Monday, October 19, 2015

Whither US Soccer? Reflections on US v Ghana

This may seem like a time warp -- but I am returning to my series of removed blog posts originally written during the World Cup in 2010 for Washington Post's fan blog.  Not to be ahistorical here, but just how much have things changed under Klinsmann?

As we flew to Cape Town the day after the US match against Ghana, we read an editorial and an op-ed in a local paper, the Sunday Times, calling on South Africa to emulate the United States by using its FIFA royalties from hosting the World Cup on an ambitious soccer development program.  The editorials pointed out that the US has qualified for the finals in 1990 for the first time, and of course did not HAVE to qualify in 1994, but had used the royalties from hosting the 1994 Cup to create national development programs that enabled the US to turn itself into a regional powerhouse in men's soccer and remain a world-class country in women's soccer.

The analogy is an interesting one - obviously South Africa has a wide range of needs that are different from American ones - but this provides a good occasion to reflect on the limitations of what US soccer has accomplished.   What is shown by the US performance in this Cup, including the Ghana game, is the lack of world class players at several positions and especially the lack of depth in the team.   We have forwards who work hard but did not score a single goal.  Jozy Altidore helped create some goals but his lack of scoring reminds us why he cannot hold a starting job abroad.  And in any event he needs a consistent partner up top, the way Donovan, Mathis and others were able to partner with Brian McBride.  Charlie Davies was touted as a great hope but when his immaturity and resulting horrific injury ruled him out of the Cup we had a frantic search for a replacement that ultimately failed.  Obviously, scoring success in Mexico (Gomez) and MLS (Findley) do not translate into success at the international level.

We have reasonably good attacking midfielders, but only one consistently strong holding midfielder (at least, Bob Bradley hasn't found a single solution for a midfield mate for Michael Bradley, the way Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien were well paired during the previous decade - why oh why did inadequate foul-prone Ricardo Clark start on Saturday).  And although we have strong central defenders, most of the goals scored against the US came from essentially the same move, quickly down the center right with excellent finishing. I was thrilled when Gooch was able to parlay his strong Confederations Cup into a move to AC Milan, but he did not play there, and coupled with his injury that lack of playing meant he came to South Africa too rusty to hold a starting job; and we had no replacement for him.  Bocanegra belongs on the left, but had to play centrally, not his strength, and although DeMerit is athletic and words hard, he and Bocanegra were just not good enough in the middle on the world stage.   We don't have any more Eddie Popes; can we find one in time for the next round of World Cup Qualifying and World Cup?  And we lack consistently strong performers in right and left defense.

Even worse, where are the successors to all of these positions? Bradley, at least, did not feel that the younger players that he brought in were worthy of significant playing time.  Donovan and Dempsey, our strongest attacking options should have another WCQ and Cup in them, but it is hard to see who their successors might be.   Same for Oguchi Onyewu and maybe Bocanegra; at least Michael Bradley will be with us for two campaigns to come.  Steve Cherundolo is done (will Jordan Graye be ready for the international stage soon enough?), and Jonathan Bornstein - well, he will be available for some time but his inadequacy is apparent; at least there were no major mistakes during this Cup.

Given the exceptional numbers of young people playing soccer, and the size and resources that our country can bring to bear, it is astonishing that the United States is still not identifying the players who can take us to the next level.  It is nice to dominate among the relative minnows in CONCACAF (only Mexico challenges for leadership), but our ambitions should be higher.  So, South Africa, emulate the US's Project 2010 if you like, use your hosting to become an African power, but be cognizant of the limits - spending the money is not enough.  You need the vision that, thus far, US Soccer has lacked.

Apart from being outplayed (and apart from having to make that grueling trek to and from Rustenberg, see my blog post about US v England), we had a good time at US v Ghana.  We parked again at the Phokeng North park and ride facility from which we could walk to the stadium in a straight shot, roughly 40 minutes.  But unlike US v England, there were very few walkers, and the local populace did not turn our to cheer (were they jaded by having several intervening matches?).  We took advantage of the walking, though, to stop off at a local shabeen where there were a few Americans but mostly locals.  Sam and Joe had a good time chatting with some young men. 

I chatted with an Oregonian who has been working as a mining consultant in the Congo and South Africa.   Then into the stadium - high spirits and optimism among some well-painted Americans

There was plentiful US support in the stadium but the South Africans - white, black, Asian and others - were overwhelmingly supporting Ghana.   The national unity over Bafana Bafana seems to be translating into support for Africa generally - will this sense of unity be the Cup's most important contribution to South Africa?  The English fans who came either because they were optimistic or because their TST's made them follow the group winners, were again cheering lustily against the US (it was SO nice to see them get their come-uppance on Sunday, however unfair that refereeing gaffe may have been).   There was some reason for us to cheer when Landon scored his penalty goal

but mostly there was reason to be glum

The rest of the crowd, though, was ecstatic. 

I would rather have seen the US advance, but it is good to see Ghana go on.  If we go back to Jo'burg to use our final TST ticket, we will certainly be supporting Ghana (gotta get some South Africa shirts or jerseys to wear!).  But now that we are in Cape Town, we are pleased to be here (next blog post will compare impressions of Pretoria/Jo'burg with Cape Town) and we are thinking of blowing off our quarterfinal game (we hoped to find a way to trade our tickets for Soccer City for tickets to the July 3 Cape Town quarterfinal) and staying here for an extra couple of days.  In the end, Craig and family went to see Luis Suarez and Uruguay cheat Ghana out of a win; read in a few posts what we saw instead.

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