Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


THE ABORTED ‘MIRACLE 2’

The U.S. National Team will close out 2012 with a Wednesday, November 14, friendly against Russia at Kuban Stadium in Krasnodar.

The Russians, No. 9 in the current FIFA World Rankings, are coming off a frustrating first-round exit at this year’s European Championship, while the Americans, ranked 27th, are 9-2-2 in 2012 and a tie away from posting their best single-year record in their history.  [November 12]

Comment:  This could be a useful exercise for both sides.  Russia, led by the Zenit Saint Petersburg trio of Victor Faizulin, Roman Shirokov and Aleksandr Kerzhakov, leads European Group “F” in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup and has gone 4-0-0–all by shutout–under coach Fabio Capello, who last faced the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup as England boss.  As for the U.S., coach Juergen Klinsmann will use the opportunity to tinker yet again before his side begins the final round of CONCACAF qualifiers for Brasil ’14 in February.

But this game will hardly go down as historic.  The Cold War is a distant memory, and the two countries now keep one another at arm’s length, a frozen smile on their faces.  There have been meetings, but nothing of consequence:

o  February 3, 1979, U.S. 1, USSR 3, in Seattle

o  February 11, 1979, U.S. 1, USSR 4, in San Francisco

o  February 24, 1990, U.S. 1, USSR 3, in Palo Alto, CA

o  November 21, 1990, U.S. 0, USSR 0, in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago

o  January 25, 1992, U.S. 0, Commonwealth of Independent States 1, in Miami

o  February 2, 1992, U.S. 2, Commonwealth of Independent States 1, in Detroit

o  February 13, 1993, U.S. 0, Russia 1, in Orlando

o  February 21, 1993, U.S. 0, Russia 0, in Palo Alto, CA

o  January 29, 1994, U.S. 1, Russia 1, in Seattle

o  April 26, 2000, Russia 2, U.S. 0, in Moscow

All friendlies, of course, with the Soviets/CIS’ers/Russians holding a solid 6-1-3 advantage.  The only competitive match between the Eagle and Bear was played September 22, 1988, in Taegu during the Seoul Olympic Games.  The U.S., featuring North American Soccer League old-timers Rick Davis and Kevin Crow and up-and-comers like Paul Caligiuri, Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Frank Klopas and Peter Vermes, had played Argentina and host South Korea to ties but needed at least a high-scoring draw against the Soviets to advance to the knockout round for the first time in its Olympic history.  Despite goals by John Doyle and substitute Brent Goulet, the USA lost, 4-2.

There might have been a game of real significance, however–a real Cold War potboiler–had the stars not mis-aligned four years earlier.

In 1984, the U.S., as host, held an automatic berth in the Los Angeles Olympic soccer tournament.  At the draw conducted that spring by FIFA at the plush Huntington Sheraton Hotel in Pasadena, CA–a stone’s throw from the Rose Bowl, site of the final–media members and guests gasped when it was revealed that the USA had been drawn into the same first-round group with the Soviet Union.  Visions of a Miracle on Grass, a redux of the Americans’ titanic upset of the USSR in ice hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY, immediately danced through many a head.

When the media questioned  draw emcee Joseph Blatter, then general secretary of a FIFA even less transparent than the one he heads today as president, the shifty Swiss was characteristically oblique.  The U.S. and USSR landing in the same group didn’t happen by sheer chance, he allowed.  On occasion, said Blatter, FIFA will honor a host nation’s “request.”

In the end, the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that set up the American-Soviet clash were all for naught.  On May 8, the Soviet Union, still smarting from the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, announced that it was boycotting the Los Angeles Games.  Thirteen other communist bloc nations followed suit, plus Iran and Libya.  As for the ’84 soccer tournament, it meant that all three medalists from Moscow ’80–Czechoslovakia (gold medal), East Germany (silver) and USSR (bronze)–would be no-shows.  They were replaced by three nations that fell short in Europe’s Olympic qualifiers:  Italy, West Germany and Norway.

That summer, the U.S. thumped Costa Rica, 3-0, in its opener at Stanford Stadium, then lost to Italy, 1-0, at the Rose Bowl and missed the quarterfinals with a 1-1 tie with Egypt back at Stanford.  It appeared to be a golden chance lost, because for this tournament FIFA had changed the rules to allow players, regardless of amateur/professional status, to take part if they hadn’t played in a World Cup for a European or South American country.  Thus, this American team was loaded with NASL players, not raw amateurs.  And the absence of a marquee match like U.S.-USSR allowed ABC, the Olympic broadcaster, to choose to limit its coverage of the 16-nation, 32-game tournament to all of five minutes.

