We’re Going To Brazil!

Bulletin! We interrupt our regularly scheduled post to bring you this special edition! The United States men’s soccer team has beaten Mexico 2-0 in Columbus ,Ohio to clinch a spot in next summer’s World Cup to be held in Brazil! The win represents the fourth time the USA has played a World Cup qualifier in Columbus and the fourth time the  score finished at 2-0 for the Americans. But the road to this win wasn’t very smooth. Actually, it was quite the opposite. Since we last discussed the USA men’s team (The Will to Win – A Tale of Two Games) things have been a bit rocky. The Americans and their coach Jürgen Klinsman have learned quite a bit about themselves and about what represents the best way to replace missing players with this team. It took a loss to Costa Rica and some hard luck and questionable refereeing to teach those lessons, but in the long run this was a positive outcome for the Yanks.

It actually started in England almost a week before the Costa Rica game when American forward Jozy Altidore strained his hamstring while working out with his club team Sunderland. He missed their Premier league game that weekend and it was feared that he wouldn’t be available for the important matchup between the USA and Costa Rica later that week. The game was being played in Costa Rica where the USA has never won and with Altidore on a scoring spree with his national team, his presence would be sorely missed. Then shortly before the kickoff in San Jose, things got worse – a lot worse. The first game between these two teams in this hexagonal qualifier was played in Denver in a snowstorm. The USA won 1-0 and the Costa Ricans were enraged that the game was played in the first place. So this second matchup between the two was considered by the Ticos as their chance for revenge for the field conditions that night in the cold in Colorado. They got their revenge in an unconventional and unplanned manner. A few hours before the game it rained quite heavily in San Jose and the field took quite a bit of water. There was never a question of not playing the game, but the conditions were not ideal. The grass was wet and the turf loose and just before kickoff, Michael Bradley planted his left foot on the ground while taking a routine kick in warmup and the turf gave way. He twisted his ankle and the injury ruled him out of the contest. By game time Altidore was doing better, but Coach Klinsman decided that he would rather save him for the Mexico game 4 nights later, therefore giving Jozy more time to rest his hamstring. So, now, just before game time, Jürgen found himself down not just one, but two of his most important players.

In a situation like this, a coach has several options. Option 1 is to simply substitute the two “second string” players for two injured starters and leave everybody else as they were. There is another possibility though, especially if the coach feels that there are better players available than the replacements for the missing starters, even if those better players typically play other positions. Klinsman chose the latter option. He moved Landon Donovan from his expected outside midfield spot to a forward position where he could linkup with Clint Dempsey in a two forward system. This wasn’t what Dempsey was familiar with when playing for the USA and required some adjustment by both players. By moving Donovan, the right midfield position which Donovan would have played opened up and Jurgen solved that question by using Graham Zusi. On paper this wasn’t too drastic a solution as Zusi had played decently in prior qualifiers during the spring, but he isn’t Landon Donovan by a long shot. Coach Klinsman covered Bradley’s absence by moving outside defender Geoff Cameron to Bradley’s holding midfielder spot. This position requires a mountain of playmaking and creative passing and Cameron ,while having some experience as a midfielder, has always been a defensive midfielder so he was thrust into an unfamiliar role with only a few minutes to prepare. In Cameron’s place , Michael Orozco Fiscal was used, again with only a few minutes to get ready.  Now, if you are counting, that is five- count’em- five positions that were changed with either new players or roles. So, half the field players starting the game were not the original players on the original starting team in their original starting positions.

The Costa Ricans were VERY fired up for this big contest, in front of their home fans, with first place in the hex at stake. They pressured the USA all over the field from the opening whistle and the Americans played like half of them were not the original players on the original starting team in their original positions, which, as we know (see above) they weren’t. In ten minutes ,the Ticos were up 2-0 and the Americans were still looking around to see where everybody was playing. As the game went on, the Yanks got better and by the second half the lead was down to 2-1 and with the introduction of Eddie Johnson and Altidore, a comeback was certainly possible. However, as happens so often, by pressing forward a team leaves space open at their back and the Costa Ricans countered well to score again. So the United States 12 game winning streak was snapped and we learned that the team does not really have that many interchangeable parts. On top of the loss, the referee went on a late game yellow card spree and by the time he was done three more Americans were out of the Mexico match. As the ref was Mexican, this opened the door for lots of questions, but that is a discussion for another post.

