GHANA 2, U.S. 1: A chance goes begging…

First off, all praise to Ghana’s Black Stars. Bearing the hopes of an entire continent as the last African side in the World Cup, they showed themselves more than equal to the task. This was a truly well-deserved win by Ghana – they’ve now equaled 1990 Cameroon and 2002 Senegal as the third African team to make it to the quarterfinals of a World Cup.

What’s more, I expect them to defeat Uruguay and make it to the semifinals.  Uruguay, while they’re very good, didn’t particularly impress in beating South Korea 2-1. For much of the second half, they seemed on the verge of conceding a game-winning goal to the Koreans – but they didn’t, and Suarez’s wonder goal late in the day saved them. If Ghana plays against Uruguay like they did against the U.S., they will beat them.

Which brings me to the Americans.

[shakes head]

[shakes head even more emphatically]

Let me be clear, like President Obama: the U.S. will likely never have as fortuitous a road to the semifinals of a World Cup as we did this year. We were playing Ghana, it’s true, and Ghana had beaten us in 2006. But it’s Ghana we’re talking about here.

Not Germany. Not Brazil. Not Spain. Not Argentina.


I know that a lot of folks are approaching this loss by saying, “well, at least we got out of the group stage. Yay, us!” I’m going to disagree with that assessment. This is a disappointing result.

I first started following soccer when I was 11 years old. I read a book about the old NASL San Jose Earthquakes, and it featured several players from the Premier League team Tottenham Hotspurs. Ever since, I’ve been a Spurs fan; like the English team that got annihilated by Germany today, Spurs had their glory years in the ’60s, and have been living off those laurels since.

I got hooked on US Soccer in 1990, when they qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. From the vantage point of two decades, it’s hard to describe to someone who just started following the US Soccer team just how abysmal the state of soccer was just two decades ago.

There was no MLS. You were lucky to catch a soccer game on TV, and if you did, it was likely at 3 AM, when the only competition was Ronco products. To the degree that American players played in Europe, they tended to play for second-rank clubs.

So, when they went to Italy for the Cup, their rank inexperience showed. They got whipped soundly, finishing last in their group. And 1994 wasn’t much better – although they made it out of their group, the U.S. needed the most tragic own goal in soccer history in order to advance*.

Here’s the thing: it’s not 1990 or 1994 anymore, and we should quit treating the US Soccer team like it is.

I think that expectation, as much as anything else, is holding US Soccer back. Look at the group we were in – not only did we win the group, we outscored England, supposedly the class of the group. Meanwhile, we have a domestic league that, while still second-class, serves as a professional destination for American players looking to ply their trade and develop further.

It’s time, I think, to heighten our expectations. I’m no longer satisfied, as a fan of US Soccer, to just make it out of the group. That, at a minimum, should be the expectation going forward.

This goes beyond a coach, or a game, or even a World Cup. It goes to how the game is organized in the United States. America is the *only* country where soccer is a suburban, middle-to-upper-class sport. Everywhere else, soccer occupies the place that basketball holds here – it’s an inner city sport in Argentina, in Brazil, in Germany…everywhere.

The two biggest deficiencies the American team has are lack of defensive skill and lack of offensive firepower. Yes, I said that we outscored Germany, but what’s notable is that we expect our midfielders, especially Landon Donovan & Clint Dempsey, to score. That’s actually not normal for soccer – normally, you have your midfielders control the run of play and set the table for the strikers – in our case, Jozy Altidore and Robbie Findley.

Guess which names *weren’t* called out at this World Cup?

The same thing goes for the defensive back line. I’m going to throw out a number here. How minutes did the U.S. lead in the Cup, out of 390 played?

Try 3.

Yes, three.

We gave up the earliest and second earliest goals of the World Cup – 4 minutes in against England, 5 minutes in against Ghana. We were down 2-0 against Slovenia, before coming back to tie.

The two deficiencies go together. If you’re giving up goals early, you place way too much pressure on your offense (already deficient) to produce goals. And if you lack finishing power, you can’t take advantage of scoring opportunities when they present themselves.

