Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


WE DIDN’T TELL YOU SO–WE WARNED YOU SO

As expected, Bruce Arena announced his resignation as U.S. National Team coach, four days after he watched his side fall in shocking fashion to Trinidad & Tobago, a defeat that cost America a berth in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Needing only a tie in its final CONCACAF qualifier to punch its ticket, the U.S. gave up two first-half goals in a 2-1 loss at Couva. The Americans then tumbled from third place in the six-nation competition to fourth and ultimately fifth place minutes later as Panama and Honduras, playing simultaneous matches, both won to move up.  The top three nations–Mexico, Costa Rica and the Panamanians–qualify for Russia automatically and the fourth-place finisher, Honduras, advances to a home-and-home playoff with Australia.

“No excuses,” said Arena in his resignation statement.  “We didn’t get the job done, and I accept responsibility.”

Arena, who guided the U.S. to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, including a quarterfinal appearance in ’02, was hired to be Mr. Fix-It after Juergen Klinsmann was dismissed in November following losses to Mexico and Costa Rica to open the hexagonal playoff.  The winningest coach in U.S. history at 81-32-35, Arena went 10-2-6 in his second go-round but only 3-2-3 in the USA’s remaining World Cup qualifiers.  [October 13]

Comment I:  We didn’t tell you so, but we warned you so.

Go back to our August 18, 2015 post (“Don’t Put the U.S. Cart Before the World Cup Horse”).  It was inspired by the cocksure attitude in the U.S. soccer community that its team was a rubber stamp to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.  At issue was whether the U.S. or Mexico, CONCACAF’s previous two Gold Cup winners, would win a playoff to secure a spot in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia.  From all quarters came the description of the Confederations as “a valuable warm-up for the World Cup,” as if both countries had already qualified with the Hex still more than 12 months away.  After all, they’d piled up 13 World Cup berths between them since 1990, and Mexico probably would’ve qualified for Italia ’90 had it not been barred by FIFA for using an over-age player in a youth competition.

The post reminded readers of the progress being made by the nations behind the Yanks and El Tri, and above all it recalled Mexico’s near-miss four years earlier, when it was seconds from being eliminated until the U.S. threw it a lifeline with two goals in stoppage time for a comeback win over Panama.  The red-faced Mexicans humbly accepted the gift and went on to qualify for Brazil ’14 by beating Oceania’s New Zealand in a playoff.  Four years ago the impossible was possible for a matter of seconds, and now, as of the evening of October 10, 2017, the seemingly impossible has indeed become reality.

The lesson out of The Disaster of Couva:  A World Cup berth isn’t a given.  It’s precious.

Comment II:  Seven consecutive World Cup appearances.

If there was any justification for the confidence here that a World Cup berth had become an American birthright, it is that remarkable run of success.  It’s a boast perennial powers like Holland, Uruguay and England can’t make.  Only six other nations had done it since 1990:  Brazil (five world championships), Germany (four), Italy (four), Argentina (two), Spain (one) and South Korea, which seemingly owns Asia.  The U.S. staggered into Italia ’90, making its first World Cup appearance in four decades, and it made it automatically in 1994 as host nation, but it’s been soccer’s version of a cakewalk since.  CONCACAF may have the world’s ugliest, most contentious qualifying competition, but the U.S. was given a golden path with FIFA’s decision to expand France ’98 from 24 teams to 32, thus increasing the number of berths allotted to CONCACAF from two to three.  Suddenly, regional qualifiers here were no longer a contest to see which countries would be fighting for the one scrap left behind by mighty Mexico.

