As a certified lefty historian, I am well aware of the damage wrought by nationalism, and in almost all areas of my life I abhor the elevation of the group over the common bonds of humanity.
But not when it comes to soccer.
The confluence of my own past with the sport, America’s historic mediocrity on the pitch, and my religious conviction that sport fandom not only justifies but in fact requires a certain level of irrationality make me pull deeply for the Yanks.
We’re in our sixth straight World Cup after missing them for 40 years. Here’s a brief review of the past five performances.
The US qualified for the 1990 World Cup on this goal by Paul Caligiuri at Trinidad & Tobago:
They showed up in Italy with the youngest squad in the tournament, consisting almost entirely of recent college players. They lost all three games: 5-1 to Czechoslovakia, 1-0 to Italy, and 2-1 to Austria. The achievement of this tournament was merely reaching it, though the US did show well against Italy, and would have tied the game had Walter Zenga not stopped a Peter Vermes blast with his rear end.
The US qualified as hosts of the 1994 World Cup, and I was lucky enough to see them play Switzerland in their opening match, which they tied 1-1 thanks to this goal by Eric Wynalda:
In the second game, the US faced Colombia, who were fashionable picks that year to make a deep run behind Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla. The US shocked Los Cafeteros, behind this fateful own goal by Andrés Escobar (which led to his murder two weeks later):
And then this beauty of a game winner by Earnie Stewart:
The US slipped into the second round after losing their third match to Romania, and was rewarded with a match against mighty Brazil on July 4. Despite the fact that Brazil played the second half with ten men after Leonardo fractured Tab Ramos’ skull with this nasty elbow —
— the US couldn’t overcome Bebeto’s second half tally and the Brazilian ball control, and fell to the eventual champions.
Getting out of the first round was unquestionable progress.
Any progress made in 1994 was returned in 1998 when the US stunk up France worse than the most aged blue cheese. The team entered the tournament in total disarray, and suffered resounding defeats to Germany, Iran, and Yugoslovia. It’s recently come out that John Harkes, who then national team coach Steve Sampson had recently named “Captain for Life,” had been stripped of his captaincy and dismissed from the team for (allegedly) sleeping with a teammate’s wife. This no doubt contributed to the Yanks’ miserable performance on the field, and one can only hope that the similar controversy that recently emerged from within the English side has a deadening effect on the British legs. The effort against Germany was especially troubling, as the usually plucky Americans caved to the physical assertiveness of their opponents.
The 2002 World Cup was the high point of American soccer. After the dismal performance of 1998, few expected the US to get out of a group that featured the host country, the Korea Republic, a tough team from Poland, and Portugal, who had Luís Figo, the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, and a was a team chosen by many to break through to the late stages. The US faced Portugal in their opening game (which I watched at 7 am ET), and came out confident and aggressive and with nothing to lose. They scored three goals in the first half (one was an own goal), and held on in the second for a shocking 3-2 victory.
After tying Korea (on this Clint Mathis goal):
and then losing to Poland, the US emerged from its group to face arch rival Mexico in the Round of 16: the biggest match the country has ever played. This one was a 4:30 am ET start time, and the US dominated and forced the Mexicans to completely unravel at the end of the game (Rafael Marquez’s hit on Cobi Jones was just as dirty as the Leonardo elbow to Tab Ramos in 1994).
The reward for beating Mexico was a matchup with Germany in the quarterfinals, the same German team that had pushed around the Americans four years earlier. Claudio Reyna, who at that point had enjoyed more success as a professional in Europe than any other American player (and who carried the nickname “Captain America”), had been especially abused by strongman Jens Jeremies in 1998. But on this day he was the best player on the field, and the US got the better of play through most of the game. The refs missed a blatant German handball on the goaline, and the US couldn’t ultimately punch home a goal.
This was a remarkable showing, and indicated to the world that American soccer was indeed capable of a world class performance. The run in 2002 set a new standard for the US side.
The 2006 World Cup greeted the Americans with high expectations, but an extremely difficult draw: Czech Republic, Italy, and the top African side, Ghana. The US came out flat in their first match, falling to the Czech Republic 3-0, before showing brilliantly and confidently against Italy in a physical 1-1 tie in which two Americans (against one Italian) were ejected. Again, the US benefited from an own goal, the only score the Italians would concede on their march to the final. Needing a victory in their final group match against Ghana to advance, the US fell to Ghana 2-1, victims of the Ghanian’s speed and a horrid penalty call in the first half injury time.
That the US failure to advance from this difficult group was seen as a disappointment showed how far American soccer had evolved since 1990. You want to enter your third match of the group stage with a shot to advance, and the US has done that the past two World Cups– although they’ve lost both games!
As the US preps for Saturday’s match with England, expectations are extremely high. Given the US’s experience — including a victory over a full-strength Spanish side and a near upset of Brazil at last year’s Confederation’s Cup — there’s simply no excuse for them to fail to advance from a group that includes England, Slovenia, and Algeria. If history is any indication, however, the US could struggle with this group. They haven’t beaten England since 1950, and always have a tough time with big Eastern European sides (see losses to the Czechs, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia). Slovenia is less experienced and talented than each of those sides, and the US is much more poised than in the past, so they should pull out a victory or at least earn a tie. They’ll be in good shape if they go into the final group match against Algeria with 3 points, and they’d be in great shape if they can get a draw against England in the first game and a win over Slovenia. The US has historically played one great match, one mediocre one, and a stinker in the group stages. Where those efforts are located will make all the difference in the world this year.
The US team has significant questions on the pitch. In previous years, central defense has been a strength, showcasing American toughness, size and poise with Eddie Pope and Oguchi Onyewu. Gooch is just returning from a knee injury, and hasn’t played 90 minutes in nearly 8 months. The other two center backs are the tough-but-slow Jay DeMerit (who tends to play too far off the ball in the defensive third) and the untested Clarence Goodson (who’s good in the air but not nearly as physical as what this position calls for). This could spell trouble for a side that likes to play compact defensively and spring counter attacks. Wing defenders (Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Spector, and Steve Cherundolo) are solid but again, slow. Head coach Bob Bradley loves Jonathan Bornstein, who has speed but lacks the size and toughness to compete at this level. We may see him as a situational substitute.
The strength of the current US team is in its midfield, and there’s more talent than can fit on the pitch. Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan are sure to be in the starting eleven. Bradley generally plays a 4-4-2 lineup, and though he’s tried to play Dempsey up front with Jozy Altidore, he’s indicated he’d like to play two true forwards (it’s looking that the second will be Edson Buddle, who comes in to the tournament in great goal scoring form). So, the big question is, who will be the fourth midfielder? Ricardo Clark has gotten most of the time there in tune up matches, but hasn’t particularly impressed; I’d prefer to see Maurice Edu, who tackles just as hard as Clark but is more solid with the ball (and also has a nose for the goal). The other midfielders — Stuart Holden, José Francisco Torres, and DaMarcus Beasley are capable substitutes, and can each go a full 90 if needed. I hope we don’t see Benny Feilhaber in a game; although he’s got the ability to possess the ball, he consistently disappears from matches and is a horrid defender. Up front, expect to see Herculez Gomez as a late game substitute if the US needs a goal, and Robbie Findley if the US feels it needs to exploit a speed advantage. Tim Howard will man the goal, and will both make the spectacular save and do his best to keep the rag-tag back line organized.
The World Cup is one day away, and we’re two days from what promises to be an epic US match against England. Let’s get the party started!