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DON’T PUT THE U.S. CART BEFORE THE WORLD CUP HORSE

Mexico shook off its funk and stormed to its seventh CONCACAF Gold Cup title, defeating upstart Jamaica, 3-1, in the final before a partisan sellout crowd of 68,930 at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.

Andres Guardado opened the scoring in the 31st minute with a spectacular left-footed volley off a cross by Paul Aguilar.  That ended a frustrating 272-minute stretch in which the Mexicans had failed to score from anywhere but the penalty spot.  Jesus Corona, voted the Gold Cup’s top young player, increased the lead to 2-0 two minutes into the second half after stealing a ball from Michael Hector, and in the 61st minute Oribe Peralta capitalized on another blunder by Hector to put the match out of reach.  Darren Mattocks got the Reggae Boyz a consolation goal in the 81st.

The triumph earned El Tri a playoff with the U.S. on October 10 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., with a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup at stake.

The U.S. won the 2013 Gold Cup and could have secured a trip outright to the Confederations Cup in Russia by winning the ’15 tournament, but the Americans were defeated by Jamaica, 2-1, in the semifinals and then sagged to a loss to Panama in the third-place game at PPL Park in Chester, Penn., bowing on penalty kicks, 3-2, after a 1-1 draw.  [July 26]

Comment I:  An aberration?  No climactic meeting of the U.S. and Mexico in the final, as the tournament promoters had hoped?  Perhaps.  Maybe we’ll know as early as the autumn of 2017, when the CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup conclude.  But the balance of power in CONCACAF continues to shift, and the hold of Mexico and the U.S. on the top two rungs continues to erode, by degrees.

The Mexicans needed all of three late penalty-kick calls in the quarterfinals and semifinals to reach the championship match (thanks to Guardado, they converted them all).  The Americans failed to impress in group play, buried a Cuban team decimated by defections in the second round, then went back to failing to impress thereafter and were rewarded with a deserved fourth-place finish.

Are Jamaica and Panama that good?  Of course not.  Neither is Costa Rica, Honduras or Trinidad & Tobago. The most recent FIFA World Rankings placed the Reggae Boyz at No. 55, the Canaleros at No. 65, the Ticos at No. 38, the Catrachos at No. 81, and the Soca Warriors at No. 56.

Fortunately for the U.S. (29th) and Mexico (26th), while CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers remain a challenge–with road matches ranging from headaches to nightmares–the outcome has been similar over the past five campaigns:  The Americans and El Tri qualify and are joined by . . . who?  For 1998, it was Jamaica, in its World Cup debut.  For ’02, Costa Rica.  For ’06,  it was the Costa Ricans and, for the first time, Trinidad & Tobago.  For 2010, Honduras qualified, and for Brazil ’14 it was Costa Rica and Honduras.  It’s like a game of Whack a Mole, as first one CONCACAF contender pops out of its hole, then ducks back down and a different one pops up.

And so the battle for the region’s 3 1/2 berths at the 2018 World Cup heats up this fall, and everyone has the U.S. and Mexico with boarding passes to Russia.  Many in the media describe the October playoff between the two at the Rose Bowl as being very important because the winner goes on to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, “something of a dress rehearsal for the next World Cup.”  But the U.S. or Mexico might–just might–go to Russia dress rehearsing for nothing.

Because if there was any proof that there’s no longer a sure thing in CONCACAF, it came in late 2013, when Mexico shockingly finished fourth in the World Cup qualifiers and had to sweat out a playoff with New Zealand to punch its ticket to Brazil.  (Were it not for two U.S. stoppage-time goals at Panama in the region’s final round, Mexico would have been eliminated for the first time since 1934–when the eliminators happened to be the Americans.)  And as CONCACAF nations evolve, there’s nothing to say that Costa Rica, a surprise World Cup quarterfinalist in ’14; Honduras, a semifinalist in the previous two Gold Cups; Panama and Jamaica; and even Trinidad & Tobago; don’t all pop out of their mole holes during a single World Cup cycle, leaving the U.S. and/or Mexico on the outside looking in.  Heck, don’t count out Canada (No. 101), which won the 2000 Gold Cup, finished third in ’02 and now has a generation of players developing in Major League Soccer.

