Monday, June 12, 2006

The noise that you heard this afternoon was a series of myths being shattered in Gelsenkirchen

(Note: This is a guest blog entry from Jim of the late, great blog 11 am airraid.)

Before the U.S. National Soccer Team took the field today in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, against the Czech Republic in the team’s first match of the 2006 World Cup, something just didn’t quite sit right with me. Maybe I was put off by the continual proclamations by the press that this is the best U.S. team ever fielded for a World Cup. Perhaps it was Nike’s “Don’t Tread On Me” ad campaign, in which the U.S. team has been presented as a swaggering soccer power. Maybe it was the number 5 world ranking assigned to the U.S. by FIFA, the governing body of international soccer. Perhaps it was the 1-0 loss to Morocco in the U.S.’s first warm up match prior to the World Cup. Or maybe it was all of the above.

When the final whistle blew and the U.S. walked off the field after a humiliating 3-0 loss to the Czechs, I wasn’t surprised. I am the quintessential eternal pessimist (or so I’ve been told – I prefer to think of myself as a realist), and I knew that it would be difficult for the U.S. to beat the Czechs. So unlike my fellow fans who gathered with me in the hospitable atmosphere of Brugge Brasserie, I didn’t actually feel that the world was going to end. Rather, I felt as if the nagging myths told about the Yanks had merely been confirmed as myths, not truths.

Myth 1 – We are the fifth best team in the world. Any self-respecting American soccer fan will tell you that our number 5 ranking is a joke because FIFA’s ranking system—which the organization will finally scrap after the World Cup in favor of something different—is itself a joke. And yet the soccer-ignorant American sports media, including the very network that is broadcasting all 64 World Cup games in the wonders of Hi-Def, kept trumpeting the U.S.’s ranking before the World Cup as if that ranking proved something. As the old saying goes, however, the proof is in the pudding. The pudding produced today by our team was more like a cow patty, not the luscious chocolate Jello brand stuff that I remember from my childhood.

Particularly problematic for us is that we don’t face consistently difficult opponents leading up to the World Cup. Rather, our World Cup qualifying region, which goes by the unwieldy moniker “CONCACAF,” is filled with the minnows of the soccer world, like St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, and that terrifying world power, the Netherlands Antilles. The only consistently difficult opposition that we face is fellow regional power Mexico.

When you don’t play the big guns, you’re not going to have the chops to cut it against the big guns. The U.S. Soccer Federation needs to do more to schedule tougher opposition for the U.S. during World Cup qualifying cycles. In short, more trips to Europe and South America to play games against European and South American powers are in order.

Myth 2 – Our athleticism will prove a bane to our opponents. Athleticism means nothing if it is not joined with skill and vision. In other words, you’re not going to win a soccer game by merely being able to run circles around the other team. You have to possess some skill. You’ve got to have a good first touch on the ball. You must have vision as well—the ability to sense how and where plays are going to develop.

There’s no question that we’re athletic. We’re skilled, too, but not skilled enough to hang with the top echelon teams. We have three players with what I’d consider to be good vision—Claudio Reyna, John O’Brien, and Landon Donovan—but other than those three, the pickings get very slim among the remainder of the squad. That’s because the soccer culture in this country doesn’t value creative, skillful players. It values what I call “worker bee” players. Worker bee players are players that will work their asses off for ninety minutes without much flair, but when the time comes to make that one game-breaking pass or deadly finish in front of the goal, no one steps up because no one is skilled enough to step up.

There are a number of theories on why our country doesn’t produce skillful players. Some say that player development is retarded by our youth and college systems, which tend to bring mostly white, suburban players into a very structured, rigid environment, rather than bringing in inner city and Latino kids who play a lot of unstructured “street” soccer. Others say that it’s merely a matter of the best athletes not gravitating toward soccer because of the competition from the traditional American sports, such as football and basketball.

I feel that the problem is primarily cultural. In other countries, every kid who picks up a soccer ball lives and breathes the game, not only as a participant but as a fan as well. Here, soccer for kids is merely a recreational pastime. It’s not “in the blood,” so to speak. Thanks to Major League Soccer, which is working to form developmental systems for young players, this cultural aspect of the game is beginning to change, but at a glacial pace. Until the change is complete, we aren’t going to consistently produce skillful players with vision.

Myth 3 – Landon Donovan will lead us to the Promised Land. In the last few weeks, midfielder Landon Donovan’s face has been everywhere that U.S. Soccer is being plugged. Donovan is touted as the clear leader of this team. If that in fact is true, then what happened against the Czech Republic will be replicated in our next game against Italy and in our final group game against Ghana. That’s because Donovan’s leadership was nowhere to be found on the pitch today in Gelsenkirchen.

