Bottom Line: It wasn't good enough.
Twenty years ago, we were content just to make it to the World Cup. But expectations are higher now. Multiple generations of US players have grown up playing the sport, and it feels like we've been knocking on the door of World Cup legitimacy for too long. Here's a brief recap of our World Cup history:
- 1930: Finished 3rd in the inaugural tournament -- our best finish ever. Never mind the rest of the world was mired in poverty, famine and intermission between two world wars. We'll take it.
- 1950: Memorable only for the US defeat of England 1-0 -- the "shot heard round the world" (except in the US). A big deal in England. Largely un-noticed here since ESPN 8 "The Ocho" did not exist yet.
- 1950-1990: Sloppy journalism and poor record-keeping cause the US to think "Football" is a game played with helmets and pads… and your hands. Soccer is born. The rest of the world doesn't care.
- 1990: First US appearance at the World Cup in 40 years. Immediately eliminated with losses in all three games to Czechoslovakia, Italy and Austria. For years after, Czechoslovakian children burst into laughter at the mere utterance of the words "American soccer."
- 1994: Redeem ourselves for being selected as host country for the 1994 World Cup with several wins leading up to the tournament (i.e. we probably would have qualified even if we hadn't gotten the sympathy pass as host). Fueled by home-field patriotism and a desire to trigger drug-related assassinations, the US advanced to the knock-out round for the first time since 1930, with a tie against Switzerland 1–1, victory over Colombia 2–1 (sorry Andrés Escobar), and a loss to Romania 0-1. The US went on to put up a decent fight in a 1-0 loss to eventual champion, Brazil. Overall, a very respectable World Cup. Maybe we are good at this sport after all.
- 1998: Crapped the bed with three straight losses in group stage. In what was then known as the "I'll take famous dictatorships for $200" group, we lost to Germany 0–2 (could happen to anyone), lost to Iran 1–2 (whose team, it was later discovered, was unable to practice because every sports field in the entire country was in use to stash weapons-grade plutonium), and lost 0–1 to Yugoslavia (were they even still a country then?). The US finished a humiliating 32nd… of 32. Not so good.
- 2002: Our best outing since the Great Depression. Defeated Portugal 3–2, tied South Korea 1–1, and lost to Poland 1-3 in group play. Advanced to knockout round, where we beat Mexico 2–0. We then lost to Germany in the quarterfinals 0-1, who went on to lose in the championship game against Brazil. Re-calibrated the bar for future World Cup expectations.
- 2006: Big disappointment. Kicked things off with a 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic (who were still laughing since 1990, and beat us with only half their country). Then teased us with a tie against Italy 1-1 before being ousted in a 1-2 loss to Ghana 1-2. Sound familiar?
World Cup 2010
Expectations leading up to the 2010 World Cup were high. In the 2009 Confederations Cup the US team defeated Spain 2-0 (then #1 in FIFA rankings), and made it to the final game which it lost 2-3 to Brazil. The US then proceeded to win its World Cup qualification bracket at CONCACAF, with victories over Mexico 2-0 and Honduras 2-1. The US drew one of the easiest groups in the World Cup -- surely we'd defeat Slovenia and Algeria and advance along with England to the round of 16. Although US coach, Bob Bradley, and his players were not overly vocal about it, advancing out of group play was a minimum expectation, not an achievement. As Alexi Lalas observed, elimination in group play would have been a major failure. (By the way, is it just me, or did Alexi Lalas the player seem a hell of a lot cooler than Alexi Lalas the commentator??)
As it turned out, that major failure was one minute away before Landon Donovan saved our asses. As glorious and memorable as that goal was, getting eliminated against Ghana was painful. The same factors that cost us that game were prevalent throughout the first-round games:
- Giving up goals early -- the US gave up a goal 5 minutes into the Ghana game, and 3 minutes into the overtime period. The entire tournament, it was as if they needed to be behind to be motivated. In fact, apart from the last minute of the third game, the US never led a match in this World Cup. At the end, there were only so many come-from-behind miracles the US could pull out.
- Poor ball movement -- apart from Donovan, our midfield play was shaky at times. They just didn't control the ball well, move it authoritatively, or set up viable plays. Too many balls were stereotypically kicked forward as a long ball, rather than methodically worked forward as the best teams do.
- Inability to finish -- we had plenty of chances, but just could not convert. We have not had a goal scored by a forward in two World Cups. You only get so many chances at this level, and you need to take advantage of them.
