Filed under: Lionel Messi, Uncategorized | Tags: 1986 World Cup, 2005 FIFA U-20 World Championship, 2007 Copa America, 2008 Beijing Olympics, 2014 World Cup, 2015 Copa America, Alfredo Di Stefano, Argentina, Bobby Wood, Chile, Clint Dempsey, CONCACAF, Copa America Centenario, Cristiano Ronaldo, DeAndre Yedlin, Diego Maradona, El Pibe de Oro, FC Barcelona, FIFA World Player of the Year, Gabriel Batistuta, Geoff Cameron, Giants Stadium, Gold Cup, Gyasi Zardes, Italy, John Brooks, Jozy Altidore, Juergen Klinsmann, La Albiceleste, La Liga, Landon Donovan, Lionel Messi, Michael Bradley, Napoli, Panama, UEFA Champions League, Venezuela
Five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi announced his international retirement immediately after Argentina fell in the Copa America Centenario to Chile on penalty kicks, 4-2, following a scoreless draw at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, before 82,076.
The defeat capped a string of Argentina disappointments for the 29-year-old, including losses in the 2014 World Cup final and the 2007 and 2015 Copa America finals. Although he led La Albiceleste to an under-20 world championship in 2005 and a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he has never claimed a winners’ medal with the senior team.
A back injury caused Messi to miss Argentina’s Copa opener against Chile, but he came off the bench in the second group game, against Panama, and notched a hat trick in just 19 minutes. He scored against Venezuela in the quarterfinals to equal Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentine scoring record of 54, then surpassed it with a brilliant free-kick strike against the U.S. in the semifinals.
However, in the final he was hounded by multiple Chilean defenders for 120 minutes, and he capped a frustrating night by blasting his attempt over the crossbar on Argentina’s first shot in the tiebreaker.
“For me, the national team is over,” the distraught superstar told reporters. “I’ve done all I can. I’ve been in four finals and it hurts not to be a champion. It’s a hard moment for me and the team, and it’s difficult to say, but it’s over with the Argentina team.” [June 26]
Comment I: Perhaps the frustration got the best of him. Maybe his tax problems back in Spain were weighing heavily. Perhaps Messi will take a deep breath and reconsider. (After all, he didn’t quit last year when Argentina lost on a tiebreaker to Chile–and Messi made his PK that day.) But if he doesn’t change his mind, he’ll rue the day.
Messi has never been embraced by his fellow Argentines the way they adore Diego Maradona. Messi left home as a 13-year-old prodigy for FC Barcelona, where he grew as an academy player and went on to win four UEFA Champions League titles and eight Spanish La Liga crowns. In Argentina, he’s been more closely associated with Barca than the sky blue and white, and while Maradona also played for Barcelona (and later became a hero in Italy with Napoli), El Pibe de Oro was the one who delivered the goods, singlehandedly lifting Argentina to the 1986 World Cup championship. Messi has no such clout.
If Messi does not change his mind, he will have forfeited any chance to change how he will go down in soccer history. As things stand, he will be recorded as probably the greatest player of his generation, better even than Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. He’ll be regarded as a the third member of Argentina’s holy trinity along with Maradona and Alfredo Di Stefano. But, in a world in which kids still look up to their sports heroes, he’ll also be regarded as a quitter. Worse, a coward.
And this with the next World Cup, in Russia, and possible redemption, just two years away.
Comment II: The question concerning the U.S. National Team was whether its Copa America Centenario performance had represented any progress.
Well, a year ago the Americans lost the third-place match at the Gold Cup, making it the fourth-best team in CONCACAF. Now it’s lost the third-place game at the Copa America, technically making it the fourth-best team in South America. What fourth-place mantle would you rather wear?
On a practical front, the mad scientist, coach Juergen Klinsmann, stopped with the tinkering and would’ve trotted out the same lineup throughout the tournament were it not for suspensions and injuries. Young center back John Brooks grew into a genuine partnership with Geoff Cameron and was rewarded with a spot on the Copa America Centenario Best XI team, the only player from the U.S.–or Mexico–so honored. Bobby Wood graduated from minor pest up front to major concern and will challenge Jozy Altidore for playing time in the future.