Comment II:  The USA’s breakout star during the tournament was a recent retiree.  Timmy Chandler was a disaster, Michael Bradley disappointed, but former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel, as a television color commentator, proved to be a find for Fox Sports during its Gold Cup coverage as it gears up for much bigger assignments, from CONCACAF World Cup qualifying beginning late this year to Russia 2018 itself.

Friedel gives you the whole field, as a goalkeeper should, but he also gives you the whole picture and speaks with the authority of a player who’s gone from the top collegiate level (UCLA) to MLS (Columbus Crew) to national team (82 caps, two World Cups) to international clubs (Brondby IF of Denmark, Newcastle United of England, Galatasaray of Turkey, and Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham, all of England).  He’s quick, articulate, witty and enthusiastic about the U.S. without losing his credibility–no easy task during this transitory period in soccer’s history in this country.  And unlike most of his predecessors, he compliments his play-by-play partner, instead of making him work.

Friedel is far better than a long line of ex-U.S. internationals who’d hoped to be the second banana in a national soccer broadcast booth for the next couple of decades.  Friedel is better than John Harkes, he’s better than Marcelo Balboa, and he’s better than the insufferable Taylor Trellman, whose partner, the outstanding play-by-play man Ian Darke, must dread going to work.  Friedel’s, literally, a keeper.

 

 

 

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THE AMERICAN-GERMAN-AMERICANS

Bayern Munich forward Julian Green has applied to FIFA to change his national team association from Germany to the United States.

The highly touted 18-year-old, who was born in Tampa, FL, will become the latest German-American to join the U.S. National Team pool under the USA’s German coach, Juergen Klinsmann, following in the footsteps of dual-nationalists Jermaine Jones (Besiktas, Turkey), Timmy Chandler (FC Nurnberg), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Daniel Williams (Reading, England), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Austria) and Alfredo Morales (FC Ingolstadt).

The son of an American father and German mother, Green moved with his family to Germany when he was 2.  He played for Germany’s under-16 and under-17 teams, then represented the U.S. in an U-18 friendly against Holland.  He later played for Germany in a qualifier for this year’s UEFA Under-19 Championship.

“We are absolutely thrilled,” said Klinsmann, who first attempted to call up Green for U.S. friendlies in November.  “He is a very special talent.”

The teen winger has made just one appearance for Bayern Munich, a brief stint in November at the end of a UEFA Champions League match against CSKA Moscow.  Green has been a regular with Bayern’s Regionalliga team, scoring 15 goals in 19 games.  [March 18]

Comment:  Green is unlikely to play a role in the USA’s adventure at Brasil ’14, but this June we will finally learn whether the German way is the American way when it comes to soccer.

Back in the mid-1970s, when the growth of the North American Soccer League was forcing a spotlight on the American game in general and the national team in particular, the U.S. Soccer Federation took the tack that the style that best suited its team was German.  It hired Dettmar Cramer, an assistant to Helmet Schoen on West Germany’s 1966 World Cup runner-up team, as coach in August 1974.  Cramer was in charge long enough to lose two games to Mexico, throw up his hands at the lack of talent, money and organization at his disposal and, 5 1/2 months into his tenure, returned home, where he would guide a Bayern Munich starring Franz Beckenbauer to consecutive European Cup titles.  Less than a decade later, the USSF tried again with the appointment of former FC Cologne coach Karl-Heinz Heddergott as national coaching director, but Heddergott ran into the same frustrating constraints.  All the while, critics of this Teutonic shift claimed that the national team program–if “program” was the right word–was ignoring the coming USA wave of Latin players, eventually led by hyphenated Americans Hugo Perez, Tab Ramos, and Claudio Reyna, that would transform the national team and carry it to glory.

The U.S. has had a link with German soccer that dates to 1923 with the founding of the powerful semipro German-American Soccer League (later renamed the Cosmopolitan Soccer League) in New York, a circuit whose best players helped make up the roster of the original New York Cosmos in 1971.  Paul Caliguiri made a major–and unlikely–breakthrough when he leaped from UCLA to Hamburger SV in the late 1980s.  He later played for SV Meppen, Hansa Rostock, SC Freiburg and FC St. Pauli, paving the way in the Bundesliga for players like Eric Wynalda, Kasey Keller and Steve Cherundolo.  U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic’s decision to bring FC Kaiserslautern midfielder Tom Dooley–son of an American serviceman and a German mother–into the national team fold established a two-way street whose inbound lane has only increased in traffic by plenty under Klinsmann.

