Rumble in Jungle: The Sound of US Soccer Coming of Age?

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Even as another brilliant World Cup serves up so many tasty morsels of soccer drama (some of it even inspired by our boys in the golf shirts), let’s remember NOT to get carried away.

This applies to the micro level: I was sitting around my living room Sunday night with three dudes. As the Portugal-USA game careened into injury time, Clint Dempsey having just coaxed his late, go-ahead goal over the line with his chest, these well-meaning but dangerously insouciant fellows were blythly discussing whom we woulda face in the round of 16! They thought it was over, and for the vagaries of injury time-keeping, it might well have been.

My guests and I were rightly swept up in the pageantry, the goals, the unpredictable results, even the inherent jingoism of this latest World Cup, and god bless ‘em. They were fine company and this has been the best World Cup in decades. But this was a dangerous bit of hubris. It might take 90 minutes for something to happen in a soccer match, but when it does, we’re talking the blink of an eye.

Truth be told, I was wary of their chicken-counting for another reason: I had been tipped off.  We spent a bit too much time grilling hot dogs, eating watermelon and gabbing on the porch at halftime. The game had been DVR’d for safety, convenience and posterity, and so we watched the second half about 4-5 minutes behind live action.

Big mistake.

When injury time came around, and the boys were busy taking this win for granted, my phone began twitching in spasms of text alerts. Something had gone down at the death. I just didn’t know what… What exactly prompts that type of spontaneous eOutreach? When Demps converted 5 minutes before, there were no texts… For all this ominous foreshadowing, I was still stunned by just how late Portugal left it. Last kick of the game. 2-2.

•••

On a macro level, we should support this US squad with complete abandon, regardless of our purported soccer sophistication, because they are ours, they are not very good, and yet they are producing remarkable , dramatic results.

Manager Jurgen Klinsmann has pushed every button correctly. Kyle freakin’ Beckerman is starting at defensive midfielder and looking not the slightest bit too slow for the international game. Jermaine Jones has summoned all his unpredictable energy, skill and menace to pull off a damned convincing impression of Edgar Davids. Dempsey’s swashbuckling game has clearly not been dumbed-down by his move to MLS, and his winning tally vs. the Portuguese was delivered by 20-year-old Seattle Sounder teammate Andre Yedlin, a man few though Klinsi had the balls to actually play during this tournament, much less the its key moment.

All this is great for MLS and American soccer, whose World Cup games are drawing crowds to parks and plazas all over the nation in ways no one could have dreamed, even during the game’s “puppy love” moment here in the US, World Cup 1994.

(The game’s “nighttime emissions” moment was Italia ’90 — a huge step forward but ultimately a slightly embarrassing event that, for the U.S., mercifully played out in relative privacy.)

But again, let’s not get carried away.

World Cup 2014 has prompted a creditable response from US Soccer Nation. The scene in and around RiRa, the bar where I watched the win over Ghana in the first group game, would have done any country proud. And there is a real feeling, supported by MLS and the never-lying demographics, that the game truly has cleared a tipping point in the culture.

But American Soccer Love will likely remain a mere quadrennial happening in this country, for decades to come. The sheer mass of our sports landscape provide so little room for another “major” sport. MLS just isn’t a compelling product, not yet.

Most important, the DNA of US soccer is such that the national team has always been the focal point of the sport’s popularity here. Once the NASL died, the national team was all there was — it was the only American soccer focal point. Once we started qualifying for World Cups (thanks FIFA, for expanding the number of CONCACAF bids; and thanks for dinging Mexico for using overage players at the 1989 U-20 World Cup — to the tune banning them from Italia ’90, making US qualification possible), it was the national team that fixated the public’s attention on the game’s qualities.

In a way peculiar to international football, the US national team plays an outsized role in domestic soccer consumption here.

Which is fine. One of the game’s most attractive qualities is exactly that international outlook, the pitting of one nation against another. As American sports fans, we really don’t have that opportunity anywhere else, with any other team sport. We don’t care about world championships in basketball. Indeed, American football and baseball — our national sporting obsession and pastime, respectively — are entirely domestic to the point of insularity. The World Series? A peculiar name when you think about it (and one that really bothers international sports fans).

Precisely because soccer is unabashedly internationalist in its outlook, supporting the national team is that rare opportunity to root for America vs. Some Other Country — in something other than the latest trumped up war. It’s sort of surprising that a nation so stuck on itself, and so militaristic in most every other way, has taken so long to appreciate the allure of this joyously partisan activity. But there were are.

And here we are, staring down the barrel of Germany in our final group game with “all to play for”, a spot in the last 16 and another glorious June weekend of packed bars, communal viewing venues, flag-draping and face-painting. I’m just glad we all lived to see it. Not because it’s the fulfillment of some prophecy, but because it’s damned good fun.

•••

A few thoughts and observations on the first 10 days of World Cup 2014:

• There’s a 50-50 chance that Ghana could effectively put us out of a third straight tournament. Yeah, we stole that game off them in the opening match. Revenge might have been sweet but the last laugh has not yet been assigned. If Germany beats the US on Thursday, and there’s every reason to think they will (they are one of the world’s top 3 sides, and they must get a result to qualify for the last 16 themselves), all Ghana needs to do is beat Portugal and the Black Stars are tied with the Americans on 4 points. Goal difference is the decider. After two games, we’re +1 and they’re -1. But we lose buy a goal, they win by a goal, and it’s a dead heat. Germany beats us by two and we’re toast.

