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U.S. Soccer On The Bubble

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1950: The Tibetan army was being destroyed by Chinese forces in the “peaceful liberation of Tibet,” and Korea, World War II spoils split between the Soviet Union and the United States, went to war against itself. Senator Joseph McCarthy, in a speech to the Republican Women's Club, said the U.S. Department of State had been infiltrated by Communists, and Albert Einstein was warning anyone who would listen that nuclear war could lead to mutual destruction.

Salvatore Giuliano, the Sicilian Robin Hood, lay dying from police bullets and an informer, and leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement, Albizu Campos, was sentenced to 80 years in a U.S. prison.

Pablo Neruda’s Canto General was being published, Antoine Dominique "Fats" Domino’s "Fat Man" became the first rock and roll song to sell over a million copies, and the United States had one of their greatest victories when a black Haitian named Joe (Larry) Gaetjens scored a header to defeat England in one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.

The defeat represented a seismic shift in the world of soccer. The first World Cup was held in 1930 but the British didn’t participate until 1950, thinking such games were beneath them. They had invented the game, after all. By the time they decided to end their self-imposed isolation they were behind the world in skill and tactics and went home early while Uruguay went on to defeat Brazil. Sixty years (and one World Cup championship) later, England is still trying to prove itself as the birthplace and royalty of the world’s most popular sport.

As for one of its former colonies, if there is one trait that crosses every demarcation of diversity in the United States it’s an innate hatred of losing. Coming in second is considered “first loser” and patience is a virtue as long as it can be had immediately. A lot of soccer has been played since the U.S. defeated the English but that victory has not been equaled and while the people of the U.S. will get behind any winner, losing to Europeans is especially humiliating. On June 12 the U.S. Men’s National Team will take on England in Rustenberg, South Africa and they will find out just how far they’ve come in the world’s game.

The stage is set. The U.S. must have a good showing. They finished top of the qualifying tournament, beating out rivals Mexico to get better seeding in the World Cup. This successful qualification guaranteed the sixth consecutive World Cup for the U.S. team. England, France, and Holland cannot match that achievement. And they now know they can play with the biggest of teams. It was in South Africa, at the Confederations Cup last summer, that they defeated the then No. 1 team in the world, Spain, and lost 3-2 to Brazil, the current No. 1. Nothing to be ashamed of there.

And how they’ve reached that level tells the story of the team. As Chivas midfielder Gonzalo Pinda said, what the U.S. has achieved with its talent base makes the accomplishments of the U.S. team all the greater. Mexico has players who are playing at the highest levels of competition in the greatest teams. Not so for Team U.S.A. And they won’t have players at that level until the money is there to draw exceptional athletes from the other sports. Instead, the U.S. has an exceptional team ethic, they think tactically and change according to their opponents, they are outstanding athletes and they are relentless. Getting a great group draw has only boosted their chances.

A bunch of ping-pong balls bounced and danced and landed in pots, putting the U.S. with England, Algeria, and Slovenia in Group C. A better draw could hardly have been planned. The U.S. get a high-profile match against England to start things off. With more American citizens possessing tickets to the tournament than any other nation except South Africa and with experience playing in South Africa, the U.S. are going into this game with distinct advantages.

The U.S. next play Slovenia, a team that upset Russia to claim a spot in their second World Cup. They lost all three games in 2002 and were out but their style is Balkan and they are technically good. This is an important game for the U.S. as three points here puts them in good standing going into their next game which is against Algeria. Having defeated the always-tough Egypt to qualify, Algeria will be full of confidence and as an unknown quantity, could present problems. But Bob Bradley, the U.S. coach, will have studied Algeria and his  men will be prepared.

The top two teams move forward, with three points for a win, one for a tie, and zero for a loss. An important strategy in tournaments such as the World Cup is the ability to limit the advantage your opponents can take. Even if you are not playing well and you cannot win all three points, if you can prevent the opposition from taking them all then you can stay close. This is anathema to the way the average U.S. citizen thinks but it is the strategy of a realist to grind a game down to a dull tie with the aim of moving forward to the next round. If the U.S. succeeds in moving to the Round of 16 they will meet one of the top two teams from Group D, most likely Germany or Serbia.

It’s been a very emotional 12 months for the U.S. team, defeating Spain, leading Brazil 2-0 at half-time to lose 3-2, Landon Donovan playing top-flight ball in England and their teammate Charlie Davies being in a car crash that killed the passenger and left Davies with a broken tibia and femur among other injuries. Charlie has been making a remarkable recovery and plans to be wearing the U.S. shirt in South Africa and the U.S. will need him and everyone else to perform at the highest level if they are to meet the expectations of the U.S. and not retreat into the stereotype of the past.

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About Earl G. Lundquist

  • http://runningbowline.com Chris Bancells

    Nice write-up, Earl. Seems to me the U.S. can definitely get through the group stages. Beyond that? Who knows? With the right draw, we could see the quarters. If we get Brazil or Spain early, well… But that’s why they play the games. Come on you Yanks!

  • Cathy

    I can’t wait to see the US go up against england once again come june. Football, or soccer rather, has come a long way in the United States. Hopefully this sport will soon be in its rightful place among the hearts and minds of Americans. The biggest sport in the world deserves to be loved by the most powerful country on earth.

  • CACuzcatlan

    Quick correction, Gaetjens was not black. He was white of Germany descent.