But it’s not just personnel.  Klinsmann has tapped into characteristics common between the two cultures.  Despite shortcomings that continue to keep the U.S. out of the top 10 in the FIFA rankings, the Americans’ compulsion, like the Germans, is to attack.  On a good day, Klinsmann has his players pressing forward–some would say recklessly–at speed with six and seven players, followed, at speed, by a similar commitment on defense.  High tempo, hard work.  They expect to win every challenge.  They count on wearing down the opposition long before the final whistle.  And like the West German teams Klinsmann grew up watching and then playing for, they now consider no deficit insurmountable.  The U.S. demonstrated that resolve by tying host Russia, 2-2, in late 2012 on two late strikes.   The following June, in a World Cup qualifier,  it squandered a 1-0 lead late in Jamaica and emerged with a 2-1 victory.

Above all, for those who remember Steve Sampson’s team of complacent U.S. veterans who crashed at the 1998 World Cup, Klinsmann has called out his established players, introduced interesting outsiders and created a player pool that may not be deep but is certainly competitive as the 30 players with a realistic chance to make the trip to Brazil are whittled to the final 23.

The critics from long ago must feel permanently slighted at this point:  Klinsmann has turned his back on any possibility that Latin flair is the USA’s recipe for success.  It’ll be grit, not beauty, heading into Brazil this year.  Some of the players may have names like Omar Gonzalez,  Michael Orozco Fiscal, Joe Corona or Juan Agudelo, but it’s not the name, it’s the mentality and the approach.  After all, when Klinsmann’s looked over his shoulder two years ago at the German National Team he once coached, the joint scoring leader of the European Championship was a German named … Mario Gomez.



BLATTER BLATHER

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber was struggling to remain diplomatic in the wake of recent comments by FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who criticized MLS for its lack of progress.

Blatter told Al Jazeera television, in an interview broadcast December 28, that “there is no very strong professional league” in the U.S.  “They just have the MLS.  But they have no professional leagues which are recognized by the American society.”

He added that MLS was “still struggling” to lift soccer to the level of gridiron football, baseball and basketball in America.  “We had the World Cup in 1994,” Blatter said.  “But we are now in 2012–it’s been 18 years.  It should’ve been done now.”

Countered Garber in an interview with the New York Times:  “We still have a lot of work to do–we understand and accept that.  But arguably there’s probably not another sports league in the world that has achieved as much as we have in the last 20 years.  [January 2]

Comment:  Blatter’s latest blatherings triggered a firestorm of criticism among American fans of MLS and Americans who simply believe the man should have been unseated when his first term as FIFA chief ended in 2002.  What was disappointing was how a man who, as FIFA general secretary, held America’s hand as it prepared for and pulled off World Cup USA ’94, could still have such a dismal understanding of this country.

Mainstream America really doesn’t know what to make of soccer.  An estimated 18 million of their countrymen and countrywomen and countrykids play the sport.  Its women’s national team is usually No. 1 in the world while its men’s national team, usually ranked around No. 30, is capable of beating Spain in the FIFA Confederations Cup and Italy in Genoa, then losing to Jamaica in Kingston. And its official national league, whose average attendance of 18,807 last season topped the NBA and NHL for the second year in a row, making it third behind the NFL and Major League Baseball in average gate, remains a television bust, stuck at 0.1 and 0.2 in the ratings.

What Blatter and mainstream America need to understand is that MLS is no measuring stick of soccer here.  America loves the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA a whole lot more than MLS, not because they’ve had a 74-, 152- and 47-year head start, respectively, on MLS, but because the NFL, MLB and NBA are the best at their craft in the world.  The NFL, MLB and the NBA play their game like they invented it because, well, they have.  Even the National Hockey League can make the same claim, if, for the sake of this argument, we co-opt our Canadian friends.  As for MLS, everyone in America knows that it’s not the best soccer league in the world, even those who know nothing about the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, the Italian Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga or the Brazilian and Argentine championships.  And it’s hard to imagine a time when an MLS, which has gone from crawl to hobble to jog in those 18 years, will have the means and talent to challenge those leagues.

