Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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.



A HIGHLY UNLIKELY SOCCER HOTBED

A crowd of 13,822 was on hand at Harder Stadium to see the host UC Santa Barbara men defeat Big West Conference rival Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 2-0.  [November 4]

Comment:  Absolutely anywhere in America can become a soccer hotbed, even the laid-back, sunsplashed, tony beach town of Santa Barbara, CA. 

Consider that when Harder Stadium played host to the most significant soccer match in its history, just 9,127 showed up to see the U.S. National Team–16 months ahead of the 1994 World Cup it would host–hold Romania to a 1-1 draw.

This match’s significance was along the lines of, perhaps, a game in the French fourth division.  In winning, the Gauchos clinched the No. 3 seed in the Big West Conference playoffs and avenged a loss at Cal Poly earlier in the season.  Hardly anyone in U.S. collegiate soccer noticed.   But those among the 13,822 who hadn’t made the trip down the coast from San Luis Obispo went home happy and will be back again.

Somehow, Santa Barbara has become a soccer hotbed, at least on the collegiate level.  Last year, Harder Stadium was site of six of the season’s 10 best-attended men’s matches.  An early-season game against UCLA drew a throng of 15,896; followed by Duke at 11,242.  UCSB hosted the 2010 NCAA Division I men’s final between Akron and Louisville, and that attracted 9,672.  In all, the Gauchos, in 12 home games, led NCAA soccer in total attendance, 70,471, and average turnstile count, 5,873.   By comparison, the late, unlamented Miami Fusion could muster only an additional 1,500 per home game before it was booted out of Major League Soccer.

There are other collegiate soccer hotbeds, like reigning champion Akron, and long-time powers Maryland, UConn, Virginia and Indiana.   Like those schools, UCSB men’s soccer is a winner and represents a school far from any bright lights, but it has the additional advantage of not having to compete for attention with a gridiron football team.  Regardless, most NCAA Division I men’s teams are lucky to break four figures on a regular basis, and nearly every NASL and USL club would kill for the Gauchos’ box office numbers.

Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg must be left marvelling at it all.  When he was a younger man, standout defender Vom Steeg was a member of the now-forgotten Real Santa Barbara (1989 and 1990), then of the Western Soccer League and American Professional Soccer League.   It was the highest level of soccer in the U.S. at the time.  Playing a few miles down the coast at La Playa Stadium on the campus of Santa Barbara City College, Real Santa Barbara faced the likes of Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda, Robin Fraser, Martin Vasquez and Dominic Kinnear.  Announced attendance was always in the neighborhood of 830, but reality said that there were no more than a hundred souls in the stands, and most of them could be caught gazing beyond the field, past the gently swaying palm trees and marina to the blue Pacific.  The prospect of any Real Santa Barbara game being televised nationally–like the UCSB-Cal Poly match–would have been both laughable and embarrassing.

Obviously, things have changed in Santa Barbara.  But there is the suspicion that the biggest change involves the rise of a generation of soccer-savvy young people who are willing to rally around the right team at the right time and who realize that those good times they see beamed from major European stadiums can be replicated here in the U.S.



BELGIUM 1, UNITED STATES 0

Belgium defeated the United States, 1-0, in a friendly in Brussels, leaving new coach Juergen Klinsmann winless in his first three matches at the U.S. helm.

The youthful Belgians, whose chances of qualifying for the 2012 European Championship are slim at best, outplayed the Americans for long stretches and got the winning goal on a half-volley from distance by Nicholas Lombaerts 10 minutes into the second half after the U.S. couldn’t clear a long throw-in.  [September 6].

Comment:  It was only a friendly for a U.S. squad that has plenty of time for experimentation before CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 World Cup gets underway in June.  And there were bright spots, including the play of goalkeeper Tim Howard, who spared the U.S. a lopsided loss, and Jose Torres, whose all-around performance gave Klinsmann plenty to consider as he constructs his midfield.  But it was yet another reminder of exactly where the United States stands in the international soccer community.

Since defeating Poland, 3-0, in Krakow in March 2008, the U.S. has tumbled in its last six trips to Europe.  While fans can celebrate some startling high points over the years,  like upset victories over Portugal in the World Cup and Spain and Germany in the FIFA Confederations Cup, the fact remains that the U.S. hasn’t improved to the point where it can consistently beat Europe’s mid-level teams–the Belgiums, the Turkeys, the Romanias, the Denmarks, the Swedens, the Scotlands–in non-competitive games in Europe.  That means that the USA hasn’t made true progress and puts the lie to its place in the FIFA World Rankings, where it usually hovers in the 20s but for one laughably heady moment in April 2006 found the Americans at No. 4.  (For the record, within weeks, FIFA overhauled its rankings formula.)