Donovan surrounded by Costa Rica as he was most of the game

Donovan surrounded by Costa Rica as he was most of the game

For Mexico, Bradley was still out with his sprained ankle and Altidore was still out also, just for another reason than injury. He was one of the recipients of the ridiculous yellow cards and therefore had to miss the game. Also missing with yellow cards was the previously discussed Cameron and defender Matt Besler. So, once again Jürgen Klinsman was faced with missing starters for multiple positions. This time , however, Jürgen went for option 1 above. He simply dropped in the second tier players for the missing starters and kept the basic system and chemistry intact. In particular, he used Eddie Johnson for Altidore and Kyle Beckerman  for Bradley. Now, make no mistake, Johnson isn’t Jozy. But he does have some definite strengths, mainly his ability to be a beast in front of the goal in the air. Beckerman is a poor mans Bradley, but by putting Donovan in the his outside midfield role and surrounding Beckerman with players in familiar positions, Klinsman lowered the pressure on him. The game was in the very friendly Columbus Crew stadium and the Mexicans came in with a new coach, a miserable record in this competition and even more questions about their team than the Americans had. And their questions weren’t about injuries and cards, they were about talent, attitude and chemistry. Hmm, that makes injuries and cards look minor. After the first 15 minutes or so, those injury and card problems got even smaller. The Yanks started putting things together and by the end of the first half it was a promising game for the USA. Early in the second half, Johnson did his corner kick thing again, as he has done before in recent games for the US and as he had just barely missed on in the first half.

Eddie Johnson scores on a corner kick against Mexico

Eddie Johnson scores on a corner kick against Mexico

Later Donovan scored on a nice set up from his teammates and the Mexicans were left wondering if they will make it to the World Cup. Not so for the USA -combined with the Honduras-Panama draw- the Americans are definitely into the finals in Brazil. The crowd in Ohio was crazy, representing the new American passion for the game and for the American national team. I must say, that seeing all those red scarves raised during the national anthem is a stirring site, unseen in any other athletic event. And now, we get to enjoy the World Cup in the best possible way- while rooting for our country.

The loud, proud crowd in Columbus!

The loud, proud crowd in Columbus!


We’re Better Than We Think We Are : Part 2

Last post, we talked about the formation of our country and our connection with the British and the English language. We related that when the “soccer boom” started in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s most Americans involved in the sport looked to international “football” people as being more knowledgeable and experienced than they were themselves. At that time an American who wanted to learn more about the game almost always used resources from outside our country. Books, seminars, clinics, coaching courses- you name it- they were available and almost always written or conducted by someone from elsewhere. This was understandable, after all the USA had virtually no history in the sport internally and except for one inexplicable victory over England in the 1950 World Cup, no moments to brag about externally. So we read and attended and traveled. Because of our language and culture, most of our learning came from the British. This was ok, after all they invented the game. AND they had won the 1966 World Cup didn’t they? AND they did it with a flair for the unexpected! They ignored traditional formations and tactics and adopting a strategy without wingers and with lots of passing and movement and players coming from behind. It was the soccer equivalent of climbing the cliff at Quebec and beating the French! So they were the best to learn from, at least at that time.

England won the 1966 World Cup at Wembley Stadium

England won the 1966 World Cup at Wembley Stadium

This respect for foreign knowledge and experience developed into a kind of hero worship. We talked foreign soccer more than our own soccer, we adopted British “football” terms even though we had plenty of our own words we could use. We even wore our hair like they did……( ok, we had already begun doing that when the Beatles arrived). Crazy, but I knew Americans that suddenly developed English accents when they started talking about “football”! And there is no worse English accent than an American talking in what he/she thinks is an English accent! We started a pro league , the North American Soccer League (NASL) which garnered a TV contract, drew good crowds in some locations and spent way too much money importing internationally known players. Despite the crowds and TV , the league lost money and so had to cut back on the stars which then cost crowd size which eventually cost the tv contract and that cost the league its existence. But the youth leagues continued to grow and the soccer presence in this country continued to increase.

What didn’t increase was the respect that the average world soccer person gave to Americans who were involved in the sport. I personally experienced “soccer discrimination” many times. International players that I played with often refused to pass to the Americans on the team. I was yelled at several times by English players for being in the wrong place and/or making the wrong move with the ball. This was confusing since I was attending national licensing courses and also learning from some fairly knowledgeable people…like the coach of the NASL champion NY Cosmos, for one. Here I was, discussing tactics with Julio Mazzei who was coaching Franz Beckenbauer , Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, etc. but my learning didn’t suit the guys who had moved here 10 years before and “knew” that Americans didn’t know soccer. As it turned out what they didn’t know was what was happening in world soccer strategies. And they couldn’t believe that an American, any American ,could be more caught up on the sport than they were. The lack of respect wasn’t limited to the British. In one case, my team played a team composed of workers from the embassy of a third-world country whose identity I don’t recall ( I wouldn’t name it even if I did remember). We were located in the Washington-Baltimore corridor, so it was easy to pick up games with embassy teams like El Salvador and Greece, to name a couple that we played. On this day we were warming up and the opposition was laughing and carousing around. They certainly weren’t taking the game very seriously. Our team was about 75% American, but one of our group understood what they were saying. “They think we aren’t any good because we have so many Americans!” , he reported. The game began and the laughing and commenting continued along with a propensity to foul us from behind. The fouls produced some yellow cards from the referee, but mostly it produced gales of laughter from our opponents. We kept our cool and just played the game. They continued to joke about the Americans playing soccer, which was pretty surprising since we proceeded to open a gap between us and them on the scoreboard. At the end we won 5-0 and they still were making fun of our game. This prompted one of our group to comment,” Now we know why the undeveloped countries of the world are undeveloped!”