But then there were the questions raised over the course of the tournament. Such as, will young right back DeAndre Yedlin couple his scintillating runs forward with some reliable defense? Will Gyasi Zardes continue to have the first touch of a block of cement? Will Michael Bradley’s skills as midfield maestro continue to erode? Will 33-year-old Clint Dempsey, who scored three goals at the Copa to close to within five goals of Landon Donovan’s U.S. career record of 57, continue to defy Father Time?
Those are the questions that matter. They were raised at the Copa, not answered, but perhaps they’ll be answered where it really counts, when the U.S. resumes World Cup qualifying for Russia ’18, in September.
Filed under: Jordan Morris, Uncategorized | Tags: Ante Razov, Aron Johannsson, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Bobby Wood, Brazil, Canada, Clint Dempsey, Colombia, CONCACAF, Costa Rica, DaMarcus Beasley, Darlington Nagbe, DeAndre Yedlin, FIFA Confederations Cup, FIFA Under-20 World Cup, Foxboro, German Bundesliga, Germany, Gyasi Zardes, Hermann Trophy, Hertha Berlin, Holland, Jermaine Jones, John Brooks, Jordan Morris, Juergen Klinsmann, Kyle Beckerman, Landon Donovan, Liberia, Los Angeles Galaxy, Lukas Podolski, Matt Miazga, Mercer Island, Mexico, MLS Cup, NCAA Division I championship, Nelson Valdez, New Jersey, New York Red Bulls, Obafemi Martins, Per Mertesacker, Philipp Lahm, Port of Spain, Portland Timbers, Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Rose Bowl, Seattle Sounders, Sigi Schmid, St. Louis, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Stanford University, Sunderland, Sunil Gulati, Tim Howard, Trinidad & Tobago, U.S. National Team, UCLA, Union Berlin, Werder Bremen, World Cup
Homegrown player Jordan Morris signed with the Seattle Sounders in a splashy ceremony at the team’s fan clubhouse in Pioneer Square, capping a whirlwind six weeks in which the 21-year-old striker led Stanford University to the 2015 NCAA Division I men’s national championship, was awarded the Hermann Trophy as the country’s top collegiate player and took part in a trial with Werder Bremen that left the German Bundesliga club poised to offer a contract.
Morris earned seven caps with the U.S. National Team last year, scoring in a 2-0 victory over Mexico in April and becoming the first college player to make an appearance with the full national team since UCLA forward Ante Razov in 1995. He also scored six goals and added four assists in 11 appearances in ’15 for the U.S. under-23 side, including two goals in a 3-1 victory over Canada in its opening qualifier for the ’16 Rio de Janeiro Olympics; that campaign will be decided in March with a home-and-home playoff with Colombia .
The signing of Morris reunites the Mercer Island, Wash., native with U.S. and Sounder striker Clint Dempsey. Sounder coach Sigi Schmid was delighted by Morris’ signing, saying he possesses “unteachable” qualities. The Sounder rookie, however, is expected to spend his first MLS season in a supporting role, watching Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Nelson Valdez start ahead of him. [January 21]
Comment: Here comes Mr. Jordan, and possibly others. Can embattled U.S. National Team coach Juergen Klinsmann channel his inner 2006?
In recent months Klinsmann has been blessed by an interesting wave of fresh young talent. Before the broad-shouldered, baby-faced Morris there was another forward, Bobby Wood, 23, a promising poacher who scored late winners in friendlies against Holland and Germany last spring, plus equalizers against Mexico in the CONCACAF playoff and the World Cup qualifying opener against St. Vincent & the Grenadines. Wood continues to produce for his club, Union Berlin of the Bundesliga 2. There’s also midfielder Darlington Nagbe. Born in Liberia, raised in the U.S., the 25-year-old naturalized American made his U.S. debut against St. Vincent & the Grenadines and dazzled in leading the Portland Timbers to their first MLS Cup title. Finally, defender Matt Miazga, 6-foot-4 and a mere 20. He went from buried on the New York Red Bulls roster last spring to becoming one of MLS’s best central defenders in ’15. Before bowing in with the full national team in the St. Vincent match, Miaza helped the U.S. reach the quarterfinals of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup and became a starter on the U-23 team.