MLS will continue to be a symbol, a happy, regular rallying point, for soccer here, but it will never be the heart–or reliable barometer–of our sport.  While the NFL can boast of astronomical television ratings and Major League Baseball can point to its tremendous total attendance figures, soccer in the U.S. quietly moves forward with a balance that should be the envy of the so-called “big four” pro team sports:  a professional league that continues to grow and improve, a competitive men’s national team, a world-class women’s national team, and those millions and millions or participants of all ages and both genders.  All underscored by a patience that Blatter doesn’t seem to possess.



KEEP COOL, BRA’

The U.S. put its hopes of reaching the 2014 World Cup in doubt when it was upset by Jamaica, 2-1, in a CONCACAF semifinal-round qualifier in Kingston, the Jamaicans’ first-ever victory over the Americans.

With three rounds remaining, Jamaica led the four-nation group with seven points, followed by the U.S. and Guatemala with four apiece and Antigua and Barbuda with one.  [September 7]

Comment:  There has been much hand wringing among fans and in the media heading into the U.S.-Jamaica return leg on September 11 in Columbus, and indeed the Americans have made things unnecessarily interesting.  However, while there is no need for Juergen Klinsmann and his players to be complacent, it should be remembered that the USA’s last loss in a home World Cup qualifier was more than a decade ago to an impressive Honduran side (3-2 at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC, on September 1, 2001).



CONCACAF PLUS 3.5 ADDS UP

CONCACAF fell short in its effort to gain an extra berth in the 2014 World Cup as the FIFA Executive Committee decided to give the North/Central America and Caribbean region the same 3.5 spots it was awarded for the 2010 tournament.

Under the allotment, CONCACAF will have three guaranteed spots; the fourth-place finisher in its qualifying competition will have a chance to reach Brasil ’14 through a home-and-home playoff with a nation from another regional confederation.

South America will have 4.5 qualifying berths, plus Brazil’s automatic spot as host.  Europe will keep its 13 berths, and Africa its five.  Once again, Asia will have 4.5 and Oceania 0.5.

One change:  A draw will be held in July to determine the playoff pairings among the CONCACAF fourth-place finisher, South America’s No. 5, Asia’s No. 5 and the Oceania winner.

The outcome, nevertheless, left CONCACAF officials–among them president Jack Warner of Trinidad & Tobago, who said in January that his region would lobby for an outright fourth berth– disappointed, if not angry.  Said CONCACAF Secretary General Chuck Blazer of the U.S., like Warner a FIFA Executive Committee member, “We are 35 members who are very serious about qualifying.  We want to be treated fairly and given enough opportunity to be successful.  Hear us.”  [March 3]

Comment:  Crocodile tears. 

Much can be said about how berths have been doled out since the World Cup expanded from 24 teams to 32 for Francia ’98.  Did Asia, in 2002, deserve two qualifying berths to go along with automatic berths that went to co-hosts Japan and South Korea?  Should Europe, with a high of 15 nations in ’98, continue to watch its presence erode?  When it comes to Africa, which had six total slots at South Africa ’10 and saw only Ghana survive the second round, will FIFA continue to reward that continent based on, presumably, promise alone?

For now, FIFA uncharacteristically got it right, for the most part.  Oceania, which since Australia’s defection to Asia has become New Zealand and the Eight Dwarves, truly does not deserve a straight path to a World Cup.   South America, with Brazil holding one spot, deserves its five qualifying spots.   And CONCACAF, which to most of FIFA is Mexico and the U.S.–plus, depending on the year, Costa Rica or Honduras or Canada or T&T or Jamaica, plus a couple dozen dots in the Caribbean–deserves its 3.5.  

At the last World Cup, the U.S., though first in its group at 1-0-2, and Mexico (second, 1-1-1) and Honduras (0-2-1) failed to turn the tournament on its ear.  CONCACAF’s fourth-place team, Costa Rica, dropped its playoff with Uruguay, although it should be noted that the Uruguayans went on to reach the semifinals.

