(Above: One of the greatest goals ever by the U.S., vs. Algeria, 2010, South Africa -- involving four epic players -- Howard, Donovan, Altidore and Dempsey.)
The American men’s soccer team will play Wales on Monday in the World Cup, which comes around every four years.
(The four-year gap is part of the charm of soccer, although the assorted reprobates who run world soccer hallucinate about a more frequent World Cup.)
For the fast-growing multitude of Americans who love and understand soccer, the common wisdom used to be that as more young American prospects gravitated to the fast leagues of Europe, the U.S. national team would become a powerhouse.
But right now, I’m not sure about 2022.
As a witness to the great goal by Paul Caligiuri in Trinidad in 1989 that put the U.S. in the 1990 World Cup to the bravo defense by goalkeeper Tim Howard in the gallant loss to powerful Belgium in 2014, I saw a quarter century of mostly progress.
National soccer teams are essentially all-star teams, recalled from clubs that provide large salaries and top-level experience. The best players are called up to the national squads, trying to shrug off jet lag and over-exertion in brutal club schedules. (Think of world soccer as an incessant giant hamster wheel.)
The evidence of the past two years of qualifying matches is that the young American male players have been banged up in club play, and when put together they do not display enough stamina, cohesion and smarts.
This was evident in the qualifying tournament for the 2018 World Cup, when all that American effort and money and talent came to a screaming halt. After six straight qualifications in the main World Cup, the U.S. was reduced to a raggle-taggle group of boy soldiers, sent into battle over their heads against regional opponents, ultimately pounding the scruffy turf in frustration after the loss in Trinidad.
(Stuff happens. Italy – the Azzurri – four-time champions – will not be in Qatar, much to the mortification of the Italian tifosi including me.)
The Americans did get through this time, but with a revolving roster of flashes and hopefuls, riddled by injuries, without a scintilla of consistency during the qualifying. Canada had a better cohesive team during qualifying.
I don’t necessarily think any of this is the fault of Gregg Berhalter, the American coach, a fit and modern lifer who was almost a hero in the 2002 World Cup, except that a German defender managed to drop his arm in position to stop Berhalter’s up-close shot.
Berhalter knows the game but he is banking on players who should be nearing the peak of their careers, like Christian Pulisic, who has not been getting enough time, on a fast Chelsea team.
This accumulation of injuries and benchings and transfers lead to my conclusion that the best days of American soccer just might be – I hate to say this -- In the past.
This nostalgia may sound familiar to New Yorkers, in particular -- Mets fans talking about Ron Swoboda’s catch in 1969 or Mookie Wilson’s glorious little dribbler in 1986, or Jets’ fans living off legends of Broadway Joe Namath winning the third Super Bowl back in, for goodness’ sakes, Super Bowl III in 1969.
Soccer glory days include the goal by Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian national in looser eligibility times, helping the U.S. beat England – England! – in the 1950 World Cup.
Then, after nine straight absences from the World Cup, the U.S. began a string of success, starting with a thumping shot by Caligiuri, one of the first Americans to get experience in Europe. But from 1989 through 2014, there were glorious moments.
1990, Italy - The U.S. played two stinkers, but in Rome, they almost beat Italy, except that Peter Vermes’ shot plunked off the Italian keeper’s posterior.
1994, USA – The Yanks qualified for the shootout round, but Tab Ramos had his eye socket fractured by a cheap-shot elbow, during a loss to Brazil.
1998, France– A total stinker, from coach to players. Don’t ask.
2002, South Korea – In the shootout round, the Yanks took apart Mexico -- dos a cero, now a legendary score in that rivalry – engineered by Manager Bruce Arena and wily midfielder Claudio Reyna.
2006, Germany -- Blood and three red cards and one of the best games ever by keeper Kasey Keller, in a draw with Italy.
2010, South Africa – Maybe the best single play ever in the U.S, modern era: Needing a goal to get past wily Algeria, the U.S. launched a desperate fast break, by some of the greatest players ever to represent the U.S. – keeper Tim Howard pitching out to Landon Donovan who dribbled and release a Maradona-esque pass to Jozy Altidore who centered the ball to Clint Dempsey, who banged a shot to the keeper, who deflected the shot to Donovan, who put in the rebound and set off the raucous dogpile on the field.
2014--- Tim Howard nearly beat Germany and Belgium, two of the best teams in the world.
However, in 2018, the Yanks were clueless in the qualifying round, and happy talk commenced about the future.
With all due respect, nobody on this team has done anything on the scope of a couple of dozen American stars of the golden quarter century, like Cobi Jones or Brian McBride or Eddie Pope, just to drop a few more stalwarts.
One strength of the glory years was goalkeeping, a position dependent on athletic prowess, size and wingspan. Tony Meola had baseball offers, Kasey Keller had the fluid swagger of a shortstop or a tennis champ, Brad Friedel had an open offer to walk on to the great UCLA basketball squads, and Tim Howard was a known dunker in high school hoops in New Jersey. This year’s trio does not remind me of any of them.
The field players are full of brilliance – but more potential than current. Pulisic carves up regional foes in qualifying but has been shunted in the best league in the world. Gio Reyna, injured much of this past season, has the most exquisite moves on the squad, a bit flashier than his dad, Claudio, who held the glory generation together. Another son-of is Tim Weah, whose father is George Weah, the greatest Liberian player, who never got to the World Cup, now the president of Liberia.
Two top midfielders are Weston McKennie (Juventus, Italy) and Tyler Adams (Leeds, England). I enjoy watching Antonee Robinson (Fulham, England) a left back who was born and raised in Everton, England, and knows how to romp downfield. I also like Walker Zimmerman, from Major League Soccer, as a tall, rugged enforcer in the back.
Two more names -- Brenden Aaronsen, a midfielder from Leeds, arms flying like a human windmill, a born disrupter, and in the midfield, and Kellyn Acosta, a veteran midfielder from the MLS, with a feel for unobtrusive aggression.
Many players on the current American squad have more potential than the median of past U.S. World Cup squads. But as for the demands of this quadrennial spectacle, the most popular sports event in the world, this team has not done anything, yet.
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FOOTNOTE FROM THE GREAT ROGER BENNETT, OF "MEN IN BLAZERS:"
One quick note: There is a lot of discussion about how we should not worry about this tournament because our squad is designed to peak in 2026. I want to go on the record and say just how much I hate that. World Cups come every four years. They are all too rare to waste. This is not an NFL team where you control draft picks, player development, and salary cap room. World Football is unpredictable. Injuries and form are uncontrollable. The World Cup is a gift. All of us are only gifted a handful of them in our lives. You go hard. You go now. Or you go home. Never write one off. Make memories while you can. Take nothing for granted. Savor every bloody second.
(ALWAYS LISTEN TO ROGER--GV)
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.