Then there are youngsters who appeared in the 2014 World Cup: defender John Brooks, 23, of Hertha Berlin, defender-midfielder DeAndre Yedlin, 22, of Sunderland, and forward Aron Johannsson, 25, of Werder Bremen. Johannsson battled injuries in 2015 but Yedlin and another attacking player, Gyasi Zardes, 24, of the Los Angeles Galaxy, appeared in 19 of the USA’s 20 matches in ’15.
Is this the cavalry thundering down the hill? Klinsmann can only hope so. Dempsey is 32. Defensive midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman and left back DaMarcus Beasley are 33. Goalkeeper Tim Howard is 36.
Klinsmann, in his fifth year as national team coach, is on a hot seat, becoming the first national team coach in this soccer-averse country to experience a modicum of public scrutiny. In 2015, after historic wins against the Netherlands in Amsterdam and Germany in Cologne, the U.S. stumbled badly at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, finishing fourth, its worst showing in a Gold Cup in 15 years. A humiliating 4-1 loss to Brazil in Foxboro followed, which served as a warm-up (or down) to the lifeless 3-2 overtime defeat to Mexico in a CONCACAF playoff at the Rose Bowl that cost the Americans a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. Three days later the U.S. tumbled to Costa Rica, 1-0, in a friendly in New Jersey, but it salvaged the year by opening a new World Cup cycle by routing St. Vincent & the Grenadines, 6-1, in St. Louis and escaping Port of Spain with a scoreless draw and a point against Trinidad & Tobago.
As the mixed results mounted, Klinsmann came under increasing criticism for his often baffling player selections, his lineups (20 different lineups in 20 games), his tinkering with formations (a 3-5-2, a 4-2-3-1, a flat 4-4-2 and a diamond 4-4-2) and tactics. At one point, former U.S. star Landon Donovan said that Klinsmann should lose his job if Mexico won at the Rose Bowl. The U.S. lost, and Klinsmann got a half-hearted vote of confidence from USSF President Sunil Gulati.
This cavalry of young talent may yield a couple of riders or, in Klinsmann’s dreams, a full platoon. And what the U.S. coach does with it will determine the course of the national team for the near-term, although it figures to be closing in on a 2018 World Cup berth when 2017 dawns. He’s nurtured young talent before, steering a bunch of young Germans to third place at the 2006 World Cup, becoming a national hero in the bargain. Among his players were defenders Philipp Lahm, then 22, and Per Mertesacker, 21, midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, 21, and forward Lukas Podolski, 21. That was a generation of talent that would go on to win the 2014 World Cup.
Can Klinsmann do it again? He could succeed. He could fail. This new crop–and possibly others to emerge over the next 18 months–could win in spite of him. Or too many of them could prove to be all false promise. Time will tell. But for the U.S. to nail down a World Cup berth and go into Russia ’18 with any hope of a better showing than the last World Cup, Klinsmann is going to have to succeed, and once again engineer a successful changing of the guard.
Filed under: Futbol de Primera Player of the Year, Landon Donovan, Uncategorized | Tags: 1999 FIFA Under-17 Tournament, 2014 World Cup, Belgium, Brad Davis, Brazil, Carson CA, Chris Wondolowski, Clint Dempsey, Cobi Jones, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, English Premier League, Eric Wynalda, Everton, Futbol de Primera Player of the Year, Jermaine Jones, Juergen Klinsmann, Julian Green, Kasey Keller, Landon Donovan, Los Angeles Galaxy, Los Angeles Lakers, Major League Soccer, MLS Cup, Most Valuable Player, NBA, New England Revolution, Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders, StubHub Center, Tim Howard, U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year
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.
Filed under: Klinsmann, Uncategorized | Tags: 2014 World Cup, Boca Raton, Clint Dempsey, commissioner, Don Garber, Florida, Honduras, Juergen Klinsmann, Landon Donovan, Major Soccer League, Michael Bradley, national team coach, national technical director, Sunil Gulati, Toronto FC, U.S. National Team, U.S. Soccer
Major League Soccer Commissioner Dan Garber fired a broadside at U.S. National Team coach Juergen Klinsmann, accusing him of comments damaging to his league and the sport in this country.