As awesome as that moment was against Algeria, that’s all it was: a moment. And it’s a moment that shouldn’t even have taken place, because we whiffed on about 17 different chances to score against Algeria, and another 12 against Ghana.

Who knows how many players we’re missing out on because US Soccer doesn’t have inner city programs? Soccer is quite likely the cheapest sport to play. If they can play soccer in Brazilian favelas, then they can play soccer in Bed-Stuy.

I’ve ragged on Bill Simmons for his misunderstanding of sports, but he has a point – can you imagine Allen Iverson playing soccer at forward, with his nose for the basket? Can you imagine someone like Shane Battier, with his intelligence, playing defense?

It was those two deficiencies that were on brutal display yesterday against Ghana. We got caught napping on defense…which led to us playing from behind again…which meant we forced too many chances. It was Ghana, but it was also England, and it was Slovenia. There’s only one of those teams that we should’ve been trailing, and you know which one it is. Hint: it’s where the game was born.

This is ridiculous. I’ll close here, but to me, at least, it’s time to clean house. People are speculating about coach Bob Bradley’s tenure, but that’s missing the point. The house-cleaning has to go higher. US Soccer has a reputation for being cheap, so it’s laughable for them to say, “We’re going to win the World Cup by X year”. Seriously – the next time you hear a US Soccer official say that, you should laugh in their face, and mock them for the chumps they are.

If you want to win, you have to spend, for the most part. Until US Soccer decides to do that, I can’t take them seriously. It’s time to give the US Soccer team a US Soccer Federation worthy of their skill, effort, and dedication.

*Most tragic because it resulted in the murder of Andres Escobar, the Colombian national team captain who scored the own goal. If you haven’t seen the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Two Escobars”, you’re missing out.

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  1. Matt Browner Hamlin
    Posted June 27, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    I’m right there with you Raf. As soon as we won the group, with the other teams in our bracket that we did, the semifinals were where my expectations were set. Not beating Ghana is a disappointment only diminished by the craptastic performances of Italy, England, and France in this World Cup.

    The US Mens National Team played with a lot of heart and guts throughout the tournament, primarily because of the repeated first half lapses that put our team down in every game we played save one. And you’re right, the inability of our forwards and wingers to finish belies how far we have to go to seriously contend for the World Cup.

    The skills needs and development that must happen cannot be fixed overnight. Nor can players coming from the systems US players come up in themselves be blamed, though clearly the gaps between their skillset and what we see top German or Argentinian players, for example, is quite large. Nonetheless, we have more players playing in top teams and top leagues from England to Germany to Scotland to Mexico than ever before. In four years, I’d expect our entire team is fielded from professionals playing outside the United States.

    But if you can’t blame our players and our soccer culture for the loss – at least, not in full – where can you place the blame? Coach Bradley. His lineup choices were repeatedly responsible for early goals, a lack of creativity and playing from beyond. An unfit Guch Oneywu, utterly useless Michael Findley and the bizarre choice to not start Maurice Edu against Ghana immediately come to mind. Bradley’s poor lineup choices forced him to use substitutions early. Worse, Oneywu (3 goals) and Clark (1 goal) were directly or partially responsible for half of the goals the United States conceded throughout the tournament.

    And when it comes to the repeated first half lapses that lead to quick goals for our opponents, you can only blame preparedness on the head coach. If a team does not get up for a game, you have to blame the coach for failing to prepare them for it. That three of the four games were defined by the practically immediate concessions speaks to the complete failure of Bradley to coach well before the 45th minute.

    I don’t know whether that means Bradley must be fired or not. But it is clear that in the same way that Tim Howard did not play at form (you’d think one of the top 5 goaltenders in the world could pull a clean sheet against a team without a non-PK goal all tournament), Bradley did not coach at a level where he met reasonable expectations and the team is out of the tournament.

    I will say this: between the leadership of Coach Bradley, Donovan, Bocanegra, and Dempsey, the United States played truly inspired football in the second half of the Slovenia game and pretty much all of the Algeria game. They should have finished the first round with two wins and a draw, but for shamefully bad officiating. They showed that even when they did not play to form, they played with heart. And for many minutes in the tournament, even when not leading, it seemed the US could play with creativity akin to best teams in the world. But without better finishing and coaching, I don’t know when we can start to expect the US to be realistic competitors to win this tournament.

