cup is played, a World Cup game is scheduled to kick off in what is prime time in Europe, or close to it–the rest of the world be damned. With this being the first World Cup played in the Western Hemisphere in two decades, we Americans finally get reasonable game times:  noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. EDT on most days.  That’s a far cry from Korea/Japan 2002, when some games started at 2 a.m. on the West Coast.  Meanwhile, greasing the skids is the fact that, with apps and expanded streaming services, this will be the most digitally interactive World Cup ever.

o  ESPN/ESPN2/ABC has once again gone all-British with its play-by-play commentators.  Ian Darke rightfully gets the choice assignments, including the final, but it will only influence more in the American soccer media to go Brit.  A player, wearing a “kit” and a pair of “boots” and playing not on a field but a “pitch” will score two goals, which will be referred to as a “brace.”   One goal will have been made possible by a teammate who, at “pace,” sends him an “inch-perfect pass.”  That will leave the opposition “on its back foot” yet possibly inspire it into a “purple patch.”  Anyway, look forward to another four-year period in which an increasingly number of Americans who know better refer to any singular thing in soccer as a collective:  “France are,” “Uruguay are,” and the “Real Salt Lake are.”  I are looking forward to it.  Or we am looking forward to it.

o  Americans who really, really don’t like soccer–that is, those who feel threatened by it–will dig in their heels even further over the next four weeks.  Everyone from newspaper columnists and radio sports talkers to Internet commentators will call the World Cup a dull, overblown waste of time and make xenophobic remarks about the participating nations and their fans.  But with each World Cup, their footing is growing more unsteady.  Those cracks about foreigners and soccer can’t be so easily excused anymore, not with some of our cherished sports–like golf, basketball, hockey and tennis–now a virtual United Nations of participants.  Those jokes about one-named Brazilian soccer players?  See “LeBron,” “Kobe.”  The argument that soccer in the U.S. is a game for kids?  The estimated number of soccer players in this country has ballooned from 8 million in 1982 to 25 million today.  Hard to believe that a few of those millions aren’t adult players, particularly when what we see at the local park doesn’t say otherwise.  And the line about soccer and 1-0 games leaving Americans bored beyond belief?  That kinda lost something with Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria four years ago.  What’s left is the complaint that penalty kicks are ridiculous and the charge that players feigning injury make soccer players crying, whining wimps.  PKs are ridiculous, and a Nobel Prize awaits the first person who figures out a better tie-breaker.  As for the macho involved in playing soccer compared to more manful, manly and masculine American sports, you could start with the hundreds of thousands of soccer players recovering from concussions caused by head-to-head contact.  Or ACL tears.  Or you could go straight to last Saturday, when Italy’s Riccardo Montolivo and Mexico’s Luis Montes sustained broken legs–in friendlies.

o  Finally, this official World Cup song will be forgotten three days after the Brazil-Croatia opener:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGtWWb9emYI



HISTORIC, OR ANOTHER OF THOSE OCCASIONAL SPIKES ON THE GRAPH?

The U.S. National Team upset Italy, 1-0, in a friendly at Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris to post its first victory over the Italians in 78 years.  Clint Dempsey rolled a shot from the top of the penalty area past the outstretched hands of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon in the 55th minute and the Americans, behind some stout defending, held on for their fourth consecutive win under new coach Juergen Klinsman.  [February 29]

Comment I:  The triumph was described in many quarters as historic, and given the fact that the U.S. went into the match with a 0-7-3 record against the Azzurri and had been out-scored, 32-4, over those 10 matches, the feat was indeed historic.  Italian commentators no doubt shrugged it off as an aberration.  Dempsey’s goal, they no doubt pointed out, came against the run of play–decidedly.  Italy out-shot the U.S., 19-4, and would have had more had the pesky Sebastian Giovinco and mates not been flagged for offside nine times (to the USA’s zero), mostly on hopeful balls lofted over the U.S. back line.  Italy also had the edge in corner kicks, 8-2, and Buffon was forced to make only one save to U.S. ‘keeper Tim Howard’s seven, which included a clutch kick-save in the fourth minute.  This also wasn’t a full-strength Italian squad; neither could it be said of the U.S., but while the Americans remain sorely lacking in depth, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli could trot out a starting lineup heavy on players from Juventus, at the moment Serie A’s second-place club.   Moreover, all would agree that a better look at reality came in the teams’ last meeting, at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, a competitive match in which Italy took the U.S. to school in a 3-1 win that left the Americans’ hopes in that tournament on life support.

