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Thursday, June 22, 2006


Ghana 2, United States 1.

The Yankees are going home.

The U.S. sets the tone in the world for many things, but even in 2006 the U.S. is on the outside looking in. Ghana was simply better today. Picked to finish fourth in its group, it sent home the teams that FIFA had rated #3 and #5 (so much for FIFA's ratings).

I recall years ago an ad campaign that preceded the Summer Olympics about two decathletes, guys named Dan and Dave. Both were predicted to finish first and second in the Olympics. To the best of my recollection, neither made it out of the U.S. Olympic Trials. Talk about a lead balloon leading up to the Olympics.

This result feels a bit like that.

Significant hype preceded the American team into the 2006 World Cup, and the records show that little of it was justified. The Americans weren't a well-oiled machine playing synchronized soccer. Casual fans didn't see the talent that the U.S. soccer afficionados swore was there. If they did see it, it was in the form of opposing jerseys. What they saw, plain and simple, was an also-ran, a team lacking in the talent and experience necessary to compete against the traditional powers.

My reading of all the pre-World Cup hype was that the Americans were supposed to make a bigger dent. True, they had a tough draw, getting put into the same group as the Czechs, then rated in the Top 5 in the world, and the Italians, with talent to burn. Only the cognoscenti figured that Ghana would give the others fits, and the insiders were right. Perhaps it was too much to ask of the U.S. team to escape the first round. Even if they were to do that, in all likelihood they were destined for second in their group and a date with Brazil in the next round (Ghana now has that distinction).

So whither U.S. soccer? They supposedly had the players, and they supposedly had the best coach the U.S. has had to offer, but they just didn't get it done.

As for the players, well, the U.S. needs to find better ones. Ones that play against the world's best talent in their day jobs, ones who can play in the Premiership, La Liga and Serie A. Not ones who play in mid-sized U.S. cities in front of middling crowds, many of whom don't have a Major League baseball team as an alternative. It's hard to say that Landon Donovan et al. can measure up against the likes of Argentina and Brazil when they don't play against their best players in their day jobs. The competition in the World Cup is that much tougher, and the U.S. players clearly don't have the experience against the best competition that the best players on the best World Cup teams do. Until you have a core group that is well-regarded in those elite leagues, your team will be on the outside looking in.

As for the coach, it's harder to say. Bruce Arena has achieved everywhere he has been, but the team looked unprepared in its opening match against what turned out to be an underachieving Czech team. Better prepared, the Americans might have been able to sting the Czechs the way the Ghanans did. Instead, the U.S. suffered such a whitewashing that their goal differential -- a key metric in case teams tied for second in the opening round -- was a disaster and bode ill for getting the team into the second round. Arena may be the best American coach, but the question remains whether that's like being the best hockey player in Ecuador. Hard to tell.

In the U.S., only a few commentators will give notice to the disappointing play of Team U.S.A., and that commentary will disappear after the weekend newspapers give their reviews. In any soccer hotbed, the commentary would swirl around for months, churning the intestines of the faithful the way a bad meal does. In the U.S., you'd need a microscope to see the fallout. It will be gone as quickly as it came.

And that, believe it or not, is bad for U.S. soccer. In order for soccer to take off, it needs to become part of the daily conversation. And before you say, well, that's impossible, if you look at the landscape of major sports over the past 30 years, it has changed significantly. Horse racing and tennis loomed a lot higher on the radar screen, as did ice hockey, 30 years ago. Horse racing's popularity waned because gambling became legalized in many venues (it used to be the only thing one could bet on legally outside Las Vegas). Tennis lost its personality and its stars, and NASCAR emerged from being the backroads Bubba sport into a national phenomenon. Ice hockey has little appeal beyond those who attend games. Golf has become a mainstay, more so than decades ago. The possibility for evolution and emergence as a higher priority is there. Think NASCAR. Think golf. Think the NCAA men's hoops tournament (pretty big in '76, but a mega-hit today).

But soccer needs traction. Wins over some international powers, some stars with pizzazz (which are lacking on the U.S. team) and advancement into the second round are what U.S. soccer needed. Instead, U.S. men's soccer faltered on all fronts, akin to a fancy ship losing its rudder and sailing aimlessly at sea.

Sure, kids will continue to play the game, but the best kids will play football, basketball and other sports.

And their dads and grandfathers will continue to take them to baseball games.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was I the only American rooting AGAINST the USA? The last thing we need in this country is more soccer. All ready the game has virtually supplanted football as the fall youth sport du rigeur. Am I the only one fed up with the tyrranical fascism that is futbol, with its carbon-copy players and destructively jingoistic following?

It's a liberal conspiracy I tells ya...

1:35 PM  

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