World Cup 2010 (Day 12): Now the Fun Begins …

… If this is what you, as a US soccer fan, call fun. If this is fun, then I’d suggest to you that you have a funny definition of the word “fun.”

First, let’s get the formalities out of the way. Argentina beat Greece, 2-0, today to go perfect in Group B and sail into the last 16. They’ll meet Mexico in that round, who enter as the runner-ups in Group A, despite a 1-0 loss this morning to Uruguay. Uruguay, who needed a playoff just to qualify for this World Cup, won Group A with 7 points and were far more impressive than I thought they’d be. South Korea completes the quartet of qualifiers today, as their 2-2 draw with Nigeria is enough to send them to the second round and a date with Uruguay.

France, Greece, Nigeria, and the hosts South Africa, we bid you farewell. For three of the four of you, thank you for playing, we appreciated having you on the show, and there are lovely parting gifts for you near the door.

For France, you didn’t belong in this tournament in the first place, then had the nerve to crash it with an attitude of arrogance that features a rift between the coach and the players, a rift between a trainer and a player, a rift between the federation and its team, and perhaps even a rift between the players. You were an embarrassment to this tournament for the means by which you qualified, and nothing about your play or conduct during these 12 days has shown the world anything that would offer a different opinion. Beaten finalists in 2006, you have fallen off the competitive map in just four years’ time, and the next stop on your own personal MARC commuter train to Hell is irrelevance. Congrats. Maybe if you need a way off, Thierry Henry can lend you hand.

(No, I’m not at least half-Irish, why do you ask?)

Ok, now that this little bit of fun is over, let’s get to the important stuff.

Grant Wahl today tweeted an interesting observation, noting that the United States has never won a third group game in its World Cup history. Remember, even when making the quarterfinals in 2002, the US was smoked by Poland on that final group day. In 2006, Claudio Reyna fell over, and the US collapsed with it, losing 2-1 to Ghana.

Here is the US history in Game 3s:

2006: Lost, Ghana, 1-2.
2002: Lost, Poland, 1-3.
1998: Lost, Yugoslavia, 0-1.
1994: Lost, Romania, 0-1.
1990: Lost, Austria, 1-2.
1950: Lost, Chile, 2-5.

How does that impact tomorrow’s game? For the players and the coaches, it probably doesn’t. For the fans, I’m sure it plays a role. There’s a reason why, over time, results tend to repeat themselves. In 2002, the US fell victim to a malady this 2010 team is full of – falling behind early. Poland were clear 2-0 leaders just five minutes into that match in ’02. In this World Cup, the US were behind to England only four minutes in, and it took 13 minutes for Slovenia to find the target and take the lead in the second US match.

This US team has danced with the fickle dame known as Margin for Error long enough in this World Cup. Should the tango last any longer, the US could well find itself sans a partner when the dance comes for the Round of 16. That’d be a shame, because of the group assembled in South Africa for this tournament, I think the United States has a rightful place in the knockout rounds. I think the team can be that good.

But when facing such situations like that we see (and perhaps, fear) tomorrow, our nation has a history of failure. And winning World Cup games isn’t exactly a tradition for our country anyway. The US is 6-16-5 all-time in World Cup play. Three of those draws have come in the United States’ last four World Cup matches (going back to the 1-1 draw with Italy in 2006). Not every final group game necessarily held promise for the US, and not every poor result knocked us from contention (see ’94, ’02).

If confidence comes from demonstrated performance, however, there isn’t much to go on here. There’s valid reasons why US fans should be worried. Some will try to make this out as being a situation where the future of soccer in America rides on Wednesday’s match with Algeria. I don’t buy that. Major League Soccer will still have its fans, there will still be excitement over the incoming expansion teams, and there will still be the drive to bring better talent to the league.

And should it all go wrong in about 12 hours’ time from right now, it’ll hurt, but folks will be back on board should we qualify in 2014, if for no other reason than patriotism. How many of us watched curling during the Winter Olympics? Then proclaimed based on no knowledge that the US team needed to do X, Y, and Z because they weren’t playing well. If it has USA on the jersey, a certain segment of the population is going to watch. Converting those new folks into domestic 24×7 soccer fans is a different conversation for another blog post. Would a win over Algeria help that? Maybe. I wouldn’t bank on it, just as I don’t think a loss is going to kill all dreams of the sport advancing domestically.