So where does this hubris leave us?  Next June and July, there will be no outdoor viewing parties for thousands of fans at cities throughout the country for a U.S. National Team.  Fox, which spent more than $400 million for the rights to the next two World Cups, won’t experience the bump ESPN did in 2014 when 18.2 million Americans tuned in for the USA’s first-round draw against Portugal–a figure larger than the domestic audience of 17.3 million for the Germany-Argentina final.  The dominoes that will fall will include sponsorship and endorsement dollars not realized.  You’ll see small headlines, not big headlines, in your newspaper’s sports section, and no special insert devoted to rising young star Christian Pulisic, ol’ reliable Clint Dempsey and the boys.  The day’s World Cup results may be the last thing mentioned on your local TV news’ sports report, if it’s mentioned at all.  In short, your mother-in-law and the stranger in line at the grocery store won’t ask you about the World Cup and whether our guys can win their next match.

Worst of all, there’s a big slice of an entire generation of young players who won’t get that extra inspiration that comes from watching their country play for a world championship.  When you’re age 10, eight years is a lonnnnnng time.

Comment III:  What happened?

U.S. fans will be asking that well into the future.  With its fate in its hands, the U.S. played without urgency long enough for Omar Gonzalez to score in the 17th minute what will now be known as the most notorious own goal in American history, followed by a 35-yard bomb in the 37th by Alvin Jones that beat 38-year-old ‘keeper Tim Howard high inside the far post.  Pulisic, the USA’s 19-year-old wunderkind, pulled one back with a right-footed drive from the penalty arc two minutes after intermission, but would-be savior Dempsey was denied an equalizer in the 69th by goalkeeper Glenroy Samuel’s leap and by the right goal post seven minutes later.

Where was the U.S. side that ran wild four nights earlier in a 4-0 rout of desperate Panama in the penultimate qualifier in Orlando?  Arena started the exact same 11 in Florida, so was it fatigue?  Was the U.S. subconsciously playing for a draw?  Only savvy teams like Italy know how to play for a tie on demand.

Whatever it was, what happened elsewhere wasn’t much of a surprise.  Costa Rica had already clinched second place in the hex, so its 2-1 loss at Panama City on a controversial late goal wasn’t much of an upset.  Mexico had already clinched first, so its seesaw 3-2 defeat at San Pedro Sula didn’t do much to dent El Tri pride.

No, the major surprise was in Trinidad & Tobago.  Because of electrical problems, the U.S. match had been moved an hour south of the national stadium in Port of Spain to a modest 10,000-seat track and field facility.  Just as well.  With the Soca Warriors long since eliminated, the turnout at Couva resembled a crowd for a junior college match.  In fact, an attendance figure was not released.  It was virtually a neutral site.  Certainly T&T was playing with absolutely nothing to lose.  But U.S. fans have to question the fortitude of a team playing what was becoming a do-or-die game devoid of the horrors of qualifying on the road in CONCACAF.

Comment IV:  What now?

Most of the focus is on the man who hired Klinsmann and then Arena, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati.  He’s up for re-election after three campaigns in which he ran unopposed.  The two fellows expected to run against him in February are relative unknowns.  What Gulati has in his favor is his influence as a player in the high stakes world of international soccer.  A member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, he sits on the powerful FIFA Executive Council (formerly the Executive Committee), he was instrumental in getting Gianni Infantino elected FIFA president, and he’s leading the Canada/U.S./Mexico campaign to host the 2026 World Cup, which will be the first 48-nation World Cup in history.  It should be noted, however, that the North American trio’s lone opponent for ’26 is Morocco, which would have trouble adequately accommodating a 16-team competition.  It is not imperative, then, that Gulati remain U.S. Soccer’s chief executive.

Whoever wins this winter, it is hoped that the new president shows patience.  There’s no clear successor to Arena waiting in the wings here in America.  Come the final whistle at next year’s World Cup, there will be plenty of qualified coaches who either stepped down or were pushed from their post, and many will be interested in a job where the resources are ample, the players are promising if not international stars and the only goal is not to work miracles but just right a ship that’s badly listing.  Oh, and unlike back home, the public pressure is minimal.

 

 



BRUCE 2.0

Bruce Arena was named coach of the U.S. National Team, replacing Juergen Klinsmann, who was fired a day earlier.

