A few words on the USA World Cup run

From the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, June 26, 2010.

I want to be a contrarian here for a bit, and – from the perspective of a guy that remembers 1998 vividly, and remembers a team that shut it down during their third game of an 0-3, one goal scored, five goals allowed campaign – make some key comments about these past for USA games, and where this deal goes from here.

I think the genesis of how we need to take this World Cup – and why, regardless of the massive PR success the whole deal was, we have to hope the USSF takes it as a massive missed opportunity – can be found in two games in five days almost exactly one year ago. Over two games, the United States demonstrated – comprehensively – that they could play with, and at times overrun, a genuinely elite international team. So much of the expectation – perhaps even the legitimate expectation – for this tournament came from the fact that we watched what may become a classic USA core of Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore and Howard play Spain off the field and come out flying against Brazil. Slovenia and Algeria don’t seem like a threat when compared against that evidence.

But when Brazil came roaring back to lift the Confederations Cup, it was a singular and final turning point in the history of US Soccer: the moral victory to end all moral victories, literally. Once you’ve had Brazil two goals down, and you let that slip, there’s only one thing left to do on the world stage: win the big game. Consistently. That is the only result that will satisfy, that is the only result that will leave the nation coming back for more.

So we come back to South Africa 2010. We played a thoroughly underwhelming draw against England, the only team of pedigree we played in the entire tournament, and we were saved by a very typically English goalkeeping howler. We made the storyline all about the goal at the death that was disallowed, forgetting the fact that we played absolutely shocking defense – against Slovenia! – and found ourselves 2-0 down and in need of a desperate fightback. We made the storyline all about the dramatic winner that galvanized a nation, forgetting the fact that it took 91 minutes for us to score – against Algeria! – and were dangerously close to equalling the three-draw World Cup experience of that vaunted world power New Zealand. And we’re sent packing against the very same Ghana team that sent us packing in 2006. We just were fortunate to not be drawn into a group with the Czech Republic and Italy this time.

And please don’t get me started on Bob Bradley’s selection against Ghana. For the man who supposedly carried the Midas touch all tournament long, the two starters from the horrible England opener that Bradley insisted on recalling – Clark and Findley – were gone by the second half kickoff, replaced with Edu and Feilhaber, players who had been so influential in the tournament to date. Clark in particular was badly abused in his 30 minutes, was directly at fault for the giveaway that led to Ghana’s first goal, and absolutely had to be yanked from the match early. Bob Bradley may have outsmarted himself out of a job today – if Juergen Klinsmann (the USSF’s first choice for this cycle all along) wants to make himself available, the Fed absolutely has to chase him, and I can’t help but think that Sigi Schmid is overdue a chance to see what he can do in this job.

At this point, I hope the Americans are bitterly disappointed. There was so much more to be had in this tournament, there was so much potential in this team. For a North American team, there is no European Championships, there is no Copa America, and the Gold Cup just doesn’t get it. There is the World Cup. When this is over, we go into a two-year wilderness of meaningless and half-meaningless matches. This is our one opportunity to assert our worth on the world stage – and our worth is maybe top-16 in the world, but certainly not top-eight, certainly not a team to genuinely challenge the world powers, developing but still not ready for the ultimate stage.

And yet.

Say this one thing about the Yanks, say it frequently, say it loudly: they never gave up. They played every match to its end. So much of the story of this tournament has been the grossly underwhelming performance of richly talented African nations like Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon; the constant turmoil in the England camp that reached its nadir in England 0-0 Algeria; the listless play of Italy that saw them finish bottom of their group, and of course, of COURSE, the complete capitulation of France.

There is a small measure of sympathy I have there, because I still remember the tournament that was supposed to be the high point of the USA’s first classic core of players, the likes of John Harkes (the “captain-for-life”!) and Eric Wynalda and Marcelo Balboa and Claudio Reyna and Kasey Keller. Our group might have been difficult, but we would get the biggest challenge out of the way early against Germany, and then surely we’d get a result against Iran, and Yugoslavia would surely be a winnable match at that point and our chance to make the final 16.

