Overhyped, overrated and over here, USA find Europe hard to conquer
THE United States football squad arrived in Germany in determined mood. They knew their task was as simple, to gain the respect of the European soccer establishment. The Americans knew only too well that European football followers do not view the US as the emerging power it so very earnestly hopes to be. The Americans also knew that their fifth place in the FIFA rankings was universally ridiculed.
They were all too aware that few people in Europe expected Bruce Arena's squad to come close to equalling their 2002 achievement when they reached the quarter-finals. The truth was that the United States had never performed in Europe. Not when it counted. Respect and, perhaps, just a little bit of love was what they wanted.
Then they took the field. And everything fell apart. A bafflingly lethargic performance against an admittedly impressive Czech Republic side resulted in a comprehensive 3-0 drubbing and complaints from sports fans on the western side of the Atlantic: ''We waited four years for that?' Where was the game plan? Where was the passion? What was going on here?'
Asked what needed to be improved before the US play Italy today, Landon Donovan, the LA Galaxy midfielder from whom so little had been delivered after so much expectation, was blunt: "Everything."
Though soccer aficionados always knew that a group containing the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana would be more than challenging and that a repeat of 2002's heroics was less than likely, the great mass of the American sporting public was not so prepared for potential disappointment. FIFA's rankings, impenetrable and preposterous to football insiders, sold the idea to the sport's new American audience that the US was a superpower on the brink of glory, waiting for its moment to assume its rightful place amongst the world's great powers.
This, alas, was exacerbated by ESPN's promotional campaign boasting that this was the greatest American side ever to depart Uncle Sam's shores. Even if true this was still an assurance that, like so much advertising, promised more than it could reasonably be expected to deliver.
So when the Czechs cashed in, thanks to American sloppiness, the headline writers felt free to lament the 'embarrassment' of this 'reality Czech'. Writing in the New York Times, columnist George Vecsey should have known better than to simultaneously repeat the FIFA rankings canard while suggesting that the US was unfit to play with the big boys. The pace of Czech's play produced "the effect of somebody speeding up the treadmill in the gym when you are not looking. This is what happened to the fifth-ranked team in the world yesterday. It flew off the treadmill".
That is an over-reaction. The US were never world-beaters but nor are they now hopeless and hapless. They are what they were a week ago: a decent, well-organised, excellently prepared team that lack the creative spark - Landon Donovan notwithstanding - that can truly unnerve more skilful opponents. With luck, they might have - and may yet - reach the knock-out stages, but few would have made them favourites to do so before the tournament started (and even fewer would now).
In 2002, the Americans defeated Portugal and drew with hosts South Korea in the group stages, beat their arch-rivals Mexico in the second round and performed creditably in defeat against Germany. No wonder expectations were high that they could wipe away the embarrassment of their last World Cup visit to Europe when they lost all three games at France '98.
Too high in fact. Though the Americans have more than matched Mexico in recent years, their only significant victories against non-CONCACAF opposition in the past two years were wins at home to Venezuela and a 4-0 whipping of Poland in March 2004. Just as significantly, the US played only three matches in Europe in the two years before the World Cup (including a 1-1 draw with Scotland at Hampden). Though Arena brought an experienced squad to Germany, they had not been tested in the furnaces of either demanding group competition or hostile enemy territory in friendly encounters.
Equally, for all that Major League Soccer is firmly established (crowds of 15,000 plus, expanding next season with a new side in Toronto, franchises selling for $75 million plus) it remains a league whose predominant style of play disdains physicality or the pacey counter-attacking style of play that so frequently thrives at international level. As a training ground for the World Cup, it leaves something to be desired.
Though television ratings for the World Cup have exceeded those for ice hockey and tennis, football will remain an upwardly mobile second-tier sport for the foreseeable future. Some 17 million Americans played soccer at least once last year, but not all of them are fans of football played by people they're not related too. MLS is here to stay and, in time, it's reasonable to suppose that the US will, with all its energy and determination, improve steadily.
Today, however, all eyes are on the Italians. There is a stubborn hopefulness about American fans today, based principally upon the belief that their team cannot play as feebly against the Italians as they did against the Czechs.
Arena put it well (before the Czech debacle), "There are no excuses. If we're not successful, we're not good enough."
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