The first place finish in group play had the US poised for a deep run in the tournament. Ghana was no push-over but a hell of a lot easier than Germany. Had we won, only Uruguay would have stood between us and the semi-finals. This was an opportunity missed -- rarely will there be an easier path to the semi-finals. US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati admitted the team did not meet his expectations. "The problem is that our expectations have risen pretty sharply and there have been some performances where we didn't play as well as we would have liked," said Gulati. Bob Bradley's job is likely in jeopardy. Bradley himself acknowledged he was "very disappointed" with the team's outcome.
Where do we go from here?
The sad thing is I'm not really sure how the US makes it to the next level. What would you do if you were Gulati?
- Fire the coach -- I'm not sure Bradley really is the problem. Granted, his starting roster in the Ghana game was not the best idea ("you never change a winning side" was the critique), but there were no obvious gaffes. There's been talk of bringing on an international coach with World Cup experience, former German star player and coach Juergen Klinsmann being most frequently named. But do we really want a German coach? I think there's something to the motivation of national pride that only an American coach could conjure up. As Gulati said, "Having someone who understands the mentality of Americans and American players is a plus. I don't think there's any doubt about that. On the other side of that, it's also a plus to have played in a World Cup final and coached in a World Cup final, and we don't have anyone that fits that in the United States."
- Improve player training -- unfortunately, this almost necessitates playing abroad. It's like international basketball players who have to play in the NBA. We just don't have the level of competition here that EPL and other top leagues have. But that, of course, creates a viscious cycle -- US players play abroad, US fans don't see them play, MLS teams are inferior, nobody cares when World Cup comes around, etc.
- Focus on player development -- seems like we've been doing this for over 20 years. Go to any suburb anywhere in the US and you can see how ubiquitous the sport has become. Are there really not enough quality athletes taking up soccer out of a 300-milion-plus population that we can't field 11 quality guys? Or, as Klinsmann suggested in his post-game analysis, is it that we aren't recruiting the right kids into the sport? Is soccer too much of an upper-class game in the US with players who aren't hungry enough, while the best athletes from lower-income families go into basketball and football. Regardless, this option doesn't fix a team in 4 years.
Preparing for Brazil 2014
To be competitive in Brazil in 2014, we need dramatic improvement in a few key areas. Here's my breakdown by position:
Keeper: Tim Howard played well throughout the tournament and is a leader for the entire defense. He'll be 35 in the next World Cup, but, if he comes back, he's a legitimate World Cup calibre player.
Defense: Clearly a major priority for improvement. The defense seemed wobbly all tournament, and their best starters, Bocanegra, Cherundolo, and DeMerit are all in their early 30s. Oguchi Onyewu was supposed to be a big-time player, but he gave up two goals in the Slovenia game and didn't start again after that. Hopefully, he returns fully from his injury to contribute to the next Cup. There are a handful of up-and-coming defensemen, including Jonathan Spector (who's just 24 and plays for West Ham in EPL) Clarence Goodson (who plays for IK Start in Norway), Chad Marshall (who has won consecutive MLS defensive player of the year awards with the Colombus Crew), and Omar Gonzalez (who won MLS Rookie of the Year in 2009 for the Los Angeles Galaxy). There's some good raw talent here that can, hopefully, be crafted into a solid back line by 2014.
Midfield: Probably the strongest group on the current US roster. All five US goals at this World Cup were scored by midfielders: three by Donovan, one by Dempsey and one by Bradley. Both Donovan and Dempsey will be in their early 30s in 2014, but both should be back. Bradley is just 22 and, accusations of nepotism aside, showed great potential and gained tremendous experience in this year's World Cup. We also saw outstanding play from Benny Feilhaber (25) and Maurice Edu (24), who should be able to augment this crew in 2014.
Forward: Feels weak. There have been no goals from US forwards in the World Cup since 2002. Jozy Altidore seemed promising and he is still only 20, but he just didn't come on as much as we'd hoped. He didn't seem to have the skills to get the ball down and finish. Robbie Findley showed nothing, and Herculez Gomez, apart from a few powerful but off-target shots, showed little as well. And there don't seem to be as many promising up-and-coming players at the forward position.
For an excellent analysis of the US team's needs see this article.
As discouraged as I feel right now, perhaps we're not as far away as I think. The reality is the US is a competitive squad, and, were it for a few lucky breaks, we could easily still be in it right now. If we can just improve a bit in a few key areas, maybe we'll finally be able to break that upper echelon of the world's sport. The US has a shot at hosting the 2018 or 2022 World Cup. Maybe that will be the catalyst to finally bring home the trophy that will cement soccer's... sorry, football's place in the hearts of American sports fans.