( US -Algeria, 2010. The Golden Age -- So Far. )
The last time we saw the American men’s soccer team, the players were trying not to lose by six goals or more at Costa Rica.
They lost by only two, which gave them license to celebrate qualifying for the World Cup, the more they thought about it. However, the tepid performance lingers in the mind, particularly during Friday’s draw for the 2022 World Cup in late November in that soccer powerhouse of Qatar.
And just before that, there was the 0-0 non-event at Mexico, in front of many “Fuera Tata,” signs, urging the firing of its manager.
With images of recent American futility, it was hard to get too worked up while watching the World Cup draw on Friday. In the three group matches, the Yanks will play England, Iran and one of three teams emerging from a goofus survivor scrum later this spring – Scotland or Wales or Ukraine.
With help from the Injury Gods or the Karma Gods or the Logic Gods, it is easy to imagine the U.S. youth of tomorrow advancing into the second round.
But….but…..but. I’ve witnessed Eight World Cups, some of them stinkers by the Americans: a sodden loss to Iran in Lyon, France, in 1998, runs replays in my mind.
And then there was the wretched 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago in the final qualifier to keep them from qualifying for the main 2018 tournament.
Then again, the U.S. has obviously developed more talent and depth in the past decade, including some with serious soccer pedigrees like Gio Reyna, whose father, Claudio, played the best international games of his life in the Americans’ stirring run to the quarterfinals in 2002.
With Claudio distributing the ball, the Americans scored one of their epic dos-a-cero victories over Mexico in 2002. And then there was the desperate full-field stampede goal from Tim Howard to Landon Donovan to Jozy Altidore to Clint Dempsey, rebound goal by Donovan to beat Algeria in 2010, and the gallant play by keeper Tim Howard in the heart-breaking loss to Belgium in 2014.
So there is some very good history for the Americans in seven consecutive World Cups from 1990 to 2014. But after the U.S. missed the 2018 World Cup, I can work myself into finding flaws with this young squad that, to its credit, survived the regional scrums to qualify:
Goalkeeper. The U.S. qualified for those World Cups behind four superb keepers: Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard, all so good they sometimes provoked controversies over which keeper to play. With all due respect to Zack Steffen, he looked slow, as if his back were still stiff, in the loss to Costa Rica. So I would suggest that position is wide open.
Striker. The best moments in the past generation came when the ball was served forward to Dempsey, Brian McBride or Donovan, who knew how to convert. The U.S. has run a vanload of strikers through the regional long march, but none of them displays the poise and position, the downright self-centeredness and nastiness, of the old lot.
Hard Man. Every squad needs an enforcer, who is willing to put a hurt on opponents even if he accumulates a yellow card now and then. I was a big fan of Jermaine Jones, German-born, with American schoolyard ferocity. Weston McKennie, out of action in the recent matches, has the temperament but he has too much skill to task him with dirty work. I’d make sure Kellyn Acosta is on the flight to Qatar; he has the disruptive “dark skills,” according to Dempsey, now in the chattering class on the TV programs.
I find no fault in Gregg Berhalter, the U.S. coach, a soccer lifer. (An unpenalized handball deflection by a German defender kept Berhalter from being a hero in the 2002 quarterfinals.) He is part of the best age of American soccer – so far. Now he will have time to blend these talented young players to see if they can reach the level of the previous generation.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.