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Like many suburban American youths growing up in the 1980s, I played a great deal of league soccer. I didn't play especially well, but I did so adamantly and for many years. During this era, the always embarrassing notion of American Exceptionalism had metastasized into something like an implacable psychosis. This was Reagan's "Morning in America." Real life events like the "Miracle on Ice" co-mingled with anti-Soviet Hollywood propaganda like Red Dawn
and Rocky IV
. Robust jingoism lurched towards incoherent madness. Soon we were all pretty well convinced that our country would never be defeated in anything again, ever. Alongside this attitude evolved a belief that the ever expanding popularity of youth soccer in America portended an imminent emergence as the sport's major global force.
The problem, however, was that America really did suck at soccer. The sport was always (at best) fourth choice for the most elite homegrown athletes, behind baseball, football and basketball. Resultantly, we found ourselves decades behind nearly every developed nation from Belarus to the Sudan. We had no tradition and no professional infrastructure. Nascent attempts at homegrown leagues like the NASL floundered and failed. Fine players emerged from US colleges and then left to compete in Europe. There was no continuity or culture to American soccer, and the hoped-for emergence as perennial world power never occurred. Instead the up-and-down, crazy-quilt performance of the US Men's soccer team over the past two decades has been hard to read, both enigmatic and chimerical. Every time they seem close, they are far off again.
To wit, our World Cup results the past twenty years:
: We are blitzkrieged. Humiliated. Three matches lost by an aggregate 9-2 score. In the opening match, we lose 5-1 to Czechoslovakia, a country which will soon cease to even exist as a global entity.
: Matters improv" dramatically. We stun the 4th-ranked Colombian team and advance for the first time ever to the so called 'Knockout round." The run is ended by an eminently defensible 1-0 loss to eventual champion Brazil, but the promise of future domination is in evidence.
: Mortification on a nearly unparalleled scale. Cringing losses to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia reveal the team to be feckless, toothless and non-competitive. We finish 32nd out of 32 teams.
: Another swing towards excellence. Spectacular wins over Portugal and Mexico, and a tie with host South Korea propel the US into the quarterfinals. Although eliminated 1-0 by traditional power Germany, there is general unanimity that we have arrived.
: Disaster anew. Slapped down with impunity by the now Czech Republic 3-0, a white-knuckle 1-1 draw with eventual champ Italy, and then a jaw-slackening knockout loss to Ghana.
Anyway, this is not the sort of immediate gratification I have been conditioned to expect and enjoy. I can accept losing, but I don't want to finish 32nd out of 32. I think I have one more World Cup in me, but if we are non-competitive, then I will rededicate that portion of my emotional bandwidth to various rooting interests I have developed in the sport of professional lumberjacking.
However, the results of last month's Confederations Cup — a kind of World Cup preview — have thickened the plot once again. The US team made the finals, defeating world #1 Spain in the process, and then very nearly stunned Brazil in the final, squandering a two-goal lead in the second half. The second half collapse was disappointing, but overall the display of American prowess set the soccer establishment abuzz. Once again, it appears possible that a full scale breakthrough is imminent. On the other hand, maybe we will just immediately be stomped 11-1 by some iteration of Czechoslovakia. Is one to look forward to the 2010 World Cup with dread skepticism or inflated self-regard?