Monday, June 28, 2010

The Loss

That's the Ghanese coat of arms, signifying the sad departure of the boys in blue. Yes, it happened again; for the 80th straight year, the United States failed to win the World cup. I watched the match at a bar in the village with a couple pals, and though the loss was hard to take in that atmosphere, which was so willing and eager to become ecstatic, I can't say I'm despondent.

On facebook later in the afternoon, my friend Nick had a status message that said (paraphrasing) "amazing how quick the sting wears off, isn't it?" My feelings were similar, especially in comparison to the aftermath of Yankee playoff losses, where once, in younger days, I wrote a really lachrymose blog posts bemoaning the total tragedy of another disappointment, and blaming myself for not supporting them with enough fervor (seriously, it was embarrassing, and I'm happy to report it no longer exists on the internet). Not so with US-Ghana. I'm okay.

The primary reason for my quick recovery, of course, is that I'm not a huge soccer fan. But within the context of the World Cup, I got fairly excited about Team USA. I was stimulated enough that there was at least a semi-strong investment in their cause. Walking out the of the bar into the very harsh sunshine ("God, it's day out here," said a fellow supporter), I had the sinking feeling of disappointment. It just wore off fast, is all. And the real reason I'm not in a state of despair, despite my enthusiasm, is simple: we weren't good enough. Let's review:

1) In the group stages, we showed approximately nothing other than a weird ability to play better from behind. A very lucky 1-1 tie with England was a good start, but the early goal we conceded to Gerrard initiated a pattern of poor beginnings that continued with Slovenia. Falling behind 2-0 in that second match stung, and left us open to bad luck taking a win off the board at the end. Against Algeria, we almost conceded another early goal, were saved by the crossbar, and managed the win by the skin of our teeth. A great moment, to be sure, but also a sign that Team USA wasn't exactly a powerhouse.

2) We failed to possess the ball on offense in a meaningful way. I've watched a good number of teams, and the ones who can pass back and forth effectively while trying to find a chink in the defensive armor, without being harassed into kicking long or diagonal balls to goal, are Germany, England, Holland, Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Uruguay, Parguay, Portugal, and sometimes Ghana. No surprises. The US can't maintain that control, and they did have to resort to attacking without organization. That's basically asking for luck, a commodity that rarely sticks around for long. I mean, we're not even Irish.

3) Our strikers and forwards are awful. We have nobody except Landon Donovan with any kind of scoring touch. Dempsey, Findley, Altidore, etc. have no ability near the goal. The contrast is especially striking when you compare them with guys like Tevez or Messi (Argentina) or Podolski or Klose (Germany). Team USA had myriad scoring chances throughout the tournament, and for a while the lack of goals seemed like bad luck. But finally, we have to admit that it wasn't luck, just a lack of talent.

4) The early goal conceded against Ghana was an abysmal, and maybe shameful, development. If a team can't learn from their mistakes, they'll finally get burnt. Luck and the ability to come back can't last forever, and the Americans went to the well once too often.

My question is this: why did it keep happening? Was it a lack of motivation? Of the four goals we gave up in the tournament, three came within the first 15 minutes. Did we keep coming out flat? How can that be possible on a stage as nervy and important as the World Cup? And if we performed our absolute best when we played with a frantic, attacking style, like the first 15 minutes of the second half against Ghana, why didn't we play with that energy more often? In that quarter hour, the US looked amazing. The goal had to come, and it finally did. We kept up the attack for ten minutes after, but it was half-hearted, and by the 75th minute the energy died. The rest of the match went just like the first half, with sloppy defense, desperation long balls, and Ghana owning the possession.

5) Defense. Piss poor. We were lucky to play Ghana instead of a team like Germany. They would have scored 10 goals and embarrassed us completely. We do not have world class athletes in the back, sorry to say.

For all those reasons, we didn't deserve to advance. Could we have won against Ghana? Yes. And we could have won against Uruguay too. My pal Wynn, a much bigger soccer fan than myself, put it best in a post-match e-mail when he said "the path to the semifinals will not get any better in the future than Ghana and Uruguay. The semifinal or final would have been misleading about how good we are, but I dont give a would have been really really fun and great for soccer here and it would have made me very glad."