If CONCACAF wants its fourth, it will have to overwhelm FIFA with its performance in Brazil.  The USA’s appearance in the 2002 quarterfinals won’t do, nor will Mexico’s in 1986, when it was host.  It will take that combined, plus a repeat of Uruguay1930, to do it.  That time, the U.S., 32 years before the founding of CONCACAF, finished third.



A GOLDEN CHALLENGE

CONCACAF unveiled its schedule for the 12-nation 2011 Gold Cup, which will be staged in an unprecedented 11 metro U.S. areas beginning June 5.  The regional championship, which was first held 20 years ago with eight nations in two stadiums (the Rose Bowl and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum), will be played at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX; Ford Field in Detroit; Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC; Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL; Soldier Field in Chicago; KC Soccer Stadium in Kansas City; RFK Stadium in Washington, DC; Reliant Stadium in Houston; FIU Stadium in Miami; Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, and New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ; and, outside Los Angeles, the Home Depot Center and Rose Bowl, site of the June 25 final.

Defending champion Mexico, host U.S. and Canada qualify automatically and will be joined by Caribbean champion Jamaica and area rivals Greneda, Cuba and Guadeloupe.  The remaining five teams will be determined next month at the Copa Centroamericana in Panama.  [December 16]

Comment:  If America’s interest in its World Cup team has any legs, we will find out during this Gold Cup.  This tournament marks the U.S. National Team’s first appearance on a major stage since it drew record television ratings for its four matches at South Africa ’10.  Will a significant number of those same Americans who crowded around TVs last June vote with their feet this June and buy tickets to see some old favorites and new faces playing against lesser teams for lesser stakes?

We’ll see. Provided the U.S. reaches the final and faces the auld enemy, Mexico, perhaps the support for the home team will be better than in 2007, when the Americans beat the Mexicans on a Benny Feilhaber golasso.  That was witnessed by a loud pro-Mexico crowd of 60,000 at Soldier Field.  Or last year, when Mexico humiliated an experimental U.S. side, 5-0, at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, in front of an overwhelmingly partisan Mexico crowd of 79,156.  

Will a corner be turned in ’11, or will the U.S. players continue to find that an American stadium is just a home away from home?



MORE REASON TO KILL THE PENALTY-KICK TIEBREAKER

Canada eked out a 1-0 victory over Mexico in Costa Rica to win the 2010 CONCACAF Women’s Under-17 Championship.  Both finalists earned berths in the FIFA Women’s U-17 World Cup, to be held later this year in Trinidad & Tobago.  The United States defeated the host Costa Ricans, 6-0, in the third-place match but became the first American women’s team at any level to fail to qualify for a world championship tournament.  [March 20]

Comment: For those who find penalty kicks to be the worst possible way to settle a match, this tournament serves as more fuel for your fire.  The U.S. entered its semifinal showdown with Canada having crushed Haiti, 9-0; Cayman Islands, 13-0; and Costa Rica, 10-0.  The Canadians defeated Jamaica, 4-1; Panama, 2-1; and Mexico, 1-0.  Although the Americans would end the competition with a goals for-against of 38-0, they couldn’t manage one against Canada and fell on PKs, 5-3, following a scoreless draw.  True, the U.S. tempted fate by allowing the game to go to a spot-kick duel, but in the end, the undefeated Americans (4-0-1), runners-up at the inaugural Women’s U-17 World Cup in 2008, stay home while Canada and 3-2-0 Mexico move on.

NO SOCCER TO BE SEEN THROUGH TINTED WINDOWS

Quote of the Week, supplied by basketball star Kobe Bryant, in an interview with Sports Illustrated:  ” . . . It’s been a long time since I played (soccer).  When I was in Italy, I used to play every single day.  Here in the States you don’t have a chance to play that much.  It’s not like you’re driving down the street and you see pickup soccer games.”  [March 15]

Comment: Bryant works in Los Angeles, the most diverse metropolis in the world, not to mention the second-largest Spanish-speaking city in the Northern Hemisphere.  He won’t spot any pickup soccer games in L.A. until windows are installed in his limousine.

