This is the first of a three blog installment taking a look back at qualifying and as noted in the title, a look ahead to South Africa 2010, over the course of the next week.
PART ONE: WHAT WE LEARNED
We’ve come a long way, both as a blog and more importantly, as a national team since the summer of 2008, when the United States senior team hosted Barbados to begin World Cup qualifying and a Brad Guzan set-piece blunder coupled with Michael Orozco’s fateful red card shattered the hopes of an impressive-at-times Olympic team side in Beijing.
While this team does display many of the common character traits of the hero of a Victorian novel (hard work, perseverance, love for each other and a bit of luck leading to suitable reward and the triumph of virtue over evil at the end), to say the qualifying cycle and the tournaments that have surrounded it have been a Dickensian “Best of Times, Worst of Times” tale would insult not simply Dickens but the entire Victorian canon. It is true that this team has faced adversity in a climactic manner, with the Charlie Davies car accident that led to the tragic death of 22-year-old Ashley Roberta occurring just hours before the qualifying match, and with a serious knee injury affecting arguably the Americans most highly regarded field player, Oguchi Oneywu, in the final fixture. Perhaps there is something Victorian in facing that adversity and leaving D.C. last weekend with the second-most memorable tie in the history of United States soccer. Then again, perhaps we push the metaphor too far, and the best lesson learned from the past two weeks of American soccer is that for all we write about the game, it is just that, a game—and in the end what made Jon Bornstein’s header in the 95th minute that salvaged a tie @ Robert F. Kennedy Stadium all the more special was that it was a stirring rebuke to tragedy and a needed respite from the unfair sequence of events that temporarily halted the promising career of Charlie Davies and ended far too soon the life of Ashley Roberta.
Despite this series of unfortunate and tragic events, the United States qualification for the World Cup was never truly in danger, and the cycle in broad-stroke will likely be remembered for how close the United States was to breaking the seemingly dense achievement ceiling that has surrounded the federation since an unjust defeat at the hands of Germany ended the 2002 World Cup in Korea and for the events that transpire next summer in Africa. This series of entries on Yanksarecoming.com hopes to highlight what lay ahead and take a moment to savor the journey to the edge of this mountain, where we gaze out and see the challenging road ahead. The first such entry is a turn backward, a remembrance and an inventory of what we can say we know as of today about the team we as Americans will send to South Africa in 2010. Over the course of the next few months, other writers on this site will take time to look forward. You’ll learn more about the players who have competed so hard for your country since the summer of 2008, and you’ll learn about the opponents that lie ahead. Just for tonight, a beckoning backwards, highlighted with two hopefully poignant observations.
1. Since the final whistle against Ghana in 2006, ending a disappointing World Cup in Germany, there were questions about heart, desire and intensity. Those questions have been answered in full.
It wasn’t just the stirring comeback against Costa Rica that answered those questions, although it is true that no one would have blamed the Yanks for folding up their tent in Washington last week, especially after the injury to Davies and given that qualification was assured. The temptation to pack up and go home must have been even greater when Bryan Ruiz hit a stunning shot in the 24th minute to put the Ticos up 2-0. Rather than take their ball and go home, the Yanks, emotionally drained and yet inspired by their fallen teammate, staged their first two goal comeback in 24 years with a seemingly endless assault on the Costa Rican net that was finally rewarded in stoppage time, a man down, on a header by the most unlikely of American heroes, Jon Bornstein.
As mentioned, it wasn’t simply the stirring comeback culminated while playing with ten men last week against Costa Rica. This has been a side that throughout qualifying has shown the mettle, grit, and determination that is a trademark of U.S. soccer teams. That said, this side has shown that it has heart coupled with an innate ability to reach a level that former teams have not been able to reach. Consider the back-against-the-wall Houdini act to reach the elimination rounds at the Confederation Cup. As my co-writer Raf Crowley loves to point out, it is true that the Yanks needed good fortune and help from Brazil to even have the opportunity to stage the “Miracle on Grass” against top-ranked Spain. Even so, a simple gaze back to 2006 indicates that when the United States needed a result, heart and grit and the mental fortitude to dig deeper didn’t translate to accomplishment on the field. Clint Dempsey’s final goal against Egypt and Davies’ working-man’s goal in the same game proved that this team can reach the next level by playing very hard.
More evidence came only days later, when the United States defended its net like the Alamo after obtaining an early goal against a Spain side that hadn’t lost in two years. Unworldly goaltending from one of the world’s greatest goalkeepers (Howard’s stop on Villa is still mystifying), heroic diving clearances, well-timed, brilliant tackles, and the ability to punish even great teams for rare mistakes (see Dempsey’s marvelous second goal) take more than heart and belief—they take skill and poise, two traits this particular side holds in spades.
More evidence came throughout qualifiers—and this will be addressed below—but the United States has never had a qualifying cycle so reliant on come from behind victories or ties or late goals. Pushed to the limit often, this team has responded in a region that is far more difficult than “experts” like to acknowledge by stealing a draw on the road at El Salvador, stealing two wins from Honduras, and with a magnificent draw to win the qualifying group last week.
One final individual performance underlines this point best, in my opinion. Nineteen year old Jozy Altidore, clearly rattled emotionally by the injury to his best friend Charlie Davies, came out and channeled his inner-Brian Ching Wednesday night with a fearless ninety minutes that proved that his time at Hull City is doing wonders and that he really is a player with an elite future. Forget for a moment that he missed two or three great chances to score goals—the sheer effort he gave, and the visible agony he showed when he did miss, indicated Altidore not only responds to adversity, he is eager to improve and eager to carry the weight of the American strikers next summer. All in all, this qualifying cycle and the surrounding tournaments have time and again proven that this U.S. team is not simply one that plays with great heart and fire, but one that, like most great athletes or teams that end up in discussions about greatness, is capable of reaching a second or even mythical third level when faced with great adversity. There’s a magic about them at times, and it is one that should breed a good deal confidence as the Yanks move forward.
2. Congratulations to Bob Bradley, who has proven himself worthy of the job, and seems to understand who the best American players are.
Just for tonight, I offer this observation without asterisk. There are a hosts of problems that could plague this side going forward, and I’m certainly wary that being a fan of the United States Men’s National team is risky business without the beauty of Rebecca De Mornay, an emotional investment that is part Phil Mickelson and part Braves fan during the Mark Wohlers era (slider up in the count to Jim Leyritz, anyone?). To be sure, the most devoted followers of this team, some named Caleb, some named Nick, some named Shawn and some Jewish kids from Broward County named Jon, some named Dylan and some named Neil, understand that following this team is more Chekhov than Shakespeare, especially when you discuss how each cycle ends—at the World Cup. With the Yanks, as with Chekhov, an international tournament ends and one is depressed, bitter, disillusioned, but still at the forefront of the world stage and still alive. In Shakespeare, there has been justice, and corpses litter the place. I’m not certain the latter ending wouldn’t be better—but that’s a debate for fans of the Yanks or fans of Liverpool to have with followers of England’s Lions or Manchester United. With this mind, let us briefly congratulate Sunil Gulati’s controversial choice for United States manager.
While no one will confuse Bobbo, as Raf Crowley calls him with mock affection, with Fabio Capello, Gulati could have done far worse than Bradley and certainly any fan of Costa Rica or Mexico will tell you the World