For U.S., first place isn't good enough
Why are U.S. soccer fans so happy?
So the U.S. is back in first place in its World Cup qualifier group. Big deal. It ought to be, and in a fashion less arduous than it has subjected itself to. Lauding the U.S. men's team for its recent performances is not unlike your boss paying you a compliment for getting to work on time or successfully putting on your pants before you do. Those things are expected of you, the way winning against El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago ought to be expected of the United States.
Back in the driver's seat of their group and all but assured of a sixth straight World Cup berth, the Americans' delight is outsized relative to their actual achievement. Yes, Bob Bradley's men are winning games again, but they really aren't doing as well as the numbers suggest.
Winning the past two qualifiers was commendable. But there are six points, and then there are six points. And the U.S. team's heist was hardly unimpeachable. In the context of the opposition, these games should have been walkovers; instead, they were a 2-1 come-from-behind victory (over El Salvador) and a 1-0 win (over T&T), respectively. Both run-outs took the utmost effort to be converted into maximum points. And although games won by grit and determination can be positive signs in the process of building a contender, these glances at the future didn't inspire much confidence in the run-up to a major tournament. After a World Cup quarterfinal and Confederations Cup final in the past seven years, qualifying from this group ought to have been a breeze.
A breeze these games were not. There are very few objective measures of performance, but possession and the number of chances created are among them. The U.S. has underperformed in both. Service to forwards has been lackluster -- save for an excellent cross from Landon Donovan that Jozy Altidore converted into the winning goal against El Salvador. Possession wasn't enough to set the pace comfortably and force opposition to recede into its own half.
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In fact, if American soccer really is as far along the development curve as some deem it, qualification should have been signed, sealed and delivered in August, because the away games in Mexico and Costa Rica wouldn't have manifested themselves as insurmountable obstacles.
When reading between the lines of the group standings, worrisome conclusions impose themselves. The road win against T&T was the first in the past five away games and only the fourth point accrued on foreign soil. That means only a quarter of points were won on the road. News flash: At the World Cup, every game is an away game.
What's more, the U.S. won't play T&T or El Salvador at the World Cup, far from it. Yet this feeble CONCACAF opposition -- which the U.S. has made look better than it is -- is the only serious preparation the Americans will get, because friendlies never properly replicate the pressure of a game for all the marbles. This doesn't bode well for facing proper opponents. Having to qualify from a weak continent that offers only one serious opponent is as much an advantage, providing almost automatic qualification, as it is a burden. With the side untested, it's hard for anybody to tell what kind of shape it is in. Will it push into the later rounds of the World Cup (like in 2002 and 1994) or crash out early (2006 and 1998)? Therefore, the team needs to dominate games and not merely win them, lest it get the impression that it's doing well just because it's earning points.
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Perhaps part of the reason for our skewed perception of the national team is its inflated FIFA world ranking. When you qualify from a weak region, you'll score a lot of easy points that will lead to a bloated ranking. Is the U.S. (11th) better than Portugal (17th)? No. Mexico (24th)? Judging by the last time they squared off, no. Bosnia-Herzegovina (46th)? Most certainly not.
Perhaps some U.S. fans are pleased too easily. Perhaps the failure to see these results in a larger context is symptomatic of these inadequate performances. To elevate the U.S. national team to a higher level, the expectations of them must be higher.
Time for some introspection. This culture change must begin with the media, whose job is to scrutinize and expose inconsistencies. The U.S. Constitution says so. There's an unwritten rule that nobody can cheer in the press box at soccer games. (A memo lost on some. My ears are still ringing from incessant shouting emanating from Bosnian reporters at a Belgium-Bosnia tie I recently attended.) The majority of American media are cheering this team on in the loudest of manners, in the most ubiquitous of news outlets. Their rampant inconsistency goes without condemnation, but they have failed the people and Constitution.
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"It wasn't great, but you got the six points. Well done, fellas," we say. In big soccer countries, it would have been: "That was weak. You're lucky you came home with six points. Don't let it happen again." Some might have called for Bradley's head.
Certainly, the American media weren't hyperbolic on the back of the past two games and acknowledged that the team must achieve more within the confines of 90 minutes, but they weren't sufficiently critical, either. Altidore's promise was confused with polish. That Altidore can run with T&T isn't noteworthy. If he couldn't, he'd have no business being labeled the prospect he is. Clint Dempsey's dreadful game against T&T was mistaken for a bad day, when very clearly something was woefully amiss.
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Semantics, you might argue. Not so. This not-so-subtle difference separates a national program content to participate and one that's, forgive the hideous cliché, in it to win it. We applauded Donovan and Tim Howard for their play against El Salvador and T&T when really they were simply the only ones on the squad playing up to their usual levels. We aren't doing ourselves any favors with this glass-half-full attitude.
If the U.S. team is to truly outgrow its B-country status, as its current world ranking implies, its media and fans will have to hold it to a higher standard and evaluate it as such. Dunga was very blunt about such a standard before captaining his Brazil team to victory at the '94 World Cup. "If we don't win it, I'll be killed," he said. Such a statement wouldn't be tolerated in America, and whether Dunga meant it literally is up for debate. Still, it reflects the mindset we should strive for, as it stands in marked contrast to the American attitude toward big tournaments. Sure, the U.S. is not Brazil. It probably never will be. But if making it to the second round of the World Cup is hailed as a victory in its own right, how can we expect the program to achieve more?
What's more, if soccer is to shake off its stateside reputation of being boring once and for all, the U.S. men will have to muster some pizzazz, even in the most trivial of games. We're not in Italy, where soccer has a monopoly on the sports spectrum and can afford to be drab and mirthless.
So for these last two qualifiers, let's demand progress, not mere qualification. Dominance, not subsistence.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a former soccer columnist for Guardian.co.uk and a contributor to World Soccer magazine.