It will be Arena’s second stint as U.S. coach.  From 1998 to 2006 he compiled a 71-30-29 record, the most successful stretch in American history. A two-time winner of the CONCACAF Gold Cup (2002, 2005), he guided the Americans to an historic quarterfinal finish at the 2002 World Cup, beating Portugal in their opening match before advancing out of the group and earning a 2-0 victory over Mexico in the Round of 16.  The run ended with a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to eventual finalist Germany in the last eight.

“When we considered the possible candidates to take over the Men’s National Team at this time, Bruce was at the top of the list,” said USSF President Sunil Gulati of Arena, who also led the U.S. to a three-and-out finish at the 2006 World Cup. “His experience at the international level, understanding of the requirements needed to lead a team through World Cup qualifying, and proven ability to build a successful team were all aspects we felt were vital for the next coach. We all know Bruce will be fully committed to preparing the players for the next eight qualifying games and earning a berth to an eighth straight FIFA World Cup in Russia.”

Since his first tour as U.S. boss, Arena served as general manager and coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy from 2008 through this past season, winning Major League Soccer titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014.  He rose to prominence by winning five NCAA championships as coach of the University of Virginia, then led DC United to the first two MLS titles, in 1996 and ’97, as well as the ’96 U.S. Open Cup.  He also helped United become the first-ever U.S. team to lift the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the now-defunct Interamerican Cup, winning each in 1998.

“Any time you get the opportunity to coach the national team, it’s an honor,” said Arena. “I’m looking forward to working with a strong group of players that understand the challenge in front of them after the first two games of the Hex. Working as a team, I’m confident that we’ll take the right steps forward to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.”

The U.S. in early November opened the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 World Cup with losses to Mexico, 2-1, at home, and at Costa Rica, 4-0.  The Mexico defeat was the first home loss in a World Cup qualifier in 15 years.  Those results left the Americans in last place, four points off the pace for the last direct qualifying berth with eight games remaining on the schedule.  [November 22]

Comment I:  The timing for the change was obvious for more than one reason.

The next U.S. qualifiers, against Honduras in Salt Lake City and Panama in Panama City, aren’t until March 24 and March 28, respectively.  Roughly four months.  Preceded by a low-key camp in January that traditionally includes a couple of friendlies where hopefuls from MLS and youngsters get a look.  There isn’t as big a window for the rest of the Hexagonal.  Plenty of time for Klinsmann’s replacement to pull together a staff and execute a smooth transition.  It’s the American way.  The USSF doesn’t fire its coaches on airport tarmacs after a big loss.

Then there was Arena himself.  On a personal level, he was the obvious choice, like him or not.  Arena is not the coach he was a decade ago.  He’s now 65, and a doting grandfather.  He signed a two-year contract with the USSF, and this obviously is his final hurrah.  He has an ego, and he’d like to go out with a signature accomplishment, like a successful World Cup run, which wasn’t going to happen if he stayed in Los Angeles.  What’s one more MLS Cup to Arena at this point?

Comment II:  Juergen Klinsmann made the fatal mistake of over-promising.

He was hired to replace Bob Bradley in 2011 on the promise that he would not only lead the U.S. to victory but remake American soccer culture from the top down.  Gulati doubled down on that promise in 2013, on the heels of a U.S.-record 12-game winning streak and Gold Cup title, by extending Klinsmann’s contract (a reported $3.2 million a year, through 2018) and crowning him men’s technical director to boot, placing the fates of the Olympic and national youth teams in his hands.

But the ups and downs of the Klinsmann era turned mostly to downs by 2015.  That year the national team failed to finish in the top three in the Gold Cup for the first time since 2000, part of a slide in which the Americans lost four consecutive games on U.S. soil for the first time in a half-century.   Meanwhile, on his watch as technical director, the U.S. failed to qualify for consecutive Olympic tournaments, something that hadn’t happened since Montreal ’76-Moscow ’80.  As for the U.S. youth teams, the kids haven’t been alright.  The U.S. under-20 team is winless in its last eight games against European nations by a combined score of 27-7, including a humiliating 8-1 pounding by Germany.  The U.S. went winless at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup, four years after failing to qualify for the first time ever.  Remember how the U-17s reached the semifinals of the 1999 world championship in New Zealand and teens Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were named the tournament’s top two players?

