June 2010

90 Minutes For Four Years

This one is nothing but ropes and asses. The U.S. Men’s National Team, for the sixty-fifth time in this four year cycle, ninety minutes for everything. Ninety minutes for four years. Nothin’ but ropes and asses.

Soccer, so much like life, is unfair sometimes. We learned a harsh lesson about that, together, last week in Johannesburg. Fail tomorrow and the lesson will be even crueler. Maybe it’s not fair that after winning more games, garnering more respect, and accomplishing more firsts than any other United States group before them, this team will be defined by what happens on a stretch of South African grass in Pretoria tomorrow evening. Such is life. Such is the magnificent cruelty of the World Cup.

Thirty-seven wins in this cycle against nineteen defeats and eight draws—that’s far and away the best four year period in the history of the U.S. Soccer Federation and the antiquated semi-professional quasi-ruling structure that preceded it. Doesn’t matter now because all that matters is tomorrow.

First American side to be a finalist in a major competition, and they were forty-five minutes from winning that Confederations Cup last summer. In the process of that competition, they ended Spain’s FIFA record unbeaten streak. Beat them 2-0 and in so doing, their manager set a blueprint that was used, and praised, by a two-time world manager of the year to repeat the feat at the World Cup, ending another Spanish winning streak. Doesn’t matter now because all that matters is tomorrow.

First American side to lead at the diabolical Mexican Azteca. They lost, but they sent a message. The days of rolling over in the quadrennial qualifying match in that cavernous din were through. That might matter later, but sure doesn’t matter now. All that matters is tomorrow.

In qualifying as a whole, this group was even better. In the first qualifier, the only man to score for them in the last World Cup hit for two and his brace was matched by a fiery Hawaiian named Brian Ching. All together, they found the net eight times and cruised to one of the largest victories in the history of U.S. soccer. A couple months later, they had batteries and urine thrown at their bus in Cuba. Who cares? They won that game too. All together they won thirteen games. On home soil, they outscored CONCACAF opponents 28-5. They lost three times in qualifying, all road defeats. They were champions of CONCACAF qualifying, securing the title-clinching point less than a day after unthinkable tragedy struck. It was, it is, gripping stuff. And it doesn’t matter now because all that matters is tomorrow.

As individuals, they reached heights once thought impossible for American players. An American was sought out and signed by legendary A.C. Milan. Another, the coach’s son, twenty, became the youngest American to finish in the top ten in goals in a European league. Another, the one that wears #10, shook off the chains and labels of previous European failures and garnered player of the month honors at a storied English Premier League club. That team would be far less imposing without their goalkeeper, Tim Howard, who became the first American to win a goalkeeping award at a world competition, capturing the Golden Gloves at last summer’s Confederations Cup. Another, the one from Texas who goes by “Deuce,” scored two of the finest goals in the world this previous season. One knocked an “Old Lady” out of a European club championship. The other was a finalist for EPL goal of the year. Another became the first American to lead a foreign league in scoring. He didn’t appear in qualifying, but that type of year got Herculez Gomez a plane ticket to South Africa. He better make the most of it, because all of those individual accomplishments mean nothing now. All that matters is tomorrow.

What of their manager? Praise from a two-time World Manager of the Year seems enough. After all, he admitted he used the Princeton, New Jersey native’s blueprint to beat Spain last week. He’s always seemed the second-choice, the guy we had to hire because the guy we wanted to hire didn’t take the job. He’s always seemed the second-choice and so even when things were going well the criticism was lurking in the background, a vuvuzela with a muter being moved on and off of it, a small, constant droning. The metaphor for his tenure is easy enough to identify—a Confederations Cup which saw the worst of this team and the best of it, a vision for all of us of its apex. While we’ve criticized and pecked away, he’s earned international respect. It’s possible that even if things go well tomorrow and thereafter, Bradley won’t return for the next cycle. European clubs have shown interest. And why not? At a World Cup where legendary coaches have managed legendary teams in complete disarray, the second-choice from Princeton has pulled the right strings and kept this team together. And while no can confirm that Bradley gave a Pacino-esque rouser of a speech at halftime last Friday in Johannesburg, David Hirshey and the cat from the Shin Guardian video contest aren’t the only ones to suggest that’s the case. Bradley’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s made mistakes but he’s succeeded more than anyone before him. He’s played tougher competition, broadened the player pool by capping 92 players, won the qualifying group and improved our performances at other world competitions. He’s situated the United States perfectly to take the next step in its development, stay or go. And none of that matters right now because all that matters is tomorrow.

Did it have to be this way? No. This group might have played a better game, a complete game, last Friday against Slovenia. They might have not been on the short end of the worst referee decision at this World Cup. They could be sitting on four points and Maurice Edu could be more than the sad water cooler story in the mainstream American vernacular he’s already become. He could be a hero. He still might be tomorrow. Tomorrow’s all that matters.

It’s time to move past the disallowed goal. Like Pacino said in Any Given Sunday—“When you get older in life, things get taken from you. That’s part of life. You find out, when you start losing stuff—life’s just a game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small.” Indeed. And after four long years, the margin for error is in fact so small. It is four years crammed into ninety minutes small. And if that doesn’t tell you the difference between four years of failure and four years of success is really just a matter of inches, then I can’t help you. All that matters is tomorrow.

Nothin’ but ropes and asses. Ninety minutes for four years.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com.

Neil W. Blackmon

  • Kevin in Denver

    Right on. The best thing is one way or another, 12 hours from now, we’ll know if this cycle was a success or a failure. 16 or bust: that’s been the goal from the beginning.

  • Goosebumps. Fine job crystallizing the situation and some very fine prose, sir.

  • Raf

    Good points, this cycle has been more successful than any prior to it. That said, losing tomorrow would trump all of that. Unfair? I say no, unfortunate maybe, but certainly not unfair. When this group was announced, this was as close to “best case scenario” that we could have hoped for. We achieved well against England; we underachieved against Slovenia. Now, we have one more chance to excel. World Cups are funny – unlike a club season, there are only 3 games to get it right and the margin for error is minuscule. We should win. We need to win. This sport in this country needs this win now. I haven’t been this excited/nervous/shitting/pumped up for a sporting event since my coaching days.

  • Raf

    To add to that – with added success comes higher expectations and more pressure. This US side has to “back up” all the accomplishments that you’ve listed. Again, not unfair, that’s just the nature of the beast in sports. When MJ won his 5th title, any less than a 6th was unacceptable. When the Yankees didn’t win a World Series for 10 years, it was considered tragic (except by me – I thought it was joyous). When our Florida Gators won the Tebow championship, the next season was seen by some as disappointment. All of these are examples of mainstream sports though, and because of their status as part of the American establishment, fans can recover. Soccer in America is far from its infancy and approaching puberty. In order for it to continue to develop properly, we need a win in a match like the one we’re playing tomorrow. Let’s crush ’em!

  • Neil W. Blackmon

    Without question– fair or unfair, the nature of the beast is exactly what Raf suggests, as well as Kevin. Win tomorrow defines four years as success. Lose tomorrow, and we’re merely a collection of ever-improving individuals who while occasionally inspiring, aren’t a success as a collective. Plain and simple. Going to be tough to sleep.