ESPN/ABC GIVES ITS WORLD CUP TELECASTS AN EXCLUSIVELY BRITISH ACCENT

ESPN/ABC unveiled an all-British slate of play-by-play announcers to call its 2010 World Cup telecasts.  Joining the previously announced Martin Tyler are fellow Englishmen Ian Darke and Adrian Healy and Scotsman Derek Rae.  Former U.S. captain John Harkes and ex-Nigerian international Efan Ekoku are among the color commentators.  The network’s lead American announcer, JP Dellacamera, will be teamed with Irish analyst Tommy Smyth on ESPN Radio.  [March 5]

Comment: After three decades of remarkable progress, ESPN turns the soccer clock in this country back with a violent twist, returning us to the 1970s and ’80s, when there were, more or less, two kinds of people carrying the soccer banner in this country:  Americans and Brits.  A majority–or at least a plurality–of the coaches and front office executives in the NASL were British.  And that league, led by a Welsh commissioner, was criticized for loading its team rosters with players from the English second and third divisions.  The country’s most prominent soccer columnist and TV analyst was the same person, Englishman Paul Gardner.  On the grassroots level, as the joke went, when there was a rare paid coaching position open, an English or Scottish accent got you the job.

Fortunately, the Colonists have since learned to crawl, walk and run on a soccer pitch, er, field.  The nation once known for turning out acrobatic but naive goalkeepers and hard-nosed but inartful defenders but nothing more has for years produced strikers, playmakers, coaches, referees, journalists and, yes, broadcasters.  Along the way it’s hosted a hugely successful World Cup and will soon appear in its sixth straight World Cup, a claim no member of the U.K. can make.  Yet according to ESPN/ABC, apparently we need our friends from across the Pond to hold our hand once more.

Ratings that have grown with each World Cup since ESPN/ABC first got its feet wet with USA ’94 (without commercial interruption, thank you) have convinced  the network that it has a chunk of programming with tremendous potential that must be treated seriously.  To wit, 165 staffers–double the number that helped cover Germany ’06–will be on the job for South Africa ’10, and ESPN2 will go all-soccer in the 24 hours leading up to the June 11 opener.  But to go all-Brit in the broadcast booth suggests a gross overreaction to ESPN/ABC’s failed experiment of four years ago, when it again passed over American soccer play-by-play men and anointed Dan (The Baseball Man) O’Brien as its lead announcer.

Unlike O’Brien, this all-Brit quartet is knowledgeable, not to mention articulate, something casual soccer fans and the curious who tune in will find refreshing,  having lived on a steady diet of NFL and NBA announcers all these years.  But for those who will watch as many of the 64 matches as possible, ESPN/ABC’s bold move will wear thin by the end of the first round.  Back in ’94, when the droll, likeable Darke was the only non-American in any ESPN or ABC booth, he came off as a terrific change of pace.  This time, we’ll get a wall-to-wall month of mouth-watering cup ties, perfectly weighted balls, ungainly challenges, goalkeepers who spill the ball, defenders who are wrong-footed, tripped up attackers who go to ground, penalty-kick takers who make no mistake, marksmen in form who score a brace of goals and cover themselves in glory, shots denied by the foot of the post, talismanic captains, and teams that run out winners, not to mention words like “strip” (not uniform), “pace” (not speed), and “scoreline” (not score, fer cryin’ out loud).  There’s also “All to play for,” “There for the taking,” “Put paid to their account,” “Only just,” but that’s piling on.

Ironically, the commentary will be delivered in the typically understated British style.  (Think “Thoughtful ball,” or “A bit ambitious.”)  If there was any one complaint against American announcers in the past it was that they didn’t have the passion of their Spanish-language counterparts.  That  means a frantic, radio play-by-play style that, delivered in English, would have had those same American viewers reaching for the mute button after five minutes.

ESPN/ABC would have done better to give us a mix–at least handing the minimum three games involving the U.S. National Team to Dellacamera, the fellow who called all of the USA’s matches during the long qualifying campaign and, obviously, knows the team best.  How ESPN/ABC’s gambit pans out remains to be seen.  The first real test will come June 12, with the Group “C” opener between the U.S. and England in Rustenburg.  If the U.S. is somehow ahead at the final whistle, we’ll see if the mood eminating from the booth is “USA Wins!” or a sullen “England Loses.”