July 3, 2014
The descriptions of the USA’s performance at the World Cup have largely been patronising; yes, they played with a lot of desire, yes, they showed an unwaivering will to win but, no, that doesn’t make them simply ‘brave’.
If I had the chance to remove one platitude from the football world, it would be that – how often do we see it leveled at a hapless Scottish team in the Champions League or at League One side after a four-nil FA Cup humbling? It’s really very annoying.
Maybe in the US’s case it’s a way of us acknowledging how well they did in Brazil without having to actually admit to what they achieved. The Americans were a fun story, but I’m not sure a British audience would have enjoyed seeing them going much further in the tournament than they actually did – it was fine for them to make some progress, just as long as we could still add the ‘for the Americans’ suffix to any statement praising how well they did.
American soccer is a strange beast, and it’s something I only pay attention to every four years. In some ways, that makes it easier to assess the country’s progress – after all, if you see someone every day then it’s very difficult to notice their changes in weight, any new grey hairs they might have, or whether the they are going bald quicker than you are.
I’m a member of the cult of English people who really enjoy US sport and who would happily stay up until three or four in the morning to watch a regular season NFL game, and as such American sports radio is one of my vices – and through that, it’s been interesting to note the US-based reaction to their team’s performance in Brazil.
People seem disappointed. Genuinely. Not by the stage of elimination, as such, but at the way Jurgen Klinsmann set-out his side against Belgium and at the restrictive game-plan used.
Former national team player Eric Wynalda appeared on the Dan Patrick Show yesterday and he was genuinely incandescent with rage; he bemoaned the lack of ambition, Klinsman’s apparent lack of conviction in his team’s abilities, and even suggested that the approach had been un-American.
Ok, we all know what it’s like the day after being eliminated from an international tournament, and as English people we come from the land which invented silly, disproportionate media responses, but come on – how unfair is that? Wynalda also opined that because the US had been eliminated at the same stage of the competition as they were in 1994, that no progress had been made in that twenty-year period. And the revulsion at being tactically respectful to Belgium? Come on, that was a side who were better on man-to-man basis and who were loaded with individual quality.
It’s understandable nonsense, given the American psyche’s intolerance of finishing anywhere other than first, but it’s nonsense nonetheless.
The easy point to make is that the World Cup has expanded in size since then, but beyond that there are some clear improvements which are noticeable to outsiders.
The Americans play like a European side now, they are smarter, savvier, and far more fluid than they have ever been. Previously, there had always been a robotic, mechanical quality to their soccer which made them hard to watch and difficult to take seriously – yes, they had the odd player who we knew, but those stars were typically surrounded by durable players who looked as if they had learnt the game from a textbook.
The USA were a team and they’ve been difficult to beat for some time, but they never really played football in a way that we recongised – really, it just seemed as if they were doing their best football impression. But that wasn’t true in Brazil and they weren’t the usual snob-fodder that we’re used to seeing; sure, there are under-talented players still in that side, but there were also eye-catching performances from players who we weren’t previously aware of. This wasn’t Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and a make-up cast of generic spear-carriers, it was a fully-functioning side of eleven players who were stripped of the clunky style that we so associate with the Americans.
It’s almost an intangible quality, but there was a definite difference – and improvement – to the US this time around. Jurgen Klinsman seems to have got rid of the old woodenness – which would previously seen them lose to both Portugal and Ghana – and replaced it with something far easier to take seriously. He is Geppetto to the the national team’s Pinocchio: the USA are now a real-life football team – they have tactical dexterity, promising youngsters, and the ability to unpick sides rather than just to bludgeon them.
Here’s the thing America: mourn for a couple of days, but recognside the direction in which you’re headed.
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