So was this upset truly meaningful?  If so, the U.S. in recent years has enough such moments to fill a history book, starting with the 2-0 win over Mexico in the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals, and followed on a semi-regular basis by England 2-0 at U.S. Cup ’93,  Colombia 2-1 at the 1994 World Cup, Argentina 3-0 at the 1995 Copa America, Brazil 1-0 at the 1998 Gold Cup semifinals, Germany 2-0 at the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup, Portugal 3-2 at the 2002 World Cup, and the biggest of all, World-Cup-champion-to-be Spain 2-0 at the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals. 

The best way to describe what happened in Genoa is to suggest that the U.S. further cemented its reputation as a team capable of anything at anytime, an erratic opponent who’s a no-win proposition for the world powers.  Why should they relish facing an opponent they’re expected to beat when, on the odd day, they’ll fall victim to grit, fitness and just enough skill to get the job done?  At the same time, this giant killer can’t get past the mid-level teams on a consistent basis, as it demonstrated in its 1-0 loss to Belgium in Brussels in September, Klinsmann’s third match in charge.

What may have been most noteworthy about Italy 0, U.S. 1 is that Klinsmann stuck his neck out and agreed to have the game scheduled at all.  He rolled the dice in Genoa and won with a conservative 4-5-1.  His 4-4-2 may come and go, depending on the opposition and the circumstances, but it’s clear that he intends, as he’s said, to pull the Americans out of their “comfort zone” and tap into the bravura and blue-collar characteristics that made the U.S. job so appealing to the German in the first place.  In sum, Klinsmann with nothing to lose, the fellow hired to be the anti-Bob Bradley.

Comment II:  Klinsmann’s boldness crossed a line when he substituted a spent Jozy Altidore with Terrence Boyd. a striker who has yet to work his way from the Borussia Dortmund reserves into the club’s first team.  Boyd was clearly a fish out of water, and it can be gently said that he was lucky not to be shown a yellow card for a high foot a few minutes into his 11-minute cameo.  A 21-year-old kid making his debut against Italy in a one-goal game?  There are limits.

Comment III:  It’s been nearly 20 years since Nike took over for adidas as the national teams’ outfitter, and it still hasn’t gotten it right.  The same company that has repeatedly ruined Brazil’s classic jersey–and those of the countless other national teams and prominent clubs it has come to sponsor–dressed the U.S. for its Italy match in something that could best be described as a bad version of Arsenal in navy blue.  In fact, it simply looked like the Americans had their sleeves ripped off, revealing their white long underwear.  Fortunately, the U.S. played better than it looked, sartorially speaking.  

Comment IV:  On one day, the U.S. National Women’s Team routed Denmark, 5-0, in Portugal in its Algarve Cup opener; the U.S. National Under-23 Team blanked Mexico’s U-23s, 2-0, in Dallas in an Olympic qualifying tune-up; and the U.S. National Team shocked Italy, 1-0, in a friendly in Genoa.  Oh, and the Mexican National Team bowed to Colombia, 2-0, in a friendly in Miami.

It won’t take away the sting of a day like June 25 last year, when Mexico thumped the U.S., 4-2, at the CONCACAF Gold Cup final … but for American fans, it doesn’t hurt.



ONE OF LAST LINKS TO USA’S FINEST, UNLIKELY, HOUR AND A HALF
February 12, 2012, 11:37 pm
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One of the most notable figures in the early history of American soccer, Harry Keough, died at his home in St. Louis.  He was 84.

Keough was the broad-shouldered center back of the U.S. team that upset England, 1-0, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in the first round of the 1950 World Cup, a result considered by many perhaps the biggest upset ever in sports.  England, inventors of the game with a side made up of First Division professionals, came to Brazil as tournament favorite while the Americans were a collection of semipros.

Keough, a postal carrier by trade, earned 17 caps in the late 1940s and ’50s.  He also led St. Louis Kutis to the 1957 U.S. National Open Cup and six consecutive U.S. National Amateur Cups beginning in 1956.   Keough went on to a long and successful career as a collegiate coach.  After helping Missouri’s Florissant Valley become a junior college powerhouse, he took the helm at Saint Louis University and guided the Billikens to NCAA Division I championships in 1968 (shared with Michigan State), 1969, ’70, ’72 and ’73, compiling a 213-50-23 record from 1967 through ’82.