Of course, today times are different……or are they? Last spring I watched Chelsea play Barcelona in the Champions League at an English pub in Orlando, Fl. I was neutral about the game, but I did appreciate Barca’s  passing and control game far more than Chelsea’s ” kick it up field as soon as possible and outrun the opposition” style. The pub was filled with Chelsea fans most of whom originally hailed from Britain. I sat next to a fine English gentleman who actually rooted for Manchester United, so he wasn’t any more emotionally involved in the outcome than I was, but was a fan of the sport. During the game I was engaged in a “conversation” by one of the Chelsea fans about my knowledge of the game. He objected to a comment I made about Barcelona’s refusal to dive after each slight contact from Chelsea. “What would you know about it?” I explained that I followed the sport, had lots of experience, had coached some very good players, etc. This made no impact on him, he became increasingly belligerent, kept referring to my nationality and finally blew me off with,” oh, go play some baseball!”. I responded by referring to HIS nationality in a very unflattering way, and thus almost suffered a repeat of the Boston Massacre. My new English friend saved the day, but it was apparent that the crowd in that pub didn’t respect American soccer any more than the British seemingly respected anything American 250 years ago.

A Chelsea player goes down vs Barcelona.

A Chelsea player goes down vs Barcelona.

Well, I am here now to announce that a new day has arrived! We are a much-better-than -average soccer nation. Actually,  as of now, this month, July 2013, it has become apparent…..AND factually verifiable, that American soccer-on the national team level- is equal to that of England! Yes, you read that right.

Consider- the USA currently is in first place in it’s World Cup qualifying group- England is second in theirs although they have played one less game than the leader. Of course, one might argue the strength of the groups…..England is second to ………….Montenegro……………who? Montenegro!………………..who? Their group also contains superlightweights San Marino and Moldova. Look, Jamaica is trailing our group, but Jamaica would thump San Marino! Also, our group contains Mexico, who has made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the last 5 times. None of England’s group competitors can make that claim. The under-20 World Cup just concluded and neither the USA nor England made it out of their group. However, there was a large difference in group strength. Our group contained eventual winner France ( whom we tied) , semifinalist Ghana and Spain- considered#1 in the world going into the competition. England’s group consisted of Iraq, Chile and Egypt. None of these are considered strong soccer nations and yet England couldn’t manage even one win. At the same time, the u-21 European championship was held and England went 3 defeats and out. Of course, the last face to face meeting between the USA and England was in the 2010 World Cup. It resulted in a 1-1 draw and after the group phase was done, we had won the group while England finished second. So, based on these recent results, the USA is at least equal to England at this time.

England goalkeeper Robert Green gave up a bad goal to the USA in the 2010 World Cup

England goalkeeper Robert Green gave up a bad goal to the USA in the 2010 World Cup

Are we yet Spain, Germany, Brazil, Italy, Argentina, France? No, not yet, but we are better than at least 190 out of FIFA’s 209 soccer playing nations. So the time has come to stop looking at anybody who plays or even talks soccer and who hails from outside this country like they are an expert. We know our stuff, we have people who know the game as well as most any other country. It’s time to act like it ……and we can start with our soccer verbiage.

We have adopted many English “football” terms. I say that we should use OUR words- they work as well and they are OURS. Look-we know that in England the TV is a telly and that fries are chips and chips are crisps. But we don’t use those terms ourselves. So first of all: the land where the game is played is a “field”, not a “pitch”. Can you imagine the confusion if the movie had been called “Pitch of Dreams”? On the field we play a soccer “game”. Americans use the term “match” for individual athletic contests: a wrestling match, a boxing match, even a golf match. But it is a basketball “game” because it involves teams. When we play a soccer game, we wear a uniform. A “kit” is a group of utensils used for some purpose. Along with our uniform we wear “soccer shoes” or perhaps “cleats”. We wear “boots” when we ride horses or go Texas two-stepping.  If a soccer game ends with the score even it’s a draw or a tie. A tie is NOT a game or a set of two games, not in this country anyway. When we want to see when we have future soccer games we look on the schedule. There we see the dates of those future games. “Fixtures” are things that water comes out of in our bathrooms. If we want to take the ball away from our opponent during our soccer game, we make a soccer tackle ( different than a football tackle). If we get “stuck in”, it’s usually in our car in mud. We play our professional soccer games in stadiums- our “ground” is the land that our backyard is on. And our fast players have lots of speed, “pace” is the amount of distance covered in a set period of time.

Of course, terminology is just one area in which to develop soccer self-respect ,but it’s a start. We are a better soccer nation than we think. And, remember my antagonist in the Orland pub? It turned out that he wasn’t English, he was Scottish, which is a real distinction in British soccer circles. A few months after our “discussion”, the USA played Scotland and the result was a 5-1 thrashing in which the “hapless Scots handed a footballing lesson by Donovan and co.” according to the Mail Online , May 27, 2012. So he can go play some bagpipe!