Friday, July 21, 2017

Reality Check: United States Men’s Soccer

By James Mundia

The Disappointment of 2010 and the Future of US Men’s Soccer

In the final weeks of June, the nation was undoubtedly captivated by the US Men’s Soccer team and their South African escapade. It was no doubt an important step forward for the sport in the this country. As Simmons noted in his recent column, it seems like we’ve been saying this for years.

From Dempsey’s unthinkable goal against England, to Donovan’s inspiring penalty kick against Ghana, this was a hard-nosed and determined US team, miles above their 2006 debacle in Germany.

ESPN had a field day with the replay of Edu’s disallowed goal, speculation about Howard’s ribs, and the coronation of Donovan after his dramatic game winner against Algeria.

Now that the World Cup experience is over for the Yanks, it’s time for a serious reality check, the kind that we’ve not really had in this nation’s World Cup history. That in and of itself is part of the problem. More on that later.

First, the second round is not good enough. The elation felt by Sam’s Army with Donovan’s game winner against Algeria was warranted, particularly considering how difficult Group C turned out to be. With that, however, the Round of 16 exit makes the incredible performances of the group stage lose some of their meaning.

There were breakout performances by Bradley (my man of the match against  Slovenia and Algeria), and good progress by Altidore.  But in our attempt to become card-carrying members of the elite soccer world, we cannot rest on the laurels of barely winning a group that was one of the easier draws in the entire World Cup, only to lose unconvincingly in the second round.

The cyclical nature of the US in the World Cup is getting to be ridiculous. After 2002 we thought we’d arrived, only to crap the bed terribly within the first 20 minutes of 2006’s opening match against the Czech Republic. And there is the temptation to think that because we won our group for the first time since 1930 that this was an acceptable performance. Don’t get it twisted, it was not.  Since the pulse of our national media isn’t as attached to our World Cup results like it is in other countries, the discussion will not be as heated regarding our early exit like it will be in England. (I’m honestly surprised Capello hasn’t been fired yet).

And it is that disparity in expectations (even when you consider the football sensationalism in the English press) that is holding back the progress of the US National team.  Those expectations, since they will not be a part of the national discussion on TV and elsewhere, have to be set by head coach and our governing soccer body, the USSF. Needless to say, the decision made about Bradley or a replacement this time around will dictate the next 20 years of progress  for National team in international competition.

Reading this article from ESPN about Sonny Gulati  does nothing to put to rest the biggest fear die-hard soccer fans have about the future: Bob Bradley staying on as coach.  This is not a personal attempt to discredit his authority and mastery of the game. Numerous accounts have been written about his hidden genius, some even calling him the “Rainman” of the sport (is that a compliment?). Deep down, US fans know that a change has to be made.

The calamity after 2006, which saw the USSF fail to solidify the final details to bring on Jurgen Klinsman is still all too fresh for Yank fans.

It’s a shame ESPN has been so schizophrenic with its studio coverage of the games. Otherwise, JK could have his chance to publicly interview with not only the die-hard fan (who should already have tons of respect from his accolades as player and coach), but also with the casual fan who will undoubtedly feel left out when the head coach discussions begin.

Sidebar:  Could you imagine the studio team for NFL Today or ESPN College Gameday changing before EVERY SINGLE GAME and sometimes at HALFTIME?!?!?  Who approved this at ESPN? I understand the rotation keeps the on-air talent fresh for their appearances, but they took it to a next level. Rotate the hosts and then just have, Klinsman, Lalas, and Macca. Done. I digress.

A coach of Klinsman’s calibre is necessary to adjust the nationwide and eventually worldwide expectations for US Soccer.  The reality of the 2010 World Cup is that with the talent we fielded and the group we drew, a Round of 16 exit is not just disappointing, its a failure. And having been there as a player and coach, Klinsman has the credibility to demand no less.

The Gulati  quotes concerning the missed opportunity to keep the team in front of American TV audiences miss the point. He sounds like an NBA owner talking about his displeasure with their teams inability to make the playoffs.  That approach isn’t going to cut it, SG.  The World Cup is a revenue generating event for ALL involved, yes, but its what happens on the field that should be your first concern. Sarkozy didn’t call Thierry Henry into his office for a special meeting (lINK) because they missed a chance to be in front of more French TV viewers, he called him in because what happened is quite literally a national embarrassment and someone needs to be held accountable. In all seriousness, if we got to that point as a soccer nation, where the freaking president (!) got involved after a bad performance, I’d rest a little bit easier.

Gulati  should be less concerned about TV ratings and working with MLS bosses and owners to ensure that the next head coach can have unlimited access to players for regional friendlies and cup competitions, apparently the main sticking point for Klinsman a few years back. Seriously? The freaking MLS was the reason we couldn’t get a proven yet up and coming international coach to take our program? Who is asleep at the wheel of this car? Oh right, Gulati .

There is an opportunity to right that wrong in the next few weeks as the opportunity to name a new coach will present itself to the Federation.  And to do that correctly, it must be a man who has proven himself, in the World Cup or at the international level as a player, coach, or both. Someone who can chance the expectations not just for the die-hard 80s babies like myself , but for the casual fan who is more interested in America doing the best it can, whatever the sport is. The comments from Simmons’ column  come to mind here.

We have the resources. The facilities. The players. The interest. Now its up to the Federation to follow through and not waste another 4 years. As hopeful as I am, I’ve been burnt before by Gulati  and company.

James Mundia is a soccer player, coach, and enthusiast based in Washington, D.C.

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