Saturday, June 12, 2010

Playing With The Big Boys Now

In the 2002 World Cup, the US advanced to the quarterfinals, where it met Germany in a game that it would have won, had the referees had their wits entirely about them: there would have been a penalty kick awarded for a handball literally on the goal line that kept what would have been the winning goal out of the net. That match was a high-water mark for US soccer.

What followed was six years of matches that were, at best, uninteresting; at worst, they were the three crappy matches we played in the 2006 World Cup. The string was relieved only by our winning the Gold Cup and becoming North American champions. That tournament win was nice, but considering there's only one team in our federation that can really challenge the US, winning the Gold Cup is hardly a Great Triumph. It's always won by Mexico, and occasionally by the USA. The other teams in the competition are there to make the tournament last more than two hours.

The Gold Cup was immediately followed by a trip to South America to play in the Copa Libertadores competition, the South American continental championship tournament. North and South American confederations routinely invite their counterpart's champions to participate. That might change, since the US elected to send a squad of unblooded neophytes, who performed not just poorly, but embarrassingly so. The South Americans felt insulted. (US coach Bob Bradley didn't care; I think he would have just as soon not gone to the tournament anyway.)

But by winning the Gold Cup, the USA got to go to the Confederations Cup in South Africa in 2009. That's its only real value. The Confederations Cup is sort of a dry run for the next World Cup. It's played in the same host country, and gives them a chance to rehearse the incredible logistics for the world's largest sporting event, on a more manageable scale. Everybody knows the tournament itself will be won by either a European or South American team. The Asian, African, Oceanic and North American teams are there just to make that tournament last longer than two hours.

The 2009 Confederations Cup provided some surprise, though. Its eight teams (six federations champions, plus the host nation and the World Cup holder) played first in two groups of four; two teams from each group advance to knockout rounds. The US promptly lost to Italy (3:1) and Brazil (3:0), but beat Egypt (wow) 3:0. By virtue of the tie-breaker, goal differential, the US advanced to the semifinals while Egypt and Italy went home.

In its semifinal, the United States beat Spain, the European champion, 2:0. This was even more of a shock because the match represented Spain's first defeat in I don't know how many international matches -- a year or two's worth. And Spain had not sent a junior team to the tournament.

In the final, the US met Brazil again. This time we lost, but in a thriller, by a 2:3 scoreline. We played the best team in the world and came up just a little short.

Well, OK, but it's still just the Confederations Cup. No matter how surprising it was when we advanced, no matter how surprising it was when we beat Spain, and no matter how close we came to actually beating Brazil, matches like that can never mean as much as any match in a World Cup.

Today, the United States played England in the World Cup. It didn't start off well. Stevie G scored for England early, and our guys looked occasionally dishevelled at the back, and ineffective up front after that. But gradually we got back into it, held our line, and started to attack. It was a show of maturity as a team that made me, for one, proud. When Clint Dempsey scored a freak goal just before halftime, I felt as happy as if I'd scored it myself.

The game ended that way, and truth be told, our guys played as well through the second half as England's did, even, arguably, better. But we came away with a 1:1 draw, and for us, that's a victory -- a big victory -- while for England it's a bitter loss. If England and the US both beat Slovenia and Algeria, which they're expected to do, then the group winner will be determined by goal differential. But no matter which team ends up on top officially, our guys will be the big winners in this stage of the competition.

To sum up, two great things result from today's match: first it proves, like no Confederations Cup result could, that the US can play football (I mean real football, not that pointy-ball stuff) with the best teams in the world; and second, it means, I hope, that we never again have to have the 1950 World Cup match result trotted out by television commentators as something relevant in the 21st Century.

Yeah, that's gonna happen.

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