  2. Posted June 27, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you on the coaching bit, Matt. My concern with US Soccer’s parsimonious ways is that that’s what’s keeping the team from being coached by a top flight coach like a Klinsmann or a Guus Hiddink.

    Bob Bradley makes $400K/year. In contrast, Australia pays Pim Verbeek $1.8 million, and New Zealand – New Zealand! – pays Ricki Herbert $1.2 million.

    That’s beyond embarrassing. We get what we pay for. That’s why, to me, it doesn’t matter who we hire unless US Soccer decides it’s going to lay out coin. And that’s not going to change until the leadership up top changes.

  3. Matt Browner Hamlin
    Posted June 28, 2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Well as long as it doesn’t mean giving Bradley an $800,000 raise for failure, I’m with you Raf.

  4. Gray, Germany
    Posted June 29, 2010 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    “Landon Donovan & Clint Dempsey, to score. That’s actually not normal for soccer – normally, you have your midfielders control the run of play and set the table for the strikers – in our case, Jozy Altidore and Robbie Findley.”

    Well, even as a German, I have to admit that I’m not a serious football fan, and lack some insight into the inner mechanics and into all the pros and cons of popular players. But as I understand it, the strict difference between striker and midfielder is a thing of the past. Modern football is more flexible, and can’t easily explained with a fixed structure anymore. The most recent rage is “opening up spaces”, i.e. forcing the enemies defense to scatter instead of lumping together asa solid block in front of the goal. Modern strikers, who are the first to advance into the enemy half, deliberately draw defenders on themselves to create room for the midfielders to exploit. This seems to be a counterstrategy to the “Italian” defensive play, and judging from examples in the last weeks, it seems to work a-ok.

    Now, doesn’t Altidore do exactly this? How often has he been advancing at the wings, with two defenders engaging him, and thus creating room for Donovan? I seem to remember such pictures from TV! And it’s the same with the German team. Klose and Cacau often prepared chances for the midfielders, at the expense of their own strike record. A counterexample for this is Wayne Rooney, who seemed to be lurking in old time fashion, waiting for his chance. But since the midfielders, who should have “served” him, met strong defense, that big chance never came. So, isn’t the job that Altidore did more valuable for the team? And didn’t he get good ratings for that?

  5. Patrick
    Posted June 29, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Stepping aside from Bob Bradley, who I agree needs to go…and just to throw out a hypothetical here…

    All teams are going to have some adversity thrown their way, but imagine a different US team for a second. Start with the bones of the team that just crashed out at least a game early, maybe more. Then add a fit Onyewu, Charlie Davies, and Jermaine Jones. Now add to that group New Jersey-born and raised Giuseppe Rossi, whose adopted country didn’t even want to take him to the World Cup. Add Neven Subotic, the majority of whose development took place in the US system. Add a different Freddy Adu, one whose development and exposure had been more carefully and competently managed.

    When I hear people talking about how far off the United States is from fielding a team capable of competing at the highest levels, that’s the team I think of. It’s clear that – but for some bad breaks and some bad management – our 2010 team would now be getting ready to play Uruguay, with every chance of making the semi-finals, and, with a couple of friendly bounces against Brazil or the Netherlands, the finals.

    Which brings me back to Bob Bradley. Get rid of him, and get a coach who can take youth development, player management, tournament preparations and game-day decisions to the next level. If we do, we’re going to have a happy 2014.

  6. Posted June 29, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    @Germany: Agreed on Altidore. I’m not dinging him, by any means – he’s only 20, to start with, so his best years are ahead, and he seemed to improve with every game.

    @Patrick: I like your scenario. I don’t think we’re getting Rossi – he’s set on playing for Italy, and I think the Azzuri’s next coach will give him a roster spot. With Adu, I do think it was a situation where too much happened too fast.

    On a larger scheme, though, we agree. I tend to go a bit further in that I think it’s going to take more than just a coach – the whole situation with US Soccer and pay-to-play clubs has to be revamped, and that’s where the MLS Academies come in.

  7. Posted October 16, 2014 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

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