In 1976, Keough was inducted along with the rest of his 1950 U.S. teammates into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, and in 1990 he became, along with ex-teammate Walter Bahr, the go-to guy for media members looking for a quote regarding the significance of America’s first World Cup appearance in four decades.   With Keough’s passing, only three members of that U.S. team remain:  Bahr, John Souza and Frank Borghi. [February 6]

Comment:  A fluke, a mistake, a month of Sundays in collision, but without the improbable heroics of Keough & Co. nearly 62 years ago, this country’s soccer’s history, at a glance, would’ve been a blank slate for 45 long years–from the USA’s two-win march to the semifinals at the first World Cup in 1930 to the arrival of Pele in 1975.   And when it came to America’s feeble hurrah in the middle of an otherwise barren resume, it couldn’t have had a more gracious and humble spokesman than Keough.

For those who aren’t inclined to read Geoffrey Douglas’ 1996 book “The Game of Their Lives” (or sit through the disappointing 2005 motion picture of the same name that managed to paint English star forward Stan Mortensen as an arrogant villain, among other distortions and inaccuracies), here’s a condensed account of U.S. 1, England 0, from Soccer Stories: Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats:

THE GREATEST UPSET OF THEM ALL

In terms of sheer shock value, it’s bigger than the U.S. ice hockey team’s gold medal triumph at the 1980 Winter Olympics.  It tops the 1969 Miracle Mets, Jets quarterback Joe Namath’s guaranteed win in Super Bowl III–all of them.

The U.S. National Team’s 1-0 victory over England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil was the greatest upset in the history of sports.  England, the birthplace of soccer, lost to the United States, a team of semipros–plus one amateur–representing a country that was considered at the time to be on a par with Antarctica on the international soccer totem pole.  Imagine the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball squad, the so-called Dream Team, tumbling to the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.  So preposterous was the thought of England losing to the United States that many sports editors around the world, upon seeing the final score come over the wire from Belo Horizonte, concluded that it must have been a typographical error.  Surely the actual score was England 10, United States 1.

England, at odds with FIFA from the late 1920s until just after World War II, had finally consented to play in a World Cup after skipping the first three, and it came to Brazil as a favorite.  In the first round a routine victory over Chile and the expected hammering of the United States, plus a win–at worst a tie–against Spain, and the English would be through Group 2 and into the final pool for a four-team, round-robin playoff for the crown.  From there England would cement its status as the game’s master.

The English indeed brushed aside Chile, 2-0, June 25 at the cavernous Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro in their first-ever World Cup match.  The Americans, meanwhile, had opened the cup by falling bravely to Spain in Curitiba, 3-1, giving up all three goals after the 80th minute.  Thus, the stage was set for the USA’s expected elimination at the hands of England at Belo Horizonte, a mining town some 300 miles north of Rio.

A crowd of 10,151 gathered at the intimate Mineiro Stadium on that cool, cloudy June 29, most of them curious Brazilians rooting for the United States to somehow upend England and perhaps help remove an obstacle to their own country’s championship hopes.  The field was bumpy–an impediment to English skill–and the dressing rooms were so cramped and foul that England chose to change beforehand at its hotel.  From the opening kickoff, England set up camp on the U.S. half of the field and, early on, sailed a shot just over the crossbar.  The English were laughing and joking as they sauntered back for the ensuing goal kick.  Surely the slaughter would begin soon.

But, amazingly, the game remained 0-0 beyond the first half hour, and in the 39th minute (or 37th or 38th, depending on the account), the United States scored the Goal.  U.S. halfback Walter Bahr, one of eight native-born Americans in the lineup, latched onto a throw-in from the right by captain Ed McIlvenny, dribbled 10 yards down the wing, and rifled a 25-yard shot toward the far post.  English goalkeeper Bert Williams appeared to have the situation under control, but U.S. center forward Joe Gaetjens swooped in and sent a flying header into the right corner of the net.

Several English newspaper reports claimed the ball struck the unwitting Gaetjens in the head before caroming into the goal.  “Williams in the England goal positioned himself perfectly to gather in Bahr’s shot,” wrote John Graydon of the English Saturday Post, “but Gaetjens, the American leader, ruined everything for him.  Gaetjens jumped in, failed to connect with his forehead but the ball accidentally hit the top of his head and was deflected into the England goal.”  Surviving U.S. players later contended that Gaetjens was simply an unpredictable player who chose this moment to execute an unexpected diving header.

This was England’s wake-up call, and the red-faced favorites–frustrated by an underdog listed at 500-1–responded with a second-half barrage that increased in intensity as the final whistle approached.  But goalkeeper Frank Borghi and his back line held firm, the English marksmen were off-target, and there would be no equalizer.