We know what the US must do. It must take charge early, score the opening goal (for a change), and defend better. I’d really love to see Jozy Altidore use his strength and the physical advantage he has over many defenders more often. We’ve seen it in flashes in both games thus far, but he needs to be more consistently imposing. I hope the defense does a good enough job all over the park that I don’t have to spend the whole game watching goalkeeper Tim Howard yelling at them like they ruined his birthday. I’d like to see coach Bob Bradley pick the right lineup and make the right substitutions.

But in the end, I wish I could draw on a particular game and say, see that, we’ve done this before. However, such a record (in terms of group play) doesn’t exist when we’re talking about the third and final match. What this World Cup and tournaments before it have taught us is that once you’re in the knockout round, anything can happen. Playoffs in all sports have shown us the same. And maybe, just maybe, this particular group of players will use their 3-0 win over Egypt in a 2009 Confederations Cup game similar in set-up to this match vs. Algeria, as motivation. Maybe we will see that such a scoreline wasn’t a fluke, and this team can really get it done when at least some of the chips are down.

I hope so. But, fun? No. This isn’t fun. This is Hell. Hopefully, we’ll all still have something to laugh about when we see the other side 12 hours from now.

WEDNESDAY’S PREDICTIONS:
England 2-1 Slovenia

* Despite all we’ve seen, I just can’t fathom England falling apart tomorrow.
Germany 3-1 Ghana
Australia 1-0 Serbia
United States 2-1 Algeria

* It’s going to be nervy and scary and heart-rattling till the end, but I think they’ll get it done. History be damned.

Today’s Record: 2-2.
Tournament Record: 17-19.

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2 thoughts on “World Cup 2010 (Day 12): Now the Fun Begins …

  1. You were positively dead right. I perspired today more than I had perhaps in any other day of my life, save for the time I showed up to my high school hockey tryouts woefully out of shape. Maybe it was a culmination of the incredibly humid weather we’ve been having in these parts as well as my nerves wracking themselves to death, but regardless, my sofa had a healthy pool of sweat collected in the grooves of the cushions; I imagine that had an ant happened to climb up on the sofa, he might have drowned.

    With regard to the soccer game played today, I could not be more proud of our boys. They represent us well, and are winning over countless fans with their antics. Some of my friends who have told me they gave soccer a chance but hated it are watching intently now. In fact, I spoke to a friend who told me he still hates the sport, but is absolutely hooked on this tournament. Go figure.

    We all wondered when the mainstream break out of soccer would be in this country. Well, we are experiencing it right now. It began last summer when we upset Spain and caused millions around the country to raise an eyebrow, and then ESPN capitalized on that modest success and growth in popularity and promoted the God damn HELL out of this World Cup. And it has worked. Now there are no more eyebrows being raised; we are not some bizarre phenomenon that captivated everyone’s attention for a day at a time, like the ongoing Wimbledon match between Mahut and Isner; rather, we are the main news story on Sportscenter each day. We get coverage on the Nightly News. We are the talk at many a proverbial water cooler in the office (if conversations at such places still indeed exist; my office does not even have a water cooler). We have completely and utterly captivated the sporting world of a country in the midst of its longest and most boring season; between the NBA finals and start of the NFL season (oh, right, like anyone under the age of 50 even likes baseball. Give me a break). And this isn’t going anywhere- ESPN will likely secure rights for the Gold Cup next summer, and I would bet that those games will be much better attended than in years past. Not that we’ll sell out perpetually empty Gillette Stadium, mind you, but we’ll probably start getting much more interest in minor tournaments and friendlies. And when the next WC does roll around, the fan base will have doubled.

    FIFA would be very wise to capitalize on America’s newfound love for the beautiful game in 2018. That, truly, would propel soccer into the same realm of popularity as the major sports. It is a great time to be an American soccer fan. Let’s enjoy these next few weeks, as well as the next decade or so as the game takes off here.

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