Klinsmann, 52, departs having compiled a fine 55-27-16 record.  There have been two World Cups, including one in which his team won a so-called “Group of Death,” in 2014.  There was the fourth-place finish at last summer’s Copa America Centenario.  And startling friendly victories:  1-0 at Italy in 2012; 4-3 at home over Germany in 2013; 4-3 at Holland and 2-1 at Germany in 2015.  But he also exits with the cupboard bare:  the Klinsmann national team pool is overly reliant on German players with U.S. passports and his youth teams–based on results–are a shambles.  Little was built, and the fallout is the minor chaos that’s now Arena’s problem.

Comment III:  So who’s to blame?  Sunil Gulati.

He was one of the driving forces behind the ill-fated Project 2010, a laughably optimistic $50 million development surge launched by the USSF that was supposed to make America a legitimate contender for a World Cup title.  The title of the 1998 report that introduced the project, “Winning the World Cup by 2010:  Soccer’s Equivalent to the Apollo XI Moon Landing,” is best forgotten.

Gulati’s first major decision as federation president, in the weeks after the 2006 World Cup, was to allow Arena’s contract to expire, saying the team needed to go in a “fresh direction.”  He hired Arena’s assistant, Bradley, as new national team coach, then found him wanting in 2011 and hired Klinsmann, ultimately giving the German, as noted above, an extension and adding technical director to his titles.  Now it’s Arena, back to direct the U.S. in a presumably fresh direction.

As he completes the final two years of his third four-year term as U.S. Soccer supremo, Gulati’s legacy, and that of USSF Chief Executive Dan Flynn, will be one of continued success on the part of the U.S. women and utter mediocrity–even retreat–by the U.S. men at all levels.

Comment IV:  Had Klinsmann lost his team?

One can only wonder.  But there’s Klinsmann’s track record of rarely owning up to a mistake, of throwing players under the bus.  The latest victim was young Hertha Berlin center back John Brooks who, as Klinsmann pointed out, lost his mark, Rafael Marquez, on Marquez’s late winner off a corner kick in the 2-1 loss to Mexico.  Four nights later down in San Jose, a demoralized Brooks turned in a disastrous performance against Costa Rica.  This same 23-year-old came close to earning a near-perfect player rating in the USA’s 1-0 victory over Paraguay at last summer’s Copa America Centenario.

You don’t have to be embedded in the U.S. dressing room to draw the conclusion that Klinsmann, with his insistence on getting his players out of their “comfort zone,” his thinly veiled disdain for MLS players, his willingness to take chances on any and all European-based players, his infamous dropping of longtime U.S. captain Donovan on the eve of Brasil ’14 . . . was not a players’ coach.  And players’ coaches tend to have some support among the people in uniform when they get into trouble.  There was barely a peep from those wearing U.S. uniforms after Gulati dropped the hammer.

Comment V:    Is Arena Mr. Fix-it?

His first stab at professional coaching, with DC United in 1996, was, initially, a disaster.  A month into Major League Soccer’s first season, the team representing the nation’s capital was a laughingstock.  Arena quickly fired several players and United went on to win the league championship.  A year later, it won another.

Can Arena fix this with eight CONCACAF qualifiers remaining?  Odds remain good that the U.S. will qualify for the 2018 World Cup regardless of who is coach.  The top three finishers earn berths in Russia, and the fourth-place team remains alive through a home-and-home playoff with Asia’s fifth-place finisher.