At one point English defender Alf Ramsey’s free kick was headed on by forward Jimmy Mullen and seemingly bound for the U.S. goal, but Borghi made a sprawling save.

England’s best chance to draw level came with five minutes remaining.  Inside forward Stanley Mortensen split the U.S. defense, only to be brought down just beyond the penalty area with a desperate gridiron football-style tackle by U.S. center back Charles Colombo, the team’s hard man who, perhaps for reasons of intimidation, always wore boxer’s training gloves when he played.  So vicious was the hit that their momentum carried Mortenson and Colombo to the penalty spot.  Italian referee Generoso Dattilo, however, did not point to the spot to give England a penalty kick and he did not eject Colombo.  True to his given name, he shook his finger at Colombo yet said, “Bono, bono, bono!” (in this instance, “Good job!” or “Way to go!”) and awarded only a free kick that England subsequently sent sailing over the bar.

Moments later, Ramsey booted a free kick into the penalty area, where Mullen’s downward header got behind Borghi, but the U.S. ‘keeper recovered and palmed the ball away for right back Harry Keough to clear.  Dattilo rejected English claims that the ball had crossed the goal line.

Through it all, the Americans kept their cool.  Late in the match, with the partisan crowd chanting Mais um! (“One more!”), the balding inside forward John “Clarkie” Souza dribbled around a half-dozen Englishmen to kill several seconds off the clock.

At the final whistle, Gaetjens, Borghi, and other U.S. players were paraded around the field on the shoulders of jubilant Brazilian fans, and others set newspapers ablaze in the stands in celebration.  U.S. coach Bill Jeffrey, a Scotsman, danced a jig on the sidelines.

While the rest of the world buzzed, this monumental upset caused less than a ripple in the United States.  Only one American reporter, Dent McSkimming, was on hand for the game, and that was only because he was on vacation and taking in the game as a tourist; his paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, ran not a McSkimming report of the game but a wire service account.  The disinterest shown the remarkable feat by the American public spoke volumes of the state of soccer in the United States in the 1950s; likewise, the shock and amazement in most quarters that greeted news of the upset said plenty about what the world thought of both English and American soccer.

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Before the upset the U.S. Soccer Federation, then known as the U.S. Football Association (USFA), all but shut down its national team program following a humiliating 7-1 loss to host Italy in its only 1934 World Cup match and a respectable 1-0 loss to the eventual gold medal-winning Italians in its lone appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  The United States entered the 1938 World Cup in France but withdrew after FIFA pitted the Americans against the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in a qualifying playoff.  (Perhaps the USFA was influenced by a September 1937 trip to Mexico City during which the national team bowed to El Tricolores, 7-2, 7-3, and 5-1 over two weeks.

Thanks in part to World War II, the USFA (since renamed the U.S. Soccer Football Association) didn’t send a selection out onto the field until the 1947 North American Championship in Havana, where Cuba and Mexico flattened the Americans by a combined 10-2.  That was followed by the 1948 London Olympics, where the Americans–featuring future World Cup team members Bahr, Colombo, Gino Parini, Eddie Souza, and John Souza (no relation)–were humbled by Italy, 9-0, in their only match.  Four days later, the squad, now appearing as the national team, was humiliated by Norway, 11-0, in Oslo, and five days after that it tumbled to Northern Ireland, 5-0, in Belfast.

Obviously, the world had changed.  The United States had beaten Belgium and Paraguay to reach the 1930 World Cup semifinals with a collection of rugged characters, a smattering with pro experience from Britain but most from the hardscrabble ethnic semipro leagues of the urban United States.  But over the next two decades professionalism spread to Brazil, Spain, and other soccer hotbeds, while elsewhere, from the amateurs of Scandinavia to the minnows of Central America, the game only got stronger–stronger than the likes of the Fall River FC of Massachusetts, Kearny Scots of New Jersey, Stix, Baer and Fuller of St. Louis, and other domestic powers of the era.  Before long, the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers playing in the American Soccer League and/or U.S. National Open Cup were hopelessly behind, a gap that would persist for a half century.

U.S. failure was supposed to have continued in September 1949 with World Cup qualifiers in Mexico City, but North America was generously awarded two slots in Brazil, and the United States team, despite being beaten by Mexico, 6-0 and 6-2, punched their ticket at the expense of the Cubans, 1-1 and 5-2.  Nevertheless, it was hardly a bold run-up to Brasil ’50.

