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Friday, June 27, 2014

Soccer Jingoism Only Can Go So Far

I find it difficult to get euphoric after my team loses a game and gets outplayed across the board while doing it.  Yet, many USA fans were jubilant after the US soccer team's 1-0 loss to Germany, but only because a) they didn't lose by a bigger margin, b) Portugal didn't beat Ghana by a bigger margin and c) because of a) and b), the U.S. advanced to the knockout round of the World Cup.  Those fans would argue that the overall results in the three-team round robin in their group were great because many didn't expect the U.S. to beat Ghana (even though for the most part they were outplayed), to draw Portugal (even though they outplayed Portugal and should have won) or, okay, beat or draw Germany.  But by doing what they did, the U.S. escaped "this group of death" and have moved onto the next round.

I could imagine the euphoria had the team played like Costa Rica, which also was in its own group of death with Italy, Uruguay and England.  Los Ticos played better than the U.S., shocked everyone, and two of the world's soccer superpowers are going home.  But by backing in to advance, the U.S. just couldn't get that type of glee from me.  Am I happy that they advanced?  Sure.  Is it a great accomplishment?  Relatively speaking, yes.  For U.S. soccer, it's worth celebrating.  But I doubt that the average fan of Brazil, Germany, Argentina or the Netherlands goes into orbit when it's team makes it to the knockout round.  That's a given for them, an expectation.  Get to the semifinals and then they'll probably be gleeful and hopeful, because then your team is two wins away from winning the World Cup.  The U.S. soccer culture just isn't there yet, and will celebrate anything other than a loss at this point.

Now, it's easy to discount Belgium.  It's a country of 16 million people divided into speaking three different languages depending on where people live (Dutch, Flemish and French).  Twice in the past 100 years the German army went through it to menace France, the French tell Belgian jokes, their beer and chocolate are first-rate, but, well, they are a small country (not as small, though, as some of the Latin American teams).  And they aren't a traditional power the way the Netherlands (who are playing with great pride given that most pundits thought they had their best shot in 2010, only to lose in the final), Germany, Italy and France are.  But. . . they have a very talented squad, so talented, in fact, that you can make and win the argument that no U.S. player -- not Tim Howard, not Michael Bradley and not Clint Dempsey -- could start for them.  The question is one of experience and chemistry.  They are one of the youngest teams in the World Cup, and they haven't played together all that much.  Their play has demonstrated that.  They do have good leaders, though, in center backs Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen (who have captained Manchester United and Arsenal).  Their midfield abounds in talent, and it's arguable that they have two of the top ten goalies in the world and perhaps the best in Thibault Courtois.  They have all the pieces.

But, as the commentators have pointed out, they haven't played great.  Yet, they won all their games in a much easier group than the U.S., but wins in the World Cup are still wins, under great attention and pressure, so they should not be discounted much.  Pay no attention to the idiotic rating of the remaining 16 clubs that appeared on, having the U.S. rated 10th and the Belgians 11th (with Costa Rica 6th and the Netherlands 1st -- the Dutch got a big break because Spain was sent packing through abysmal play).  The Belgians have more talent, are a better team, and should be rated higher than the U.S. and favored. 

That's not to say that the U.S. cannot beat them.  They can, if for no other reason that the resolve that the Americans play with.  The ESPN commentators (who have been great) have pointed out that they haven't jelled and only turn it on late when they realize that they need to do more than win.  That type of sense of urgency usually catches up with a team and they lose.  And that's where the U.S. can take advantage -- if they come out aggressively, bring more men up earlier and press the Belgians, they could punch them in the face early (and, as Mike Tyson once said, "every one has a strategy until I hit him.").  Score early, and they'll test the mettle of the Belgians.  Will they get a true sense of urgency, play with fury and score the multiple goals they're capable of?  Or, because of their youth and lack of chemistry, will each star and future superstar wait around waiting for someone else to step up, only to have no one do so?  That could happen.  And if that were to happen, the U.S. could emerge with a win, and then take their chances against, in all likelihood, Argentina.

But if the U.S. were to hold back, play it safe and not press, they run the risk that in the end the Belgians talent will win out.  That's what's happened so far, and that trend could continue for the Red Devils.  The U.S., though, should act like the underdog and continue to try to show the world that it can play with the more seasoned countries and players.  It should not defer, it should not wait, it should not pull back their lines.  To do so will not exploit the lack of cohesiveness of the Belgians and their intermittent lack of urgency.

All that said, U.S. fans should temper their euphoria.  Yes, it's nice to get to the knockout round, but for the superpowers of the soccer world, that's not such a big deal.  The stakes are higher now, and the competition will step up.  It remains to be seen whether a team still not full of prime-time international players can keep pace with a team that overflows with them.


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