But at this point, U.S. Soccer is in the position of merely hoping for an eighth straight World Cup appearance.  Should the team reach Russia ’18, the U.S. will be back in the familiar position of hoping for little more than surviving its first-round group and a trip to the second round of a World Cup.  Klinsmann’s promise of genuine progress remains a luxury . . . and an unfulfilled dream.

 



SAY IT AIN’T SO, LIONEL

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.



HOW NOW, THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD

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.

 



KLINSMANN EXPLAINED . . . OR NOT

Stanford University sophomore Jordan Morris scored four minutes into the second half and his replacement, erstwhile striker Juan Agudelo, applied the clinching goal in the 72nd minute as the U.S. defeated Mexico by that familiar score of 2-0 in a friendly played before a sellout crowd of 64,369 at San Antonio’s Alamodome.

The 20-year-old Morris, who made his international debut in November at Ireland, became the first college player to start for the U.S. in two decades.  Agudelo hadn’t played for the U.S. since November 2012 and hadn’t scored since March 2011.

With the match not on the FIFA international schedule, the U.S. lineup was dominated by Major League Soccer players while Mexico was largely a Liga MX side.

The U.S. is 13-5-5 against Mexico since 2000, 17-11-9 since 1990 and 19-33-14 since the two nations first met in 1934. [April 15]

Comment:  Just a friendly and just a warm-up to this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup between two sides missing their biggest names, many of whom stayed with their overseas clubs.  U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann had this to say to MLSsoccer.com a few days before the match, which was played a couple of weeks after the Americans lost at Denmark, 3-2, and earned a 1-1 draw at Switzerland:

“. . . It is a great opportunity for everyone (individually) to show where they are right now, where they are at this stage with MLS teams, down in Mexico, and just show us at what stage you are. And then obviously the closer we get to the Gold Cup the more we kind of define things.”

Obviously.

And because of logistics, Klinsmann and his predecessors have had to play the hand they’re dealt when it comes to personnel, rounding up European-based starters for one friendly, then European-based bench sitters and MLS and Liga MX players for another. (Playing outside the FIFA international window, like the Mexico game, only makes things more difficult.) But in his nearly five-year tenure as U.S. boss, Klinsmann has established not just a revolving door but a spinning revolving door to his team’s dressing room, frustrating observers who would like to see him, at the very least, settle on a back line so those four souls don’t have to introduce themselves to one another before every kickoff. They might even learn to play as a unit.

True, the U.S. got a shutout victory in San Antonio with yet another eclectic group, but that quote and that game only made a recent online article by Bobby Warshaw all the more interesting. A 26-year-old midfielder for Baerum of the Norwegian first division who played for the U.S. U-17s, FC Dallas and two Swedish first division clubs, Warshaw wrote:

“Juergen Klinsmann is a tough cat to understand sometimes, but his comments prior to the U.S. men’s national team game with Switzerland shed a little light for me. Whenever Fox Sports’ Rob Stone asked a question about the team, Klinsmann put the emphasis on the players. He never mentioned team goals. Rather, he kept referring to the players, suggesting that ‘the players have the opportunity’ and ‘it’s a big time in their careers.’ It annoyed me.

“That doesn’t answer the question, Juergen. Why are you putting the weight on the players here? You’re always criticizing the players. He asked about the TEAM. How are you going to prepare the TEAM? You’re the man in charge.

“It seemed he was missing the boat.

“And then I remembered back to one of the first conversations I had in a European locker room. I had been there for a week on loan from my Major League Soccer team. I started talking to a guy in a nearby locker about his career. He said he didn’t want to be with the club long; he was going to move on to a bigger club soon. It seemed a strange thing to tell a teammate.

“I realized Klinsmann wasn’t shirking responsibility in the interview. He was making a statement that reflects his view of the game, and it’s something I think I’ve failed to understand about the coach: The European football culture where Klinsmann was raised revolves around individual ambition. Personal success means more than team accomplishments.

