Answering the big questions about the USA’s World Cup “run” and other subjects

One of the consequences of the World Cup going mainstream this year is that my friends and coworkers have deluged me with questions because I am that guy in the office who writes a soccer blog. I try really hard to be patient and welcoming no matter how stupid or ignorant the question, and to be fair, I’ve gotten very few “why doesn’t someone just pick it up”-style questions this time around. But here, in lieu of actually having to write a long narrative summing up my opinions on the USA and this World Cup are some of my answers to the questions I’ve seen most asked this month.

How big of “missed opportunity” was this for the US? Umm, not all that big. Yes, the draw worked out well for the US, but it can only be a missed opportunity if you actually think a team with no functioning forwards and a defense that might be at an English lower division level could actually seize it. Saying it’s a missed opportunity is like saying that just because a 5,000 meter running race was run at a really slow pace, somehow I would’ve had an opportunity to win it. No I wouldn’t. I’m really slow. Well, the US team was the same way. They were never going to be able to grab the opportunity because our talent pool at forward and defender is more shallow than Heidi Montag. That wasn’t news going into the tournament, and goodness knows it’s not a surprise that those two reasons best define why the US exited the World Cup when it did. I’d argue that considering the Onyewu and Davies injuries, the US overachieved. If I told you that in the all the US matches, they’d lead for only 5 minutes, surrender the first goal in all but 1 match and not have a single forward score a goal, you’d tell me, “Oh my God, it’s 2006, we’ve gone 3-and-out all over again, what a debacle.” Well it wasn’t a debacle. It was overachievement. When you see senior American soccer writers moaning over the “missed opportunity,” what they’re really moaning about is their missed opportunity to write the big US triumph story they’ve always wanted to. If they wanted to write big triumphant stories of glory and success, they should’ve found a gig covering the Yankees or Patriots. Plus, have you watched Uruguay? They would’ve just demolished the USA in the quarterfinals?

Who’s fault is the loss? Well, it’s everyone’s really. (Not the fans, but everyone else.) Many of players like Jay DeMerit, Ricardo Clark, and Robbie Findlay were exposed as just not being of international caliber and not belonging on that stage. It’s also Bradley’s fault. I think he brought the right team here (Would pounding balls at Brian Ching’s head v. England/Ghana really changed that much?), but he never could sort his lineup out. His Ghana lineup will be the reason he doesn’t return as US coach because as his early sub showed, Clark simply didn’t belong out on that stage. He wasn’t good enough. A lot of people are going to use this as an opportunity to pile on Sunil Gulati once more. In the end, it’s not as if he can make central defenders just appear out of the ether. I’m sure he shares some of the blame, but I just can’t think where at this time.

Should Bradley return after his contract expires in December? I am not sure anyone has defended Bradley quite as much as I have. I always thought that he just barely good enough to help us win. It turns out that he’s just barely bad enough to make us lose. His decision to start Clark against Ghana was one stuck-in-lineup-rut-moment too far for me. He’s gotta go. I think Craig Stouffer hits the nail on the head when he says that “Bradley could never get out of his own way.” Unlike Craig, I don’t have a problem with Edson Buddle not seeing the field. I’d rather submit myself to oral surgery than watch Edson Buddle play in a big match for a team I support.

Why did Bradley stick by Altidore once it became clear he couldn’t score? Because he is the only attacking player in American soccer who can physically dominate opponents. Remember against England, where he made that tremendous run down the left, dragging Jamie Carragher’s carcass down the field with him? There isn’t another player in this country who could’ve done that. Any one of our fleet little whippets in midfield would’ve been shoved off the ball within a few strides. But not Altidore, and that’s why he’s so indespensible. He’s the only attacking player we have that has the strength alongside the required technical skillset. The modern game requires both and quite simply, he’s all we’ve got for now.

What does this mean for soccer in the USA? The single most important thing is that the ratings bonanza ESPN has gotten justifies the company’s investment in the sport, and with the next World Cup coming in the far more TV friendly timezone of Brazil, ESPN will only stand to gain from its investment. As long as ESPN stands by the sport, it’s not going anywhere in the American sporting consciousness. As long as ESPN both hypes and covers the sport, newspapers, blogs and subsequent eyeballs will follow. It’s ESPN’s world, and as sports fans we’re just living in it.