I agree with that. It was a prime opportunity for a team who didn't deserve to be in the semifinals to get there anyway. Like Wynn said, we could easily be paired with a Spain or Argentina in the round of 16 next time (or the group stages, where it looks more and more like getting England as our 'good' team was a pretty handy break). If this was Duke basketball and we missed a similar opportunity, I'd be pretty upset. But as a more impartial observer, attached to Team USA not because of player loyalty or sport loyalty but only a vague sort of patriotism, I'm not bumming.

Here's the truth: in order for the US to become a soccer powerhouse, there has to be a cultural change. Instead of pick-up basketball in cities and towns, kids will need to be playing soccer. That's why these other countries have preternaturally talented strikers and midfielders and defenders. It's not because we lack great talent. That rareified subset of the population exists in all countries. But in Argentina and Spain and Holland and Germany, those kids who possess what we'll call a 'physical genius' grow up playing soccer. They're identified early, and their skill is developed in a national system. Here, that doesn't happen. Until it changes, soccer will be a sport played mostly by upper middle-class Americans and smaller European, Latin American, and African enclaves. And when you look at the best athletes in our other major sports, that's not where they come from.

That's why it's so deceiving when announcers say something like "how extraordinary that Slovenia has only one-tenth of the United States population, and yet they're competing!" Okay, fine, but how big is the talent pool? I bet it's very close to the same size.

I personally don't see that cultural shift happening here. I could absolutely be wrong. And who knows, maybe the growing Hispanic population in America will produce some brilliant players, and we won't need the cultural shift. But as things stand, the US is not situated to produce a Lionel Messi, or an Arjen Robben, or a Cristiano Ronaldo. Even if that potential existed in an American youth, he's probably playing football or basketball. And in the off chance that he's playing soccer, he isn't facing the kind of competition that could bring out those latent gifts and creativity.

That's my diagnosis.

On a more positive note, I think international soccer finally won me over this weekend. Germany-England was the match of the tournament so far, and I was glued to the set. The more you watch anything, the more you're able to pick up on little subtleties, and the more you can appreciate the moments that come in between the dramatic climaxes (in this case, goals). I've slowly come to recognize and enjoy the little intricacies in soccer, and it's a nice feeling.


How stupid is that? Add my voice to the choir, please. It would take about three seconds to determine if Lampard's goal went in, or if Tevez was offsides, or any other outcome-affecting event near the goal. Implement it. Implement it today. Why the resistance? In fact, why is there resistance at all in life? Why is there no BCS playoff system? Why why why?! Why isn't everything perfect?!

Sepp Blatter, FIFA's President, is an ignorant old fool. His big excuse for remaining in the 20th century is that they wouldn't be able to use video at all levels. Oh yeah, that's important, Sepp. God forbid the Yugoslavian youth championships be tainted by an unseen hand ball while the World Cup, the universe's most popular sporting event, unfairly benefits from video. Unbelievable.

There's far too much money at stake to let this system persist. The refs have shown beyond all convincing that they can't manage the job on their own. For one reason or another, it's too difficult, and they're shortcomings harm the sport. As well as Germany played yesterday, both of their late goals came on counterattacks. Do they get those if the game is tied 2-2? Almost definitely not. Does Mexico utterly collapse if the offside Argentina goal is discounted and it's 2-2? Who knows?

But we shouldn't have to speculate. As Jurgen Klinsmann said at halftime of England-Germany, it's a disgrace.

But I'm still loving the World Cup. This one has trumped '06 by far, and the knock-out draw is very exciting. How can you not be pumped for a match like Spain-Portugal (tomorrow, 2:30) or Argentina-Germany (Saturday morning)? It shall be MAD.

Okay, so, today is a great day in sports. The Orange Crush play in a half hour, Brazil later on, and it's the entire men's round of 16 at Wimbledon goes down starting now. Rafa says his knees are in good shape, but I have a feeling he'll be put to the test this afternoon. Already, Federer is up two sets and a break on Melzer, and is two games away from an easy win.

And yes, you best believe I'll be talking some Robbie Cano later on. Until then, go Holland.

1 comment:

  1. Pretty excited you picked the Holland player with the very shortest of shorts. Or? Is that a national thing too?

    All reasonable suggestions aside, I honestly think raising the hemlines (so to speak) would help viewership/participationship in the US.