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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?
In moments of turmoil and confusion such as these, it is always best to turn to Dubliner Derek Keogh, the well traveled and worldly-wise soccer analyst for the massive Proven System apparatus. I asked him: Derek, what did you make of the US team's bravura performance in the Confederations Cup? Are we almost there yet?
"A Sleeping Giant stretches and rubs his eyes!
There is a freshness about this US squad. There is the voracity of youth, there is the class and experience of Carlos Bocanegra and Landon Donovan. I particularly like the cut of Mike Bradley's jib in midfield and Jonathon Spector is a quality fullback.
They have quite simply taken the game of football, stripped it down to its basics and worked on the simple things. Finding space, accurate passing, quick breakaway attacks, defending in numbers, getting close to the opposition in midfield to starve the supply to the oppositions strikers. They have cut the Fancy Dan razzmatazz out of their game and become a proper football team, where everyone plays for one another. Very little ego and — God help me for saying this — they have become worthy underdogs.
But the biggest strength by far is that the team are playing like a Premier League TEAM. They have a system that is hard to break down and one that can attack on the break very successfully and skillfully. They have finally reached a level where they can be taken seriously as a first class International outfit. If the US media can somehow overlook any xenophobic issues they have regarding soccer, they may just have the biggest story in World Football on the cusp of breaking."
The American mind is not, in general, a patient one. Lord knows mine isn't. The very concept that it has taken forty years of continuous effort to build something like a competitive world power in soccer is enough to cause many Americans to wonder exactly what is the matter with this sport? Couldn't we change some rules or something? Maybe allow for the use of oak bats or Segways? But no — we're going to do this the right way for once, and maybe as soon as next year.