What next for US Soccer? 2011 will not be nearly the deadzone that some are making it out to be. For one, you’ve got both the U17 and U20 World Championships that the USA needs to qualify for and compete in. Those will be interesting barometers to see if there is a next generation of American talent and see where we look strong and where we’re weak. On top of that, there is the 2011 Gold Cup where I hope our new manager decides to go young and see what we have in the way of 20-somethings in American soccer. I think to a large extent, the 2011 Gold Cup will show whether, in 2014, our new manager hopes to wring one more Round of 16-run out of this group of players or start building a stronger team towards 2018 and possible 2022 (hopefully hosted by the USA).

Will this team ever be a contender to win the World Cup? I’m 27, I expect the US to contend in my lifetime. I expect it to be later rather than sooner and that’s for no other reason that the US has only been trying to compete at this since 1990 – only 20 years. If I had to set a goal in which I expect the USA to contend for a title, I’d say 2022, when hopefully we’re hosting that World Cup.

Speaking of 2022, do you think we’ll get that World Cup? Here is a terrible irony of this World Cup, every single empty seat that you see in a South African stadium this month only goes to strengthen the US bid for 2022. Every seat that appears on empty on worldwide TV strengthens the case the USA makes that it is a hugely safe bet to fill every seat in 2022. (Don’t take the 2018 effort seriously. Gulati, smartly, is staying in that only as leverage in the pre-vote horsetrading to come.) Qatar can’t say that. I don’t even think Australia can say that. In terms of ticketing here’s what the upcoming World Cups look like to FIFA.

2010 – South Africa – Risky gambit, but worth it for Blatter politically to go to Africa.
2014 – Brazil – Slightly risky especially if construction starts getting held up or safety deterioates in areas around stadiums.
2018 – Europe – Likely England or Spain, mortal locks to sell every seat and as long as Al Qaida and ETA stay away, to be very successful tournaments.
2022 – ??? – Would FIFA really want to go to Qatar and take a risk on a World Cup venue for the third-time in four tournaments? I doubt it. The US would sell more seats than any tournament in history as long as they don’t utterly butcher setting the ticket prices. I started the 2010 World Cup thinking it was an uphill climb for the US to beat out Qatar for 2022, now I think the hill is far less steep.

Is it true what columnists say, that the US will never contend in the World Cup because our best athletes play either basketball or football? This is of course the Bill Simmons Omnibus Theory of American soccer, one that in the past I’ve disagreed with totally. I think our success in Olympic sports like track, swimming, cycling, and volleyball proves that not all our best athletes get syphoned into football and basketball. Despite his speed, Michael Johnson didn’t end up a football player. Despite his wingspan (and propensity for weed), Michael Phelps didn’t end up in the NBA either. I tend to believe that the US is large and wealthy enough to produce enough elite athletes to “go around.” That said, I think watching our little guys lose every loose and aerial ball to Ghana and England gave the theory some credence. I don’t think it means that the USA is doomed, it does mean that I think we need to do a better job of getting the best athletes to play soccer (and as MLS gets better, pays more, and raises its profile, that will help) but it also means we need to make sure that our big guys aren’t all syphoned into playing center back (though God knows we need them too), but that some end up playing in places you wouldn’t expect, like the 6-1 Thomas Muller playing on the outside of midfield for Germany.

Why is the officiating so bad? Because, quite simply, it’s too hard to do without more referees and video review. I pity the officials rather than hate them. They’re hung out to dry by a governing body that fears change and quite frankly, feels that video replay is an “American” thing that doesn’t belong in its sport. I am not a soccer exceptionalist. I believe that all sports can learn from others. That’s why I am amazed that soccer has become literally the last major sport on earth that does not use video or electronic technology to assist its officials in getting the result right. There’s not other word for it other than stupid.

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12 thoughts on “Answering the big questions about the USA’s World Cup “run” and other subjects

  1. I agree that “blame” should be spread around, but in reality, can you fault Bradley for selecting players like Bornstein (who clearly wasn’t scouted as an easy defender to beat) or Clark, when the US just doesn’t have a clear replacement for those players? Maybe you can argue that if Jermane Jones had been healthy, he could have replaced Clark… but that’s a “What if,” and pointless to argue.

    Why Clark got two starts over Edu (1) or Torres (1), that’s clearly Bradley’s decision and having out coached several of his first opponents, it seemed like Bradley was getting more out of less than most of our opponents.

    What I think we’ve learned from this is that US Team (and perhaps even Bradley) still struggles to understand “Team Defense.” In ’02, we survived largely due to exceptional play from our GK, defensive understanding from a largely “DC United” Defensive line-up with players like Sanneh, Pope, Llamossa, and Agoos all seeing time together.

