( 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.
4/1/2022 10:29:55 pm
Thanks GV. It is nice to have a few moments break from the pain and sorrow. May this end soon.
4/2/2022 07:59:57 am
Ed: Mexico is in a down phase -- not Tata's fault, although he will be blamed.
4/3/2022 03:32:35 pm
4/3/2022 11:18:56 am
4/3/2022 01:20:38 pm
Bruce, with regard to your last sentence. I blame Hillary, liberals, and women’s soccer.
4/3/2022 03:32:43 pm
ed...ah. the usual suspects. bruce
4/1/2022 11:18:22 pm
The Qatar WC discussions are a welcome relief from political events. As important as all the. Soccer news and speculation is, I am reminded of Boston’s Saturday sports program, It’s Only a Game.
4/2/2022 12:38:33 am
I recall a piece of creative nonfiction writing about the goal v Algeria likening Timmy to an American football quarterback - was the "hands" theory mentioned? It was a good, fun piece, but I don't recall where to find it.
4/2/2022 07:51:20 am
4/2/2022 08:49:52 am
That's the one! Thank you.
4/2/2022 01:31:02 am
The most memorable photograph I took at the USA-Iran match in 1998 in Lyon was of an inconsolable Claudio Reyna. All the players of both teams were already in their dressing rooms and the stadium was nearly empty. But Claudio was still sitting on the US bench, in tears, head in hands. Claudia had played his heart out, and lost the "big match". He played in many other big games, for club and country, but that one surely will always hurt. The current group is talented-probably more so than the '98 crew-but they are not yet a "team". I don't know anything about the current Iran team. But they qualified without difficulty. I fear the next USA-Iran game-sure to be even more overhyped than the last one-may end up the same way. Given the lack of much time for national teams to prepare, due to the Qatar World Cup's being wedged into the middle of the European season. The World Cup kicks off only nine days after the last game of the English Premier League is played before the break. I question whether Berhalter will be able to create a cohesive team out this group in time. And who knows what injuries key players might be dealing with by the middle of November.
4/2/2022 08:12:19 am
Ciao, John. You've been everywhere, man. I've never seen your Claudio photo. (hint, hint). That 1998 WC was a disaster...we all know the details....I never did see Claudio on the bench. We reporters clustered for the precious pass to the hideous Mixed Zone so we could try to question the shaken Yanks. (You missed my Ugly American rant when the FIFA foofs were slow to produce the right pass; as I was, most of the guys walked right past us.) PS: Claudio was back in 2002 for that epic dos-a-cero in Korea, best game I ever saw him play with US.
4/2/2022 07:24:21 am
Spot on about goalkeeping and striker. I think Turner has earned the number 1, not a fan of Steffan at all. He needs to get to a team where he plays regularly, he always plays rusty. I would just put one of our good midfielders in the striker role, think it would provide more dividends then anybody we have there now. Dempsey used to play that for us sometimes even though it wasnt his natural position and did fine.
4/2/2022 08:05:45 am
Alan-the-old-Keeper and Chris: Thanks for your wise comments. I could have added that Turner has also been down, and may claim No. 1 soon. I like Chris' phrase "plays rusty." He also took a bad fall in he previous match and never looked spry again. The four keepers I praised were all superior athletes -- Meola turned down baseball offers, Friedel was offered a walk-on by UCLA basketball, and Howard was a dunker in high school. (Keller would have been a terrific shortstop.) Keeper is the one position where American athleticism (and hands) has predominated. Not so confident right now., GV
4/2/2022 08:47:34 am
What a great video of Donovan’s goal!! It brought me back to where and with who when I was watching. And thanks for your article link. Great to see you writing about football (it was your ‘82 articles from Spain that first grabbed me …). Qatar is a drag but I’ll mostly look the other way and enjoy. Thanks George.
4/2/2022 01:21:02 pm
George: World Cup without Italy is like an Italian dinner without red wine. Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, France, and Uruguay (the first to win a WC), make the competition exciting because of the rivalry.
Mike from NW Queens
4/2/2022 07:09:44 pm
¡muchos gracias Jorge for the footy primer! I appreciate your insight and more. I hope the Yanks are headed in the right direction.
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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.