Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Post That Will Make American Soccer Fans Mad

Friends of mine in Paris, one of whom is an officially certified soccer aficionado, have decided that they are all in on the USMNT. They're impressed with the level of teamwork and hard work, and think the Yanks have a genuine chance against Belgium.

Which, I must admit, is pretty cool. And it's also cool that the US managed to escape from THE GROUP OF DEATH (add reverb as needed) and reach the knockout round, which, I'm told, comes before the round where they dump green slime on you and then the round with the showcase showdown. I have nothing but admiration for the way in which a team that was told point-blank it was outmanned and outgunned took care of business, and it's nice to see them finally break whatever hex Ghana has cast over them for the last few World Cups.

That being said, I'm finding it hard to get too excited about the USMNT's prospects going forward, if only because a close look at how the US actually advanced is kind of sobering. Yes, we beat Ghana, drew with Portugal in a game in which we thoroughly outplayed them, and didn't get entirely spanked by Germany, but we were the beneficiaries of:

  • A historic pounding of Portugal by the Germans, that sunk them so thoroughly in a goal differential hole that they would have needed to play another six games to get out of it. The game was completely uncharacteristic of Portugal, and marked by an astonishing number of boneheaded plays.
  • A lucky escape against Ghana in a game in which the USMNT was pretty clearly outplayed and Ghana kept two of its best players on the bench until the second half.
  • A complete psychotic breakdown of the Ghanaian team right before their match with Portugal in the 3rd game, one that had they one could easily have seen them advancing instead of the US. Fortunately for the Americans, most teams' pre-game training rituals don't include threatening to quit over unpaid bonuses or going after someone with a broken bottle. So Ghana went into that crucial match suddenly down Boateng and Muntari, two of their best, and couldn't pull it off. (Muntari is the one who went after a member of the Ghanaian football association; Boateng apparently just ripped his coach a new one)
  • And a respectable loss against a German side that just needed to win to take the group, and didn't need to pour it on - always useful when you're going to goal differential as a tiebreaker.

So, with that in mind - lucky breaks, a stolen win, and a final-game loss where we took roughly zero shots on goal that still got us through, the truth becomes clear: We did not kick the door open on the knockout round. We backed in. We are, in short, the Arizona Cardinals of the World Cup.

And there's nothing wrong with that. I seem to recall the Cardinals in the Super Bowl (or, if it were described by FIFA rules, The NFL Super Bowl Of American Football) a few years back.  And I will be rooting hard for the US team against Belgium regardless. But getting too caught up in this go-round without understanding what broke right for us might convince us we're better than we are, and that way lies madness, a short-circuited program build, and the last fifteen years of the Kansas City Royals. 

I think we all want to avoid that. 

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