Reborn in the USA: Soccer

imagePresident Obama believes the US will win the World Cup at some point. When you’ve picked yourself up off the floor after laughing yourself stupid, you cannot deny his comment represents a shift in the status of football in the United States.

It has been quite easy to be skeptical about football and the Americans. People like the late Phil Woosnam, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and David Beckham have all tried to kick-start “soccer” in the home of the brave, and it’s been a staccato tale of new dawns, false dawns, franchise fever and the odd “kick in the grass”. It’s been equally convenient to point to the US as a place that invents its own games – Baseball and Gridiron – and satisfies itself they are the greatest. A form of sporting onanism.

The US likes to think it’s number one at most things it tries its hand at, and to a large degree, it is. Despite the fact that the US is a land of immigrants, many of whom sought refuge from persecution in Europe and Latin America, it is perhaps strange that football has taken so long to catch on. But if you consider that many people who populated the new world arrived before football became a mass sport in Europe, it is not so peculiar. Equally, with such a melting pot of races, cultures and religions, it may also explain why the USA developed its own sporting ethos.

But it could be changing. The performance of the US in this year’s World Cup indicates that they are now a credible competitor on the international stage, although President Obama’s claim that “we will win it sooner than people think,” may be as likely as Manchester United winning the Super Bowl. Likewise, Bruce Arena, coach of LA Galaxy, believes the US are two World Cups away from being capable of winning the competition. Does he really believe that?

The US put on a quite heroic display against Belgium in the round of 16, thanks to the brilliant Tim Howard, who pulled off a record number of saves in keeping the highly-fancied Belgians at bay. But the post-defeat reaction of coach Juergen Klinsmann, who knows a thing or two about World Cups, seemed to be aimed at appeasing the American media, who clearly do not realize that the US are not years, but decades, away from becoming a major contender. “Clearly [the defeat] gives you the message you have a lot of work still ahead of you,” said Klinsmann.

If Klinsmann is disappointed, he surely cannot have expected the US to be a genuine possible winner in 2014? He knows the US doesn’t have the kind of domestic league competition that can compare with the top European leagues, and he is aware that society and football are not bound up in each other (perhaps not a bad thing) in the way it does in Italy, Spain and England. In other words, defeat doesn’t spoil people’s lives the way it [wrongly] does in the mature markets of Europe. Players do not feel the heat of the fans so much.

You sense that, for the first time, expectation is present in the US approach to “soccer”. They are getting into the groove with the game. They still insist on calling extra time “over time” or even “prolongation” (yes, I heard that this week), and “offense” does cause offence. But “de-fense” only needs minor modification to be acceptable!

The US squad has a much different look to, for example, the Team US bunch of oddballs that took the field in 1990. Of the 23 in 2014, 10 played MLS, with four apiece playing for English and German clubs. The rest were from Mexico, Turkey, Norway, France and Holland. In 1990, 18 played in the US, two in Holland, one in Spain and one in Germany. That shows, at least, that US players are exportable and of a much higher standard than 1990, but it has taken 24 years to achieve that much.

The US has the building blocks in place now, and MLS has proved it is not a “here today, gone tomorrow” competition with crowds averaging a stable 18,000-plus. It is not speculation to say that the US has, at long last, given the country the league it has long needed. And judging by their four games in Brazil 2014, the US are well organized, fit and competent. But they lack flair of any kind and the sort of striker that can compete on the world stage. It’s not a surprise that the US have acquired the qualities they have and equally, that the icing on the cake is still missing – it’s absent from a lot of countries.

Players like Messi, Neymar and Colombia’s James Rodriguez do not grow on trees, and they invariably emerge from poor, deprived environments. You cannot coach flair or natural instinct. Instead of hoping for the first “American Neymar”, the US would be well advised to look at the functional Germans for inspiration, players who can perform well, with no small amount of skill, in a team-oriented set-up. And with Klinsmann in charge, they have a man with inside knowledge.

The US believe they are a top 20 force in world football, and they could be right – the FIFA Rankings suggest they are in that top bracket, but we know how misleading they can be. The question is, can they now push on and make the top 10? As a target, that’s realistic and to quote the current occupant of the White House, “that may happen sooner than people think.” Three cheers for the red, white and blue…


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