“It’s a funny feeling around a European locker room. Everyone is happy to be on the team, but everybody also wants to be on a different one. A lot of the players have one foot out the door as soon as they step in. If a European player could pick between a trophy at the end of the season and moving on to a bigger club, he would choose the move. And it’s all perfectly accepted. It’s a strange way to conduct a team. (I can’t imagine what it’s like to play for a feeder club like Ajax, where not a single person really wants to be on that team.)

“Every player in Europe has a small sense he will someday end up in Manchester United red. Seventy-five thousand fans, Champions League, multi-million-dollar deals all feel within your reach.

“In MLS, the ceiling seems so low. The league office won’t sell you; it has no incentive to. You work hard to get some playing time and then become a starter. Hopefully the team rewards you with a new contract, but it’s not likely. They pat themselves on the back for getting a good deal within the salary cap. They tell you to sacrifice for the team. You chug along.

“In Europe, the sky’s the limit. It’s an incredible feeling. It only takes one game or one good run for someone to spot you. The next morning your club sells you to pay the electric bill. You move up a step in a matter of days.

“It changes the way you see the game. Winning isn’t the be-all and end-all. You don’t play to win the game . . . . You play because you’re personally ambitious. Ambition drives performance. And if everyone plays well, then the team wins the game. That drive, that ambition, that personal selfishness helps players, and the team, perform.

“This is strange to Americans. We hate to think anyone is playing for himself. We loath selfish players. And that’s one of our disconnects with Klinsmann.  Klinsmann doesn’t view it as selfish. He sees it as natural, if not necessary.

“The way you talk about the team doing well is to talk about the players playing well. All of a sudden, ‘the players have the opportunity’ makes a lot more sense. It’s the individual’s drive that moves the team forward.

“But players still need direction and game plan, neither of which Klinsmann seems to provide. Emphasis on a player’s individual ambition aside, at some point coaching needs to be done.

“Klinsmann has a general view of the team that we don’t seem to like. Some wise person in history surely said that hatred is fueled by ignorance–and seeing Klinsmann through this European lens at least helps us understand the man a little more. But who knows, maybe that understanding simply gives a little more merit to the hatred.

“Klinsmann grew up in a sporting model different than the one touted in the United States. I don’t think it explains everything, but it explains a little.”

Warshaw is certainly right in that Klinsmann’s outlook runs counter to American sensibilities.  The U.S. sinks or swims as a team; for decades, it has been a one-for-all, all-for-one outfit out of necessity.  Go down the list of the USA’s greatest upset victories–from England in 1950 through Portugal in 2002 and beyond–and in every case the whole was greater than the sum of its parts compared to the individual international stars they defeated.

And U.S. Soccer has even had to stand its approach to youth soccer on its head in an effort to match the player development methods of top soccer-playing nations.  When Claudio Reyna was appointed the USSF’s youth technical director in 2010 (a year before Klinsmann took the helm of the national team), his curriculum could be summed up by this quote:  “We care about how many players you develop rather than how many trophies you win.”  It was refreshing . . . and altogether Klins-ian.

So the focus now is on the individual, not the team.  It can only be hoped that when these sparkling individuals reach the national team, it is Berti Vogts who can help the rugged individualist Klinsmann turn a collection of talent into a unit, supplying Warshaw’s “direction and game plan.”  With Klinsmann under fire for his selections and methods and tactics, it was Vogts who was brought aboard two months ago as technical advisor to do for Klinsmann, perhaps, what Joachim Loew did for him at the 2006 World Cup when Klinsy was German National Team boss.  Vogts, an unselfish, blue-collar player nicknamed “The Terrier” would’ve been Warshaw’s prototypical American, a guy playing for the team, not to move up the soccer ladder.  Vogts, after all, toiled 15 seasons in the Bundesliga, all with the glamorous Borussia Moenchengladbach.



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.

 



NOW, EVEN IN AMERICA, IT’S LEAGUE VERSUS COUNTRY

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.

 



A FOND FAREWELL TO THE STRANGE ESTRANGEMENT

Landon Donovan played his final match for the U.S. National Team, a 1-1 tie with Ecuador in a friendly in East Hartford, CT.