Garber summoned the media to rip Klinsmann for comments made two days earlier in which he said Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley hurt their international careers by returning from Europe to play for MLS clubs. The commissioner also said Klinsmann’s decision to leave Landon Donovan, the face of MLS, off his 2014 World Cup squad was “inexcusable.”
Said Klinsmann on Monday, the day before the USA’s friendly with Honduras in Boca Raton: “I made clear with Clint’s move back and Michael’s move back that it’s going to be very difficult to keep the same level that they experienced at the places where they were. It’s just reality. It’s just being honest.”
Garber fired back the day after the 1-1 draw in Florida: “Juergen’s comments are very, very detrimental to the league, to the sport of soccer in North America, detrimental to everything we’re trying to do. Not only that, I think they’re wrong.
“To have a national team coach saying that signing with our league is not going to be good for their careers, and not good for their prospects with the national team, is incredibly damaging to our league.
“I will do anything and everything to defend our league, our players and our owners. I don’t believe anyone is above the sport, and I believe everyone has to be accountable for their behavior.” [October 15]
Comment: They both need to shut up.
But, of course, they can’t. Klinsmann will continue to be asked point-blank about this player and that, and Garber has to protect his product.
Klinsmann was only telling the truth. To grow, anyone in the U.S. player pool needs to play for a club at the highest level possible, and that’s in Europe, not MLS, provided it’s in the top division of a top soccer-playing nation. Garber’s reaction–writing angry letters to Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati and publicly blasting the national team coach/national technical director in a hastily arranged press teleconference–made him look peevish and unprofessional.
However, Klinsmann has to face the fact that any U.S. player, no matter how talented, is taking a risk in signing with a European club. A player has to play, and if he’s shelved by injury or a drop in performance or a coach who thinks little of American players (there’s plenty of those), he’s regressing and probably should have remained in MLS, where he’d be considered a star. (That description fits a player like Bradley, who left Roma for Toronto FC and a healthy pay increase after the Italian club brought in several new players, threatening the midfielder’s playing time.) These guys have to think of their career as a whole, and they’re not on the level of Klinsmann, who in his day would have started, and starred, for any powerhouse club in Europe.
Garber needs to rein it in, skate past this ongoing issue and resume talking up MLS’s strengths, which are a tremendous fan experience unique to American sports and a level of talent that will entertain all but the Euro-snobs. If he continues to have a beef with Klinsmann, Garber sits on the U.S. Soccer board, the body that serves as Klinsmann’s boss, and he can air his disagreements behind closed doors with the people who matter when it comes to the fellow at the helm of the men’s national teams program. As for Klinsmann, he needs to become a better diplomat without losing his credibility with a press and public that is growing increasingly sophisticated and demanding. Either that or hope that MLS both improves on the field and stops making itself an increasingly attractive choice for top American players faced with a difficult career decision.
Filed under: 2014 World Cup final, Uncategorized | Tags: 2014 World Cup, 2016 European Championship, Albiceleste, America, Andre Schuerrle, Angel Di Maria, Argentina, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Beto, Brad Friedel, Cafu, Chile, Clint Dempsey, David Luiz, Dunga, Edmundo, ESPN, Ezequiel Lavezzi, FIFA Confederations Cup, Germany, Gonzalo Higuain, James Rodriguez, Jo, Joachim Loew, Juergen Klinsmann, Kasey Keller, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Lukas Podolski, Manuel Neuer, Maracana Stadium, Maracanazo, Marcos Rojo, Mario Goetze, Miroslav Klose, Netherlands, Olympics, Pele, Per Mertesacker, Philipp Lahm, Portugal, Preki, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Rodrigo Palacio, Romario, Ronaldo, Russia '18, Sergio Aguero, Sergio Romero, Spain, Tim Howard, Toni Kroos
Germany defeated Argentina in overtime, 1-0, before a Maracana Stadium crowd of 74,738 to win the 2014 World Cup.
Substitute Mario Goetze, who had not started in Germany’s last two games, scored the game’s only goal in the 113th minute. Another sub, Andre Schuerrle, lofted a cross from the left wing that Goetze, on the run at the top of the penalty area, chested and volleyed inside the far post past Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero. [July 13]
Comment I: The best team won.