The venerable Home International Championship, the world’s oldest international team competition (born 1883, died 1989 due to fan violence), was the annual battle for soccer supremacy among England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  In 1949-50, it doubled as a European qualifying group for the fourth World Cup, and the English finished first by two points with a 1-0 victory over Scotland in Glasgow in their final match.  A World Cup spot was reserved for the Home’s second-placed team, but the Scots deemed themselves unworthy as a runner-up and stayed home.

U.S. coach Jeffrey made his final World Cup squad selections after an April 1950 match in St. Louis between hopefuls from the East and West, which ended in a 3-3 tie.  Only seven players survived from the qualifiers in Mexico City:  Bahr, Borghi, Colombo, forward Nicholas DiOrio, defender Keough, John Souza, and forward Francis Wallace.  Jeffrey’s final selection then was thumped, 5-0, by the touring Turkish club Besiktas in St. Louis; a loss to an English B team, 1-0, at New York’s Randall’s Island, followed, and the United States was off to Brazil.

That English B team, playing as the English F.A. XI, would become part of England’s World Cup squad.  It tuned up for what would be, for some players, a trip to Brazil by winning all nine of its friendlies during a tour of Canada, outscoring the opposition 66-13, including the victory over the United States.

After the U.S.-England friendly, at a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, English Football Association president Stanley Rous, later elected head of FIFA, was gracious in his remarks regarding the U.S. team, but suggested his side was weary from the extensive travel in North America.  In conclusion, he said, “When you go to Brazil and play the English National Team, then you will find out what football is all about.”

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After the incredible upset over England, the United States was unable to ride the victory into the tournament’s final pool.  The Americans lost to Chile, 5-2, three days later at Ilha do Retiro Stadium in Recife and were eliminated.  Like the Spain match, the defense collapsed in the second half.  After rebounding from a 2-0 deficit to tie on goals by Gino Pariani in the 47th minute and Ed Souza from the penalty spot in the 48th (or by Frank Wallace and Joe Maca, or by Wallace and John Souza, depending on the account), the team melted in the 110-degree heat and conceded three goals beginning in the 54th.

Nevertheless, the United States, whose squad included a postman, a school teacher, a factory worker, a knitting machine mechanic, and a hearse driver, went home tied for second in Group 2 with England and Chile, all at 1-2-0.  Spain (3-0-0) took first but eventually finished last in the final pool, behind champion Uruguay, host Brazil, and third-place Sweden.

Despite disbelief over the England defeat, the United States left Brazil with a respectable all-time World Cup record of 3-4-0.  Without a strong national league or public interest, however, the Americans’ immediate future in international soccer was bleak, and they wouldn’t make another World Cup appearance until Italia ’90, where an inexperienced squad of current and former college standouts, average age 23, lost all three of its games.  Following USA ’94 (1-2-1), France ’98 (0-3-0), the Americans’ encouraging quarterfinal showing at Japan/Korea ’02 (2-2-1) and Germany ’06 (0-2-1), the United States’ all-time record in World Cup competition stood at 6-16-3.

Coach Walter Winterbottom, who had kept Stanley Matthews out of England’s first two games, played the legendary winger in his team’s final Group 2 match, but the English lost, 1-0, to Spain before 70,000 at the Maracana and trudged home.  The English tumbled completely off their pedestal in 1953 when the “Magic Magyars,” the invincible Hungarian National Team, routed them, 6-3, at Wembley Stadium and 7-1 six months later in Budapest.

England, of course, did not curl up and die after the losses to the United States and Hungary.  Alf Ramsey, the man who played against the Yanks, was appointed coach, replaced Winterbottom, after England lost in the 1962 World Cup quarterfinals to eventual champion Brazil.  The Ramsey-led English won the 1966 World Cup.

As for Belo Horizonte, England avenged that defeat four times over by humiliating the United States, 6-3, in 1953 in New York; 8-1 in 1959 in Los Angeles; 10-0 in 1964 in New York; and 5-0 in 1985 in Los Angeles.  The United States came back to surprise the English, 2-0, in U.S. Cup ’93 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  For now, England’s advantage stands at 7-2-1, that tie coming at the 2010 World Cup.

As for Jeffrey, his tenure as U.S. coach consisted of those three games in Brazil and he returned to his day job as soccer coach at Penn State.  In 1951, with the national team temporarily in mothballs, Jeffrey led his Nittany Lions on a three-game tour of Iran.  The following year he closed out a successful 24-year career as Penn State coach, compiling a 134-21-27 record.