An adoring sellout crowd of 36,265 at Rentschler Field bade farewell to Donovan, 32, who leaves as the USA’s all-time leader in goals (57), assists (58), starts (142) and minutes played (12,853).

Donovan played a small part in Mix Diskerud’s goal in the fifth minute.  He later rang the right post with a shot in the 25th minute, grounded an attempt wide and saw another shot smothered by Ecuadoran ‘keeper Maximo Banguera before exiting for Joe Corona in the 41st.  In the 88th minute, with Donovan long gone, striker Enner Valencia spoiled the party somewhat when he equalized on a looping shot.

Donovan’s 157 caps are second only to Cobi Jones’ 164; the U.S. was 90-36-31 when he played, and 11-3-5 when he was captain.  He played a record 15 years as a member of the full U.S. team, tied with a non-field player, goalkeeper Kasey Keller.   Donovan was a seven-time winner of the Honda Player of the Year award and was named U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year four times.

The impish forward-midfielder announced two months ago that he will also retire as a player when the Los Angeles Galaxy’s season concludes later this fall.  He is Major League Soccer’s all-time leader in goals (144) and assists (136), and has won five MLS championships.  [October 10]

Comment:   Thus endth the international career of the greatest player ever produced by America.  With about five minutes left in the half, Donovan and coach Juergen Klinsmann, who controversially cut Donovan from his 2014 World Cup squad, exchanged an awkward embrace at the touchline, and the only U.S. male soccer player many Americans could name was gone.  Over the past five months the snub–costing Donovan a U.S.-record fourth trip to a World Cup–became the biggest soap opera in U.S. National Team history, dwarfing the sacking of captain John Harkes by then-coach Steve Sampson on the eve of the 1998 World Cup.   What began as a discussion of player form and the subjective nature of a coach’s player selections mushroomed to almost Freudian proportions.

No one will know exactly how this coda to Donovan’s career in red, white and blue came about.  Most will summarize it by pointing to Donovan’s five-month soccer sabbatical in 2012-13, causing the driven Klinsmann to question the player’s commitment to the national team and his profession in general.  But this appears to be a case of Klinsmann regarding Donovan as a prized pupil, a player held to a much higher standard than, say, defender and dual citizen Timmy Chandler, who waffled from 2011 to 2013 before at long last agreeing to play for the U.S., not his homeland, Germany.

Here’s what Klinsmann had to say the day before the Ecuador friendly:

“As a coach, you always want to see a player drive for his 100 percent.  I’m looking at Landon always that I wish, in a certain way, he could have done a bit more here and a bit more there.  But he had a tremendous career and he deserves that farewell tomorrow night and all the compliments on your end as well.”

And Klinsmann’s wishes go all the way back to 2008, when Donovan, who had already struck out as a kid with Bayer Leverkusen and was striking out on loan to  Bayern Munich, had nevertheless captured the fancy of Munich’s coach.  That  happened to be Klinsmann, who would last only one stormy season with the club known in Germany as FC Hollywood.  Said German legend and Munich general manager Uli Hoeness later, “Juergen really wanted us to sign the guy, but to be honest, he wasn’t even good enough for our second team.”  (Donovan would go on to prove his European mettle during loan stints in England with Everton in 2010 and 2012.)

So where did it go sour between Donovan and the man who some six years ago was one of his biggest boosters?  And why?  Did Klinsmann chase Donovan into a premature retirement as a professional player?  It should be noted that Klinsmann won a European Championship when he was Donovan’s age and two years later he played in one more World Cup.  So it should also be asked how much more Donovan could’ve accomplished in MLS as an elder statesman.  But the primary question remains the one fans have been asking since the U.S. was eliminated from the 2014 World Cup on July 1:  What would Landon Donovan have done in Brazil?



2014 WORLD CUP POSTMORTEM

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.”

Progress.

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.

 

 

 



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.