If you haven’t studied your Yanks history and you don’t know how that turned out, start with searching “John Harkes” “embrace the position” on Google. (Actually, if you search “John Harkes” on Google, the first hit comes up “Amy Wynalda”, which might be more recent news but might also explain just a bit more.) Suffice it to say that I’ve seen Yank teams throw in the towel before, and the only thing positive that I’ll remember about the 1998 World Cup is seeing Brian McBride score late to save face against Iran, when most of his teammates were sleepwalking, and praying that would mean something in the future, not quite knowing just how much it would mean.

Knowing that we were able to build on even 1998, when the program was a shambles, is one thing. This program is not a shambles. Bob Bradley is not the epic pile of fail that Steve Sampson was, and never will be. The character in this team is strong. Even with the hideous defensive lapses that will be this tournament’s negative, the will to attack and to push for a result never – NEVER – left this team. Witness the late equalizer against Slovenia, to say nothing of Edu’s “goal” that may have been the biggest what-if moment if it hadn’t been for – also witness – the even later winner against Algeria. And even today, even after 120 minutes of soccer, even after falling behind twice, still the Yanks attacked in waves, desperately seeking the equalizer that, in the end, they were just too spent to deliver.

The youth is there. Donovan, Dempsey, and Onyewu, for all their experience, still have at least one more World Cup cycle in them. Bradley, Altidore, and Howard (remember how long Keller’s career went!) have at least two. One of Buddle, Gomez and Findley will be heard from again at this level. So too with Feilhaber, Holden and Edu. We may have even cussed Bornstein in the runup, but he grew up in this tournament and will be a far better defender going forward.

And what of the players left behind? Charlie Davies was such an important part of this Confederations Cup team; if you want a moment where we lost the quarterfinals, look back to that car crash as qualifying was reaching its climax. What about Jonathan Spector and Sacha Kjlestan, who also had a part in that tournament run but who have lost their way since? What about José Torres, who showed so much promise but never got off the bench after the disastrous Slovenia first half? What about the young players like Chad Marshall, Heath Pearce and Robbie Rogers, who showed promise before getting run out by Mexico in the Gold Cup last year? And who is lurking in MLS who will start to get their national team time come 2011?

Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo may be nearing the end of their international careers (although neither should be ruled out for 2014), but the core of this team are not only good candidates to return, but improve going forward. Sakes, Eddie Johnson (who – lest we forget – holds 12 goals for the USA and was a key part of the qualifying for 2006) isn’t even that old yet.

You type all that up, and this is what it all says: DEPTH. Something that we didn’t have in 1998. And, for all my criticism of Bradley’s management on the day, for the long haul, he has had a lot to do with the growth of the pool.

So, at the end of the day, there is disappointment, but there is also pride. There are no moral victories in this tournament – we simply weren’t good enough. But, as cliche as it sounds, we do emerge from this tournament with our heads held high.

And we also emerge with the biggest PR win we could have possibly had. It wasn’t BigSoccer anger I heard over the phantom foul that robbed Maurice Edu of a World Cup goal – it was PTI anger. That wasn’t soccer-geek euphoria over Landon Donovan’s desperate winner – that was sports-fan euphoria. That wasn’t just Sam’s Army overconfidence going into the Ghana match – it was Joe Sixpack overconfidence. I know I had at least one friend who never took soccer seriously in his life text me a simple “OMG!!!” when Landon scored THAT goal. I know I had one friend who told me today he’s been meaning to go to Crew Stadium to take in a match and now he absolutely has to. You, the guy who’s been with us since ’94 or ’96 or ’98, you probably have a friend like that too. The game grew these past two weeks.

And this is how I have to end this:

We really weren’t that great. Imagine what happens in four years if we rediscover that form we had in June 2009. Imagine what happens if we demolish Spain when it matters most.

Imagine what happens to the American sports fan THEN.