    In the end, I just don’t think we’re “there” yet. MLS is certainly helping, but I think the real benefit will be when we see more players grow-up through academy systems to become “smarter” players. The US player will always be physical and hustle, just like Clark, but we need to have smarter players because Clark’s field intelligence is what let him down.

  2. I’m bitter about the loss, as I think the game was there to be won. That we couldn’t grab it sucks.

    I am consoled by what I believe to be true: we will never field a team for the WC that is worse than this 2010 squad. Not that this group was bad, just that every group from here on out will be better in nearly every way.

    I am excited that a guy like M. Bradley who had a great tournament will be 4 years better next time around. He may also have 4 years of playing with the same midfield partner in either Edu or Feilhaber.

    Nice recap, thanks.

  3. This is the best column of yours that I have read. Even with all of our starters, we are not a world class team front to back. Take roughly three or four players out of our front and back line and we will face some difficulty.

    That said, I think Bradley performed exceptionally well. Starting Clark looks like a bad idea, but I think in Bradley’s mind Clark was the most defensive minded of the three who might play alonside Milton Bradley. Much like leaving in Findley, who looked terrible against Ghana, but who seemed to offer at least a moment of danger in his previous matches. Bradley seemed to think that Findley might be worthwhile for the possibility of one exceptional play that Buddle or Gomez might not have been capable of (even if those two might have a better over all performance).

    He made decent adjustments within games and between games. I thought Bornstein had an exceptional tournament (which isn’t to say that I now think he is a fantastic left back), so that is a ballsy move that worked out well for the coach.

    That said, I think Lalas described it well. Bradley deserves to stay on, he has done well enough. But we might have a different ambition, where “well enough” is no longer what we want. If that’s the case, it isn’t just the coach that needs changing though.

  4. First, I believe this is a bigger missed opportunity than you let on. Your analogy to you running a world class 5000m is off base. As shown in this WC, the gulf between the top teams and the bottom teams (not including North Korea) isn’t nearly as big as it has been. Many teams went into the final games, not only looking to advance, but in positions to win the group. In this light, the US (with all of its faults), was certainly in the game vs Ghana and would have been competitive with Uruguay. They missed a great opportunity to at least keep soccer on the front page until the quarter-finals.

    Bradley as the coach bears the majority of the ‘blame’ for this one. He selected players who just weren’t ready for this stage, couldn’t figure out how to properly motiviate/organize the team so they could go more than 15 minutes at the beginning of the game w/o allowing a goal, and completely bungled the line-up and subs several times, most notably vs Ghana.

    I agree 100% with the Altidore assessment – he’s not perfect, but noone else in US soccer can take on players like he did. Someone needs to teach him that he needs to put in more than 15 minutes of effort per game (for example, see: Rooney, Wayne).

    I hope ESPN keeps at least some focus on soccer, but I just don’t see it. Before you know it, the WC will be over and the NEXT DAY you’ll be more likely to see Brett Favre lead sports center than the winner. Hope I’m wrong, but don’t think I will be. Getting 2022 here would be huge.

    Lastly, I think that the development of players in the US (discussed very well by Klinnsmann on Sunday) is more of an issue than getting the ‘top athletes’. The changes that are necessary are for a different thread.

    I agree with your assessment of the refs, but I also think that part of the issue is that just like FIFA wants every part of the world included in the play, it does the same thing for refs. Most of the best refs in the world work in the major European leagues but don’t get asked to ref in the WC as FIFA doesn’t want too many refs from one nation.

  5. Well… the two must significant mistakes in this World Cup were done by two of the best referees in the world, who by the way come from incredibly rich soccer tradition: Larrionda (Uruguay) and Rosetti (Italy), so this goes beyond inviting more referees from countries with competitive leagues (it’s a start, but not the most important part of the solution to this mess).

  6. I agree that it doesn’t address the issues that would be solved by extra refs, technology, it is an issue. The two issues you addressed above were NOT CR related mistakes (ball over goal line and offside are both AR calls, not CR calls). I’m more upset at the way many refs are handing out cards like candy, not to mention the non-goal in the US-Slovenia game.

  7. I was pissed at the result for a few days – until I remembered telling everyone who asked that the US would go three and out because of our weakened defence. The England tie blinded us.

  8. swimming and track are individual sports and have different criteria for selecting the best athletes and they don’t need to work together in a team unit. soccer players do. players who want to play in a team sport choose football, baseball, basketball first. that’s just reality. a fast runner or a fast swimmer are selected early and trained to do that and only that. we have no soccer equivalent here. the analogy stands

  9. Right on about Altidore. I don’t think we’ve ever had a forward that could have made that run he made against England. He’s young and hopefully much better in four years.

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