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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Win as a Country, Lose as a Country

Posted by on Sat, Jun 26, 2010 at 7:56 PM

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RICHMOND, VA—The United States will not be the world champions of soccer over the next four years. Ghana probably will not either. But Ghana still have hope after defeating the U.S. 2-1 in extra time on Saturday in the sweet 16 of the Fifa World Cup (annoying Trademark mark).

(On a side note, I was in Philadelphia Thursday and Friday, and was impressed by the bar at 30th Street station which had a printed poster announcing it would show all games in the "2010 World Soccer Tournament" to avoid having to pay some kind of fee to FIFA to use the term "World Cup.")

I watched the match with a teeming horde of Richmonders in a Broad Street establishment Saturday afternoon. In this city that is 51% African-American, the gathered crowd was about 97% Caucasian. This plus the rather obnoxious tone of several of the crowd's number naturally raised in my mind disturbing questions about whether the U.S. national soccer team has become the chosen vehicle for Caucasians, consciously or unconsciously, to grasp onto a representation of America as a "Still Mostly-White Nation." Sure, there are plenty of players of color on the U.S. team, but the preponderance are white, therefore this is the national team white Americans in the early 21st century have chosen to get excited about, many of whom also may be prone to letting slip racially coded negative remarks about, say, the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team.

Now I'm not saying that is true, or even actually what I actually think, but the thought did go through my head with sufficient clarity to make me feel obliged to report it here. An alternative line of reasoning is that a) it's cool to root for the US national team in soccer because we are still the underdog; b) it shows that at least some Americans are capable of showing some interest in what the rest of the world cares about, and even c) it models a way for US citizens to express community with one another and love of country without a corollary expectation of world dominance (aka the Dream Team hoopsters or Michael Phelps) in a way that is refreshing and healthy.

I like arguments a, b, and c because they make me feel good about being so excited about the World Cup and rooted excitedly for the U.S. But the other more disturbing thought crossed my mind as I contemplated the gap between the predominantly white professional set cheering "USA, USA!" in this Broad Street bar and the obviously impoverished African-American man walking slowly by the bar on this hot, 98-degree day who clearly had no idea or care for what was going on or why these people might be so excited. The U.S. soccer team has a claim in the imagination of many Americans, and increasingly so, but it is by no means (yet) a force that truly transcends race and class divides in this country. That said, I think this is probably more to do with the sociology of who plays and cares about soccer in the U.S. then any insidious plot to make or keep the national team the property of middle-class Americans. The group of homeless men in Richmond, predominantly African-American, whom I play soccer with regularly as part of the Street Soccer USA program are all big fans of the U.S. team and have been following the World Cup closely, though most never played or followed soccer until they got involved with the program.

As to the match itself, I thought the U.S. were the better team over the first 90 minutes, and were clearly unlucky not to grab a winning goal, with Jozy Alitdore having the most clearcut chance that he dragged just wide. The extra time, however, was an unmitigated disaster, from both a performance and tactical perspective. Altidore was taken off in favor of Hercules Gomez, although Altidore had been causing all kinds of problems as a target man on long balls. Maybe Altidore was exhausted and need to come off, but it made no sense for the U.S. to keep pumping long balls forward for 30 minutes with no one there with any likelihood of winning them. That was a baffling approach.

The other tactical error was in starting Ricardo Clark in the first place. Maurice Edu is a better player than Clark. Why Bob Bradley chose to go with Clark is a mystery, but just like Claudio Reyna in 2006, he got knocked off the ball by a Ghanaian to set up a goal. He also ended up getting substituted in the first half, which is essentially an admission by the coach he got team selection wrong. Having to make that sub hurt because it limited U.S. tactical options later on.

As to Ghana's second goal, it looked like the generally solid Jay DeMerit did not track back with enough urgency to provide cover to Bocanegra. Once Bocanegra was beat by Asamoah Gyan, DeMerit tried to get a block the shot but it was much too late.

The result is a disappointment, because one feels that this U.S. team should have been superior to a Ghana outfit lacking their star Michael Essien (injury), and in fact was for most of the day. The propensity to concede early goals bit the U.S. again, and when it happens three times in a single tournament, with only the crossbar saving the U.S. against Algeria, it's probably not a coincidence.

Hence my feeling that the US Soccer Federation should give a big thank you to Bob Bradley, and also wish him luck in resuming his career coaching in Major League Soccer. It's not that Bradley has done a bad job, though many U.S. fans were calling for his scalp before last year's miraculous recovery to qualify out of the group stages in the Confederations Cup. Qualifying for the knockout stage of a World Cup certainly should be regarded as a reasonably impressive achievement—just ask Italy or France.

But second terms don't usually work in national soccer team setups. Ask Bruce Arena. Or Raymond Domenech. The U.S. could use a fresh voice and a fresh tactical vision heading into the 2014 cycle. Bob Bradley deserved his chance, and as they say, he's taken it reasonably well. Now let someone else have a go.

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