Winning Everywhere but on the Pitch

1 Jul

The U.S.’s World Cup run is done, ending in the Round of 16 for a second straight time after a 2-1 extra time loss to Belgium. The Belgians were the better team; while the U.S. did blow a few good chances, they were hardly carrying the play, rescued time and time again by Tim Howard in goal. Belgium may be small, but it’s loaded with a golden generation of top-flight European talent, and they should give Argentina a good run on Saturday.

The biggest issue for the U.S. was its midfield play and lack of possession. Michael Bradley has been made the scapegoat here, and not without reason, though anyone who was expecting him to be Xavi or Schweinsteiger or Pirlo was in for a rude surprise. The U.S.’s defensive tactics covered for a lot of that hole, but if they want to be more than an exciting upset threat, they really need to start controlling play more. There were some key steps this Cup, with a win over nemesis Ghana and a near-win against a good Portugal team, but the U.S. remains somewhere on the outside of the world’s elite, and that #13 FIFA ranking, for all of its flaws, probably gets things about right.

Even so, the Cup was, for the most part, vindication for Jurgen Klinsmann, who coupled his enthusiasm and mind games with German efficiency and had a knack for making the right substitutions when injuries didn’t force his hand. Whine all you want about ESPN’s bitter robot analyst—err, Landon Donovan—or some of the comments to the media, but the U.S. coach knew what he was doing from start to finish, and his fine touch with the likes of DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green suggests a bright future. Klinsmann took a team with minimal top-end talent and serious injury issues and put them in a position to win. There is a vision here that goes far beyond the 2014 World Cup, and the U.S. has the right man directing this long and arduous ascendancy to soccer relevance.

Mexico, meanwhile, did what the Mexicans do in the World Cup, likewise bowing out in the Round of 16 for a sixth consecutive time. This was the most excruciating, though, as they held a lead over the favored Dutch with less than five minutes to play. The end result wasn’t a huge surprise—Miguel Herrera’s very conservative approach after the Mexican goal left El Tri a bit too reliant on the heroics of Guillermo Ochoa, and exposed that back line so much that it was hard not to think it was just a matter of when the Dutch would strike. The cautious approach worked in the group stage, and it’s hard to rip on Herrera’s tactics after he turned a struggling squad into one that looked pretty good in its first three games, but the Mexicans needed a bit more positivity to compete with the world’s elite. It wasn’t beyond their ability.

The eight group winners may all have gone through to the quarterfinals, but that hardly suggests any sort of dominance by the traditional powers. The great Spanish dynasty is dead, and no one is leaping to fill the vacuum. The Brazilians don’t appear terribly cohesive, and have issues in back; the biggest things they have going for them are geography and Neymar’s heroics. Argentina is in a similar boat, though Lionel Messi might just be good enough to carry his nation to the title in spite of it all. Their side of the bracket is open for the taking, and one gets the sense that they have yet to show us their best. The quarterfinal between France and Germany, meanwhile, should be a thriller between two of Europe’s top contenders. France’s easy road so far is a mild surprise after their debacles in recent years, but the talent is clearly there; the Germans, while perhaps not quite as crisp as their western neighbors, are still probably better when playing to their potential, lacking the disjointedness of their fellow favorites from South America.

The other four teams left in the race offer some intrigue, too. The Colombians are unproven but perhaps the most exciting team in the Cup, and James Rodríguez has the potential to take his coming-out party to the next stage if he can exploit the gaps often left by the Brazilian defense. The Belgians are also new to this stage, and while they lack the dynamism of the Colombians, they have enough top-flight players to trouble Argentina. On the other end of the spectrum, this great Dutch generation refuses to die, and have earned themselves a favorable quarterfinal against Cup darlings Costa Rica. If the Orange Crush can handle the upstarts, who’s to bet against their tried and true formula?

Whatever the end result, this Cup has had the feel of a watershed moment for U.S. soccer. For the first time, it felt like more than a fringe sport. It was hard not to get sucked in when walking into a bar packed with people in red, white, and blue chanting USA! and that cheer that was cool in hockey three years ago, that collective ecstasy and frustration shared by everyone. The aggravating nature of soccer—ninety minutes of frustration in the hope of one or two seconds of brilliance—lends itself to that unity, and when the ball finally does hit the back of the net, everyone gets it. It has its flaws, but the simplicity makes the appeal universal.

All of that said, I have some reservations about soccer going mainstream. There’s the obvious complaint about a broader but less knowledgeable fan base, leaving us with the painful Landon Donovan whiners who didn’t actually know anything about him beyond that one goal against Algeria. But the World Cup also comes with a dose of false cosmopolitanism that ignores the corrupt and moneyed interests that dominate FIFA, an organization in which the New York Yankees would look frugal and kindly to their fellow franchises. FIFA is a fairly accurate reflector the world’s power structure, and I do not mean that as a compliment. The Cup is nice and international, which is all good fun when you’re a kid and learning to appreciate all of the silly little things that make countries unique, but becomes a bit facile after a while, with Mexicans in ponchos and Americans playing up a self-consciously overdone U.S. bravado (‘Murica!). Soccer is a global sport, and that is a double-edged sword; it brings us closer to the rest of world, but abandoning other sports in its favor eats at the diversity that makes things interesting. If our “shared language” boils down to a bunch of stereotypes, Coke ads, pop stars at the kickoff concert, and rolling about on the ground in feigned pain, is it really a language worth sharing?

It can go deeper than that, though, so while soccer will never be my first love, there are aspects that continue to grow on me. For the U.S., it’s time to look ahead to Russia in 2018 with ever-rising hopes; in the meantime, we’ll hope the remaining eight add yet more drama to what has already been a superb Cup. And even if they don’t, maybe will get a few memorable little nibbles.

(Can I get some credit for going over 1,000 words before making a Luis Suárez pun?)

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