With great fear and trembling – no, this is not about the Republican primaries – I watched the American soccer team play Guatemala Tuesday night.
The Yanks had to win – 3 points in the standings – to retain hope of qualifying for the dreaded Hex, the final six-team round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
I love the queasy feeling before U.S. qualifying matches – like I used to feel watching the Sopranos, knowing something horrible was going to happen before the hour was up.
What is wrong with American soccer? The reputable ESPN commentators were working over that perennial question in the pre-game.
I could tell them – the youth programs, aimed at affluent families, with Coach standing on the sideline yelling, “Don’t get fancy, just pass the ball.” Kids get the improvisation drilled out of their psyches before puberty, leaving Latinos, playing for love, in a field, on their day off, making Ronaldo and Messi and Drogba moves. That’s what’s wrong.
For all that, the U.S. is not doing badly, having qualified for seven consecutive World Cups, the seventh longest active streak. However, the Yanks had lost, 2-0, in Guatemala four nights earlier, raising the specter of the pitiful giant, being tormented.
How can the U.S. lose in Guatemala, my basketball and baseball pals ask. Easy. Everything is different, on the road, in any continent. Even with the gonifs who run FIFA, there is realistic suspense, knowing that strange things happen on their own, no help needed from fixers.
Still, because we are relatively new to this sport, we act as if we are the only nation to get the staggers. It’s a wonder anybody qualifies.
I was in Milan on a dank night in November of 1993, when Italy needed at least a draw with Portugal to qualify for the World Cup in the Stati Uniti. The ansia was as thick as the marshy miasma as Italy staggered in a scoreless match, until the 83rd minute when Dino Baggio put in a deflection. Addio, ansia.
Wise Kasey Keller kept referring to some USA revivals Tuesday evening, but the main theme seemed to be that Our Lads just cannot play, and besides, Juergen Klinsmann cannot put players in the right positions to win. There he went,juggling keepers, bringing in Zusi from off the squad. Whacky Juergen.
Gloom and doom lasted all of 12 minutes until Clint Dempsey, playing the role of Dino Baggio in this performance, pounced on a ball and found a corner of the net.
Cross-sport note: My long-time pal, Stanley the Rebounder, was watching in his home, and decided that Dempsey had the hard eyes of a schoolyard basketball shark. True. Clint plays like a poor boy. May his tribe increase.
The U.S. clobbered Guatemala, 4-0, and is now in great shape, at least until the U.S. falters in the Copa America Centenario this summer, or stumbles at St.Vincent-Grenadines in early September. That could happen. But for the moment, our national sense of entitlement is fulfilled.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.