The overhaul begun by Juergen Klinsmann ahead of the 2006 World Cup and maintained by successor Joachim Loew in 2010 bore fruit in 2014. All-time World Cup scoring leader Miroslav Klose (36) rides off into the sunset, and captain Philipp “The Magic Dwarf” Lahm (30), has announced his international retirement. But Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski are all 29, and the rest of the nucleus, with some tweaking, figures to be around for the 2016 European Championship and beyond. Much can happen in four years, but for now, the first European team to win a World Cup in the Americas is well-positioned for Russia ’18.
Comment II: The not-best team did not win.
Years from now, the 20th World Cup may be remembered not for Germany’s triumph or Luis Suarez’s bite or James Rodriguez’s arrival but the incredible collapse by Brazil. The 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals and the 3-0 loss to the Netherlands in the third-place match were shocking on their own, but put them together and you have the most unbelievably pathetic 180 minutes in World Cup history.
If anything, it was all for the best. This was a not-so-great team that was riding a wave of emotion provided by its thousands of yellow-clad supporters and the inner pressure created by the need to wipe away the nightmare–the Maracanazo–of 1950. It needed penalty kicks to beat Chile in the second round and a fine free kick by David Luiz in the quarterfinals to keep up the facade. It was unconvincing in the group stage, leaving the suspicion that its triumph the previous year in the FIFA Confederations Cup, capped by a 3-0 romp over defending world and European champion Spain, was an anomaly. Not only could this team not be mentioned in the same breath with Pele’s 1970 champions, it was a far, far cry from another Brazilian also-ran, the 1998 array of stars headed by Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo, Cafu, Beto and Dunga that bowed to host France. If that side needed a late jolt, it could look down the bench and call on Edmundo. This Brazil’s bench had … Jo. Had the current team pulled off two miracles and lifted the trophy at the Maracana on July 13, Brazilians would be the first to rank it behind its non-champions of 2006 and 1990 and 1986 and 1982 and 1978 and 1974 and 1966.
Comment III: The second-best team could’ve won.
A 4-1 pick to win it all, Argentina coulda, shoulda wrapped up a 1-0 or 2-0 victory over Germany in regulation. One goal could have come 21 minutes in, when Toni Kroos headed a ball back toward his goal only for it to be intercepted by Gonzalo Higuain. Perhaps seeing Manuel Neuer standing before him and believing the German goalkeeper immortal based on his earlier performances, Higuain skulled a hurried shot outside the left post. Eight minutes later Higuain had a goal disallowed for an offside call he easily could have avoided.
Either chance, if converted, would’ve thrown Argentina into defensive mode, and we saw what the Argentine defense (with the help of the midfield) was capable of against Germany for 113 minutes despite the Germans’ having greater possession. Ironically, it was the back line that was regarded as the weak link heading into this World Cup while the team’s strength was Lionel Messi and his supporting cast of Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Rodrigo Palacio.
Adding to Argentina’s frustration was Palacio’s chance six minutes into overtime. Left back Marcos Rojo chipped a ball into the middle of the box to Palacio, alone with only Neuer to beat. But he tried to chip the ball into the net and sent it wide left. That was the Albiceleste’s last chance and only made Goetze’s goal seem inevitable.
Comment IV: The bottom line on the impact Brasil ’14 had on America:
The U.S. media finally stopped referring to soccer as “perhaps the world’s most popular sport” and the World Cup as “after the Olympics, the world’s biggest sporting event.” Instead, soccer and the World Cup became an unqualified “most” and “biggest.”
Comment V: Naturally, those Americans who don’t like soccer came out with their sharpened knives in June and July, and to soccer fans, their increasing desperation was another sign of progress.
Most of their criticisms–too low scoring, foreigners running around in shorts–have fallen by the wayside over the years, but they concentrated their efforts on two issues in particular this time.