The ’84 Olympic soccer tournament drew a record 1.4 spectators to lead all sports–track and field included–and enable the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee to turn a $40 million surplus.  And that turnout prompted FIFA, four years later, to award the 1994 World Cup to the United States.



LANDYCAKES 2, DEUCE 1

Landon Donovan out-shined Clint Dempsey in an unusual showdown of American stars as Donovan’s Everton came back to defeat Dempsey’s Fulham, 2-1, in an English F.A. Cup fourth-round match at Goodison Park.

After Danny Murphy converted a penalty kick for Fulham in the 14th-minute following a handball in the box, Everton answered with headed goals by Denis Stracqualusi in the 27th and Marouane Fellaini in the 73rd–both set up by sharp crosses by Donovan from the right wing.  [January 27]

Comment:  The performances by U.S. teammates Donovan and Dempsey probably only intensified the raging online debate among some American fans as to who is the better player.  Doesn’t matter.

It beats the bad old days, when the discussion began and ended with one player–a Rick Davis, followed years later by a  Hugo Perez, then a Tab Ramos, then a Claudio Reyna.  And with the possible exception of Reyna (Glasgow Rangers), none of them made a real dent overseas.

So enjoy the debate.   And perhaps someday the argument will involve–dare it be said– three U.S. players.



AMERICA’S 5-FOOT-8, 160-POUND EMBLEM

Landon Donovan won an unprecedented seventh U.S. Player of the Year award in a landslide over runner-up Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey in balloting involving nearly 200 journalists nationwide.

Donovan, who first won the honor in 2002, attracted 403 points based on three for a first-place vote, two for second and one for third.  Bradley picked up 169 points and Dempsey 157.   The only other multiple winners in the 20-year history of the award– organized by the national radio show Futbol de Primera and until recently sponsored by Honda–are goalkeeper Kasey Keller (1999 and 2005) and striker Eric Wynalda (1992 and 1996).

The speedy attacking midfielder-withdrawn forward probably became a favorite for the 2010 award with his stellar play early in the year for Everton, but he cinched it by scoring in three of the USA’s four games at the World Cup, including the dramatic winner against Algeria in added-on time that put the Americans into the second round.  He then returned home and helped the Los Angeles Galaxy finish the MLS regular season with the league’s best record.  [January 5]

Comment:  Once dismissed by the Los Angeles Times as “the overrated Landon Donovan” following the first of his two attempts to make an impact in Europe with Bayer Leverkusen, later criticized for disappearing in this match and that, the USA’s all-time scoring leader in 2010 cemented his status as not only the face of the sport in this country but a face that some average Americans actually recognize.

This country’s first notable soccer player was, probably, Archie Stark, a Scottish-born center forward who dominated the original American Soccer League in the 1920s and was dubbed “The Babe Ruth of Soccer” by a young newspaper columnist named Ed Sullivan.   From the early ’30s, oldtimers fondly recall a ball artiste named Billy Gonsalves.  Fast-forward to the 1970s, when the NASL tried but failed to make league scoring leader Kyle Rote Jr. its All-American Boy, and the 1980s, when it succeeded, somewhat, in planting that title on New York Cosmos midfielder Rick Davis.   Since then, the country has produced several outstanding players, like Hugo Perez, Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna, as well as personalities like bohemian gladfly defender Alexi Lalas, the fiery goal-scorer Wynalda and teen-idol Cobi Jones. 

It has been said repeatedly that what American soccer needs is a superstar–whatever that means.  It is doubtful, however, that the general American public would appreciate the subtle skills of a Xavi, a Zidane, a Cantona, a Maldini.  An incisive pass, a simple swerve, a change of direction, an immaculate take-away:  all would be lost on a viewership peering in on soccer only occasionally.  Donovan, however, does what Americans understand, has a track record of doing so, and is comfortable before cameras and facing a horde of reporters in front of his locker. 

Donovan has asked for a respite after several months of play, so it’s unlikely that he will return to Europe any time soon and add to his credentials this winter.  As such, enjoy his reign as “That American Soccer Player.”  Certainly, no successor is on the horizon, and that puts the sport’s longterm future on the fickle U.S. pop culture front in doubt.

[Full disclosure:  One ballot went to Donovan, Bradley and Steve Cherundolo, who served the role of grown-up on the USA back line in South Africa.  At 31 and playing for the obscure Hannover 96, it’s doubtful that the smart, energenic Cherundolo will ever get the credit he deserves.]