• The Black Stars of Ghana. Good team name. The US needs one. We don’t do this sort of thing in America, mainly because, as stated above, we don’t field international teams very often — in sports about which anyone gives a rat’s ass. The men’s national team has progressed to this level of interest, and so should have one bestowed. There are good names out there: Cameroon’s Indomitably Lions. There are bad names: Australia’s Socceroos (the Rugby Union team is the Wallabees; much better). Names need not be animal inspired. Germany’s national team is known as the Mannschaft (simply “The Team”). Italy has its Azzurri (“The Blues”), Brazil its Selecao (“the Select”). What would embody the American psyche and inform a proper American soccer nickname? There was a guy in the Manaus crowd, against Portugal, dressed as Teddy Roosevelt, in full Rough Rider gear (if you have trouble placing that, think of the Colonel in the classic ‘60s cartoon “Go-Go Gophers). Rough Riders should be given every consideration, especially for this World Cup, where Theodore so famously visited after his presidency, big guns in tow.

• The most encouraging thing about America’s inspired performance thus far (gutty vs. Ghana, truly sophisticated and creative vs. Portugal) has been the fact that all has been achieved without a decent showing from Michael Bradley. The conventional wisdom strongly held that he was the team’s indispensable man. We couldn’t play with the big boys if he didn’t show up. Well, he didn’t really show up, twice, and others stepped up in his place. I love Bradley’s game. He will come good vs. Germany, which gives one hope.

• This has been the World Cup of Nipples. Thanks to the new skin-tight fashion, and sweltering heat, never before in any sporting event have they been so prominently featured.

• Still reeling from the Portgual game. Realized that the US played a truly great 90 minutes of soccer in that match. Portugal scored after a total brain fart from Geoff Cameron after 5 minutes; we dominated the next 90, and then Cameron watched the equalizing cross sail over his head. It must be said that but for those two moments, the Stoke Man (a Maryland Terrapin, my Terp brother-in-law reminded me today) played an excellent match. Sometimes 90 good minutes are not enough.

• Coaches will often sub guys during injury time to help run out the clock, to use up more time. But referees will often just add 30 seconds to injury time for every sub that comes on during any game. They’ll do the same thing with goals: 2 goals = 2 minutes of injury time. Omar Gonzalez, our tallest defender, was sent on by Klinsmann during injury time. Not only did he not make a difference (indeed, he has come on late three times in the last 2 weeks and the opponent has scored in all three games), that extra 30 seconds of injury time may have extended the game just long enough for the equalizer.

• I can’t help myself, but it’s exhilarating to watch the Mexicans win World Cup matches. They are so into it — the team, the coaches, the fans. It bothers me that they almost certainly do not reciprocate in this regard, even after our completely unnecessary late-game goals vs. Panama in the final Hexagonal qualifier got them into the final pre-World Cup playoff and saved their entire country from mass sporting psychosis. They were all full of love and kisses that night, but methinks they’d love to see us crash out on Thursday. Doesn’t seem right.

• Me? I’m a CONCACAF guy, because I have to be. I live here and support a team in the federation. Accordingly, it warms the cockles of my heart to see Mexico do well, and Costa Rica has been a revelation — already qualified after two games and fending off FIFA drug testers, because no one can believe this superlative run of form. If the US can qualify, that’d be three North/Central American teams in the final 16. Maybe those guys at The Guardian will stop make fun of us now (!). I have mused with my soccer podcast buddies Tom Wadlington and Dave Batista about how difficult playing in Central America truly is — compared to European qualifying. Just how would a team like England fare at an away qualifier in San Jose, or Tegucigalpa, or Mexico City? The final game in Group D might have provided some insight into this, on a neutral field, had the Ticos (pretty good name) not already qualified for the knockout stage, and had England not soiled itself so very quickly and publicly.

• I would have pegged Andre Yedlin, pre-tournament, as pretty much the 22nd guy on the 23-man World Cup roster. No one expected him to set foot on the field, unless were getting blown out or playing some meaningless, third group game after being eliminated. Yet Klinsmann threw him on vs. Portugal, with the game and tournament in the balance, and he delivered. Still, I will eat my hat if he exposes young Julian Green to the rigors of World Cup play. The 18-year-old German-American phenom is the property of Bayern Munich, but he has never played a minute for the senior club. He looked beyond skittish in the three pre-tournament warm-up matches. He’s simply not ready. So, why is on the roster? No one is admitting that Klinsi cut a deal with Julian Green, i.e. “Julian, join the USA long term [he could have declared for Germany] and we’ll  bring you to Brazil.” Canny long-term politics but you can’t waste a roster spot at the World Cup. Lo and behold, Jozy Altidore pops a hammy and now we’re short a back-up striker. Aron Johannson — another young phenom, Icelandic-American; vetted in the top Dutch league but basically unproven on the international level — was useless vs. Ghana. Chris Wondolowski is an MLS journeyman. Terrance Boyd was left at home, and so was a fellow named Donovan.

• Landycakes and Klinsmann have never seen eye to eye on how American footballers should behave. Donovan took a sabbatical from the game two years ago; Klinsi was reared, played and coached in Germany, where footballers don’t do sabbaticals). I understand the Green negotiation, but there will come a time in this World Cup when the US could have used 30 minutes of Donovan at the end of a game — to hold the ball and more effectively counter-attack with a lead, to change the angle/mode of attack when behind. This is not some sentimental point. That’s why/how older strikers are deployed in tournaments like this: Didier Drogba for Ivory Coast, Kershikov for Russia, Cassano for Italy, etc. I hope this bit of personality conflict, and the way Klinsmann handled it, doesn’t come back to bite us in the ass.

 

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