The most curious one involved how time is kept during a soccer match. “The game ends, and then it keeps going–no one but the referee knows when it’s gonna end!” Of course the entire crowd and a worldwide television audience sees the fourth official hold up an electronic board indicating how much time has been added. Two minutes, four minutes, and so on. We all get the idea. And TV viewers see the clock continue ticking in the upper left corner: 91:05 … 93:41 …. with a +4 next to it, for example. However, “getting the idea” isn’t good enough in a country grounded in gridiron football countdown clocks and basketball games in which the final 30 seconds are massaged through 10 minutes of TV commercials. Maybe they were fired up by Portugal’s late equalizer against the U.S., when it was mystifying to some that the game seemingly went on and on, but soccer fans who saw the man with the electronic board knew that enough time remained for Ronaldo’s heroics, plus a subsequent kickoff and a few additional seconds of play. If anything, that game should have been a lesson to the uninitiated. Soccer is not a Hail Mary pass or buzzer-beater shot type of sport. There is no way to “stop” the clock, so there is no need for a clock that shows 0:013 remaining. And some people like being freed of that sort of nonsense.
The other complaint has merit. “They flop, they roll on the the ground and act as though they’re in their death throes.” From one ESPN radio talking head: “This country will never embrace a sport in which the players are encouraged to be pansies.”
Good point. We’ve seen all sorts of histrionics on the soccer field, and we all know it’s in an effort to draw a foul or induce a yellow card, not because the player has an incredibly low pain threshold. But all that rolling around runs contrary to American sensibilities. When Clint Dempsey is fouled hard he goes down like he was shot by a sniper. No movement, no drama. Stoic. It’s the American way. (Usually, Dempsey is either really hurt or trying to give his teammates a breather, or both. If he’s trying to get the call, it’s by making the referee feel guilty over this lifeless figure on the turf.)
FIFA hasn’t been able to come up with a better tiebreaker than what it refers to as “The Taking of Kicks from the Penalty Mark.” So it would do well to instead address its chronic play-acting problem–at least if it wants to win over America and its treasure trove of potential corporate sponsors. There is a form of soccer that is played with a minimum of dives, flops and various sundry simulation. It’s called women’s soccer, which is quite ironic. These were, after all, the people who were once deemed too delicate to play this sport. Instead, they cut each other down–hard–and the fouled party usually bounces to her feet and gets on with the game. And no one questions their macho.
Comment VI: And finally, while many Americans had finished applauding Tim Howard’s heroics in the USA’s 1-0 overtime loss to Belgium and had wandered away by the time Germany’s Manuel Neuer was awarded the Golden Glove as the World Cup’s best goalkeeper, it should be pointed out that Howard’s was not the greatest performance by an American ‘keeper in a meaningful match.
For those who saw it first hand, nothing will top Kasey Keller’s string of miracles to help the U.S. upset Brazil, 1-0, in the semifinals of the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup in front of a sparse crowd at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Keller made 13 saves that cool, damp night to Howard’s 16 against Belgium, but while Howard was masterful in handling several difficult shots, Keller made saves that left the Brazilians shaking their heads. Two rapid-fire reflex saves on Romario defied belief, and the Brazilian striker later said of Keller, “It was an honor to be on the field with him.”
It should be recalled that this was mostly an under-23 Brazilian side preparing for the Olympics; that it took a goal by Preki in the 65th minute against the run of play to win it; and that the U.S. would go on five days later to lose to Mexico by the same score back at the Coliseum before an overwhelmingly pro-Mexico throng of 100,000. But it also should be remembered that for one night, Keller, an outstanding goalkeeper very much the equal of Howard and Brad Friedel, was otherworldly.
Filed under: U.S. 1, Uncategorized | Tags: Alamo, Andres Iniesta, Argentina, Belgium, Brad Guzan, Brazil, Chile, Chris Wondolowski, Clint Dempsey, Colombia, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, DaMarcus Beasley, Dino Zoff, France '98, Geoff Cameron, Ghana, Golden Generation, Group of Death, Holland, Hungary, Juergen Klinsmann, Julian Green, Kevin De Bruyne, Korea/Japan '02, Matt Besler, Mexico, Michael Bradley, Norway, Omar Gonzalez, Paraguay, Pele Generation, Portugal, Romania, Romelu Lukaku, Russia 2018, Salvador, Soviet Union, Spain, Sweden, Thibaut Courtois, Tim Howard, U.S., Uruguay, World Cup, Xavi
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.