Donovan has the potential to be a great player. Every American soccer fan realizes this. But sadly, Donovan has not displayed the fire in the belly necessary to be a great player. Too often, he doesn’t stamp himself on the game in big games. Too often, he talks a lot of smack but doesn’t back it up on the field. His decision a few years ago to leave German club Bayer Leverkusen for Major League Soccer after a brief unsuccessful stint at Leverkusen made many American soccer fans wonder whether Donovan had enough guts to test his mettle in a high-pressure soccer environment. His lackluster performance today only causes that wondering to continue.

Myth 4 – We’re greater than the sum of our parts. The word “synergy” is often used to describe our team. In other words, many say that while the U.S. team may not have any international superstars, they work well together as one cohesive unit. And often, they really do. How else to explain some of the better performances out of the team in the past several years (see, e.g., the final qualifying match against Mexico, which the U.S. won convincingly 2-0)?

Perhaps our synergy isn’t really a myth. But it was today. I can’t think of a time when I’ve seen the team so disjointed and so lacking in passion or pride. They were what most English soccer announcers would call “uninspired.” To have synergy, the Yanks need to play with everything that they have. But they didn’t against the Czechs, and this is what disappointed me the most today. Losing is fine, but not when the loss is caused by a lack of passion.

So the U.S. sits with two games left in the group. The team must win both matches if it hopes to advance. To do that, it must make the myths into a reality. That indeed will be a terribly difficult task, but not one that is impossible. Even this eternal pessimist—make that an eternal realist—harbors some hope.


--Jim

11 Comments:

Blogger torporific said...

Jim,

Thanks for your post on the match. I watched it at Radio, Radio. I would say there was a crowd of 40-50 fans there throughout they day. By the way, I was at radio, radio the other night and the crowd wasn't much smaller than the sparse crowd for French Kicks and the Damnwells. I was really disappointed in the size of the crowd.

Back to soccer though, I have to agree with you. Donovan made a great breakaway early, but then I am not sure I heard his name called until around 70 minutes later. Beasley was lost, ineffective and may have played himself out of the lineup. In his defense, I did not like how Arena moved him.

I thought Johnson played well and Convey tried but was ineffective. It was telling that they had at least 8 offsides and we had none. How can we trail the entire match and not have any offsides? We were not aggressive at all.

June 13, 2006  
Blogger Jorge Best said...

A very disappointing effort by the American side. I don't see much of a chance now.

June 13, 2006  
Blogger mike said...

torpor was at radio radio too? it appears we might all be social morons.

i, for one, am embarrassed.

we'll all have wear roses in our hair next time.

June 13, 2006  
Blogger scot said...

that 8 offsides to none stat is true and i completely forgot about it after the game. But during the game I leaned to my buddy dorse when they showed 6 offised to none and mumbled, "are you effin kidding me?" there were just no penetrating runs at all to think of. ugh.

June 13, 2006  
Blogger scot said...

and yes, I am a social moron too.

June 13, 2006  
Blogger Jim said...

Thanks for putting my drivel up, T.

On the venue where I watched the match -- Brugge was packed, and the atmosphere, beer, and food were great. If I had to guess on the size of the crowd, I'd say that we had at least 50 people if not more. There were even a handful of Czech fans there. Ted, the Brugge brewmaster, and his business partner, Abraham Benrubi of "ER" fame, were great hosts.

I plan on catching Saturday's match at Radio Radio, so I hope to see you there. We're going to have to work on the social moron thing that Mike mentioned if we're all there on Saturday. I guess I'll just stand up on the bar and say, "Hey, I'm Jim from 11 a.m. Air Raid. Where are all the other blogging geeks?"

More on the match - I agree that Beasley was also worthless. I think some responsibility also lies with Arena. The formation that he trotted out (a 4-5-1) has never worked for us. Every time we've used it, our attacking players sit back too much, and McBride is left stranded, just like yesterday.

So, on Saturday, we'll see what this team is made of. At this point, I don't care if we lose. I just want to see some pride among the players in wearing the USA shirt.

June 13, 2006  
Blogger torporific said...

Jorge Best, what a great soccer name.

You're welcome to post on here anytime, Jim.

Maybe I'll see all of you guys there on Saturday. I hope not to have a schedule conflict with the game.

June 13, 2006  
Blogger Nölff said...

George Bush does not care about soccer.

I was in Wales last time World Cup soccer was around. I didn't know what it was until I went there. They dig it.

June 13, 2006  
Blogger lemming said...

I am an optimist but I no more expect the US to win the World Cup than the Cubs to win the World Series.

GREAT post!

June 14, 2006  
Blogger tommyspoon said...

Oh, I think we'll win a World Cup long before the Cubbies win a World Series.

June 14, 2006  
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