US Soccer: A Postmortem

A few of you have asked me to weigh in on the US national soccer team’s dismal performance at the World Cup. The American squad, it pains me to note, lost two games, tied one, scored only two goals (one of which was an own-goal gifted to them by the Italians), and generally stunk up the joint. In my estimation, they were among the five or six worst teams in the tournament. This after making the quarterfinals in 2002.

What went wrong?

Read this excellent post on the New York Times’s World Cup blog to find out. I agree with nearly everything here, except that in assigning blame for the US team’s dismal showing, I’d argue it had more to do with the quality of the American players in relation to our opponents than it did with US coach Bruce Arena’s tactics or the dubious penalty against Ghana that sent us crashing out.

90% of the US team’s problems involve where the players ply their trade: I love the idea of the MLS, but it ain’t doing our national team any favors. It simply isn’t good enough a league; our players aren’t improving by playing in it. When Landon Donovan, supposedly the best American talent, chooses to stay at home rather than push himself and play in Europe, then we’re in trouble.

There’s an amazingly ridiculous idea spreading through the Web at this moment. It holds that the US team’s demise can be attributed to the sport’s “suburban” roots in America — that American footballers aren’t physically tough enough to play against international competition.

In a recent New Yorker column (not online), the normally excellent Jeffrey Toobin claims that the US team last to the Czechs due to “a lack of mettle.” Completely false. We lost to them because they were better than us. Way better. More skilled, not stronger or meaner. See Zachary Roth’s scintillating takedown of Toobin’s thesis on the wonderfully informative and entertaining TNR World Cup Blog. I’m saddened to see the likes of Jason Kottke, one of my favorite bloggers, echoing this simplistic and wrong-headed sentiment. He quotes David at Hello Typepad as saying that what we need in America is better athletes playing soccer.

I agree, but his suggestion that Terrell Owens would make a good striker is simply absurd. T.O. weighs (at least) 226 pounds! Yes, he’s fast, but if there were a physical advantage to being that large and muscular — heavier than any international outfield player in the history of the beautiful game, as far as I am aware — don’t you think that would have happened by now? (I will admit that I have, in the past, argued that Allen Iverson would make a world-class goalkeeper, however.)

[Deep breaths, Newley. Deep breaths.]

Some other links you should know about:

— Yes, the US national team player Clint Dempsey — aka “Deuce” — is a rapper.

— And also: indeed, Jurgen Klinsmann may be the next US coach.

— Don’t miss the NYT’s World Cup blog on the inane ABC and ESPN US soccer broadcasters.

— Dave Eggers’s hilarious essay about soccer in America, which appeared in The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, has been posted on Slate. Read it. The best part comes at the end:

But until we do win the Cup—and we have no chance this particular time around, being tossed into the Group of Death, which will consume us quickly and utterly—soccer will receive only the grudging acknowledgement of the general populace. Then again, do we really want—or can we even conceive of—an America where soccer enjoys wide popularity or even respect? If you were soccer, the sport of kings, would you want the adulation of a people who elected Bush and Cheney, not once but twice? You would not.

— Austin Kelly has an interesting World Cup blog, though I find his argument that diving is good for football less than compelling.

— Later today: Germany takes on Argentina in the quarterfinals — just might be the match of the tournament. If you don’t watch this game, you’re dead to me.

That is all.