McIlvenny, who like Jeffrey was born in Scotland, played for Wrexham of Wales.  He moved to the United States in 1949 and played for the Philadelphia Americans, then in the midst of winning five American Soccer League titles over 10 years.  After the World Cup he returned to Britain and played two games with Manchester United, then ended his career with teams in Ireland, Germany, and once again, England.  Fellow defender Maca returned to his native Belgium, where he resumed his playing career as the hero who helped vanquish mighty England.

Left back Bahr followed Jeffrey to Penn State and guided the Nittany Lions to a 185-66-22 mark from 1974 to 1987.  Two of Bahr’s sons cut short promising professional soccer careers to pursue fame and fortune as place-kickers in the NFL.  Chris, a midfielder, switched sports after scoring 11 goals and winning the 1975 NASL Rookie of the Year award with the Philadelphia Atoms.  Matt, a defender, split the 1978 NASL season between the Caribous of Colorado and Tulsa Roughnecks before making the jump.

Defender Keough, later a successful coach at Saint Louis University (five NCAA titles in 16 seasons), is the father of TV soccer commentator Ty Keough, whose playing career spanned eight appearances for the United States–nine fewer than his father–and four seasons in the NASL.

Keough, Borghi, Colombo, Wallace, and Pariani were all products of St. Louis, the latter four from the southside Italian neighborhood known as “Dago Hill.”  A reserve, Bob Annis, and Jeffrey’s assistant, William “Chubby” Lyons, also were from St. Louis.  As a teen, Borghi, the hearse driver who would one day become his funeral home’s director, was a U.S. Army field medic in World War II.  He crossed the English Channel the day after D-Day, and among the men he treated in Germany was the future voice of the St. Louis Cardinals, Jack Buck.  Another army veteran, Wallace, nicknamed “Pee Wee,” served in the 191st Tank Battalion and saw action on the beach at Anzio, eventually earning four Battle Stars and a Purple Heart; he was captured by the Germans and spend 15 months in a POW camp.

Five Americans on the field at Mineiro Stadium that day were added by Jeffrey after the qualifiers in Mexico City.  Of them, McIlvenney, Maca, and Gaetjens were not U.S. citizens but were allowed to play under the more lenient rules of the time.  To the USSF, a player who declared his intent to become a U.S. citizen was eligible to play for the national team.  Questions were raised after the upset, but later that year FIFA declared that the United States had done nothing wrong.  Of the three, however, only Maca would go on to obtain U.S. citizenship.

Before scoring the Goal, Gaetjens, the son of a Haitian mother and Belgian father, was a dishwasher in a New York restaurant, working his way through Columbia University with the help of a Haitian government scholarship.  Previously his greatest claim to fame as a player had come in 1949-50 when he led the American Soccer League in scoring with 18 goals for the last-place Brook-Hattan Galicia.  After Brazil he played three years in France for Racing Club de Paris and Troyes, then returned to his native Haiti, where the rules of the day allowed him to play for the Haitians in 1953 in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico (a 4-0 loss).

Gaetjens later became a spokesman for Proctor & Gamble and owner of a string of dry-cleaning stores.  Gaetjens was apolitical, but apparently some of his relatives were not, and in July 1964 he was hauled out of one of his Port-au-Prince dry-cleaning shops and taken away by “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s dreaded Ton Ton Macoute secret police.  Efforts to determine his whereabouts have been unsuccessful, but it is believed he died in prison in 1970, six years before he and his 16 U.S. teammates were inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Ironically, the Haitian government issued a commemorative stamp in Gaetjen’s honor in 2000.

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So, just how big was this biggest of all sports upsets?

It changed nothing in the United States, and it did nothing to change English soccer’s opinion of itself, nor did the rest of the world think less of England’s game.  An anomaly, at best.

Keough, one of the St. Louis boys, probably put it best.  Years later, he told his hometown Post-Dispatch:  “Obviously, there was no television back then and, honestly, the World Cup wasn’t nearly as big a deal as it is now.  We knew what we’d accomplished was something very special, but I don’t think most people back home, even soccer people, had any idea how major an upset it was.

“Was it the greatest upset in history?  I think so.  In the [2002] World Cup, when Senegal beat defending champion France, almost all of the players for Senegal were first-division players from top leagues all over the world.  We had a team of nobodies.

“I’d say the [USA] hockey team’s win [over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics] was probably more significant because they went on to win that tournament.  But there’s no way anybody, including us, expected the U.S. to beat England in 1950.”