Observations from a soccer enthusiast
I appreciate that you wrote a column on U.S. soccer today. I’ve played all my life, and at 56 I’m still playing. I’ve followed the U.S. national team closely since the World Cup in 1994 (that was the year of the baseball strike. And sports channels across the nation gave a few minutes of air time for the World Cup, but much more for the nail biting developments of the baseball strike….).
I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve noticed that local sports columnists across the U.S. somehow feel compelled to write a token column during every World Cup while ignoring the sport almost entirely during the four year periods between the event. So I don’t pay much attention to them (like the World Cup A-Z ditty that your colleague wrote the other day). But since your column focused on a long-lived story, I thought I’d add some observations that you might find worthwhile. (But no offense if you don’t, or if you’re not interested. I have no pretenses that everyone should be interested in soccer just because I am).
First, the U.S. has qualified for the World Cup every time since 1990 — and that is not easy. Yes, we don’t play in Europe or South America where the national competition is harder, but qualifying for the World Cup in North America is no picnic. We have to compete against the likes of Costa Rica (just knocked off perennial powerhouse Uruguay 3-1), and Mexico (just beat Cameroon — a historically great team).
Second, like most teams that get the World Cup a lot, the U.S. has had some good years, some mediocre ones, and some flameouts. We made it to the Quarterfinals in 2002 after beating Portugal in group play (no one expected that), and thoroughly dominating Mexico in the first knockout game. We lost to Germany 1 - 0 in the next round, after hitting the post twice and outplaying them. The U.S. played respectably in the 2010 Cup, even though Ghana beat us in the first knockout game. But Ghana is a very, very good team. No one in the world of soccer doubts their ability. And the year before that, the U.S. reached the final of the Confederations Cup after beating Spain 2 - 0, and losing to the Champion Brazil 3-2. Not too shabby.
Even historically great soccer nations have terrible tournaments, like Spain losing 5-1 the other day, France and Italy bombing out in the first round in 2010, and England seemingly never failing to underperform. But that’s international soccer.
If you want to read a good book about what makes some countries successful vs. unsuccessful, and which countries will probably emerge as global powerhouses, you should read Soccernomics (written by two economists who crunched a lot of data). It explains a lot.
Your column focused on Kyle Rote, a guy I remember. But Kyle, as dedicated and talented as he was, could’t hold a candle to modern U.S. players like Dempsey, Bradley, Howard, and others. These guys have proven themselves in the top professional leagues of the world. And others are following in their footsteps. Meanwhile, the MLS is pulling off a quiet miracle by not just surviving 20 years, but coming out with a great product and dedicated fan base with a stable business model. If you attended a game in Portland or Seattle, you wouldn’t believe you’re in the U.S. The fans are over the top in their enthusiasm. Obviously, soccer is not for everyone, and I can appreciate that. Neither can anyone convince me that a sport like golf is an interesting game to watch. It’s all personal.
Final thoughts — while the U.S. is in the famous ‘Group of Death’ this cup, the only reason any group gets that name is because all four teams are considered capable of getting through the group. That’s the working definition of that term. And I can assure you that Germany, Portugal, and Ghana is not taking the U.S. lightly. And re having a foreign coach, the US has had American coaches before (Arena, Sampson, Bradley) with some success and some failure. There’s nothing noteworthy about the particular nationality of a coach — it’s what their vision is, how they choose players and motivate them, etc.