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Friday, June 16, 2006
Embracing the underdog role

Jordan Brenner

Leave it to YouTube to represent the heart of American culture. The popular Internet video site, which houses everything from Seinfeld clips to home movies, allows users to upload content nearly as it happens. So, less than a day after the U.S team's display of soccer incompetence against the Czech Republic, some melancholy member of Sam's Army had already posted a montage of World Cup lowlights.

Set to the song "All by Myself," the video features more than four minutes of photos flickering by, frame after miserable frame, filled with images so fresh they'd not yet morphed into memories. Apparently, self-mortification comes just as easily to the Yanks as instant gratification.

But while the video's mere existence speaks volumes about modern America, it's the last few seconds of the montage that remind us of the true American ethos, the one that's guided us throughout our history and manifests itself so often in sports.

As the music fades, the scene cuts away from a solitary, nearly suicidal Bruce Arena to that of the U.S. crowd, jointly propping up a giant flag. With that, the audio returns, but this time it's in the form of dialogue, quickly recognizable as the scene from Major League where the team learns it was assembled to fail.

"Well then I guess there's only one thing left to do," Jake Taylor says.

"What's that?" asks Roger Dorn.

And then the video flashes back to the pregame photo of Monday's starting lineup, where hope still glimmered in the squad's eyes. "Win the whole f-ing thing," Taylor says.

That, in a microcosm, is the difference between America and Americans. From the outside, America, in aggregate, is the bully, a land of ignorance and arrogance, of self-absorption and excess. When bullies go down, they don't get back up -- or so the Bible says. But singularly, and amongst our own, Americans are quite the opposite, motivated by a historical resolve to overcome in the face of adversity, the embodiment of the capitalist ideal of rising from nothing to become something and, ultimately, everything.

Four years ago, the U.S. soccer team symbolized that spirit. But somewhere between North Carolina and Gelsenkirchen, it lost its identity. Perhaps the players were so deluded by their quarterfinal appearance in 2002 and ridiculous No. 5 FIFA ranking that they believed talent alone could overwhelm the Czechs. Regardless, they played with an air of decided indifference -- if not overconfidence -- displaying none of the energy and resolve that drove that very run four years ago. The Yanks got pummeled early, and never dusted themselves off. And the world cackled, reveling in its boldfaced memo: Don't forget your place, America. This isn't your sport.

It was a mighty blow. And it might be the best thing that could have happened to this team.

American soccer, despite what Nike wants us to believe, hasn't arrived yet. It lacks world-class talent or a formidable pro league. But, as we saw in 2002, neither is an obstacle to victory. Because this country, perhaps more than any other nation, embraces the underdog. Our sports movies don't celebrate the gifted. They glorify the flawed, the Rudys, Rockys and Hoosiers. Neutral fans prefer George Mason to Duke, Eckstein to A-Rod.

In a country where pro athletes routinely invent "disrespect" to produce false motivation, the U.S. soccer team need not worry about that trick. There's no respect anywhere in sight, not after that 3-0 debacle. The high expectations of a week ago are long gone. And as Arena and his troops prepare for Saturday's must-win match against Italy, they need to recognize this circumstance for what it is -- a rare gift.

In an event characterized by incomparable pressure, the U.S. already has been written off after one measly game. But the team doesn't have to wait four years to make amends, like after its dismal showing in 1998. As we've been told -- constantly -- one game changes everything. And a win against Italy would do just that, putting the U.S. right back into contention in Group E. So while the Americans lack the talent, creativity and respect of the Italians, they're back in a familiar position, and need to play with the edge associated with it. In U.S. lore, champions respond to adversity and losers implode. And thus, this team has a choice to make.

Arena and his players can continue to air public grievances and tear themselves apart. Or, they can recognize the position they've placed themselves in and rally around it. Perhaps they already have, and the bickering is just for show. But either way, just like four years ago, the U.S. is a decided underdog again. In this country, that's a powerful force, when employed correctly. And if the players have forgotten that, they might consider logging onto YouTube themselves. There, the 2002 highlights are a click away, an interactive testament to resolve and perseverance. They're aching to be forwarded.

Jordan Brenner is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at Jordan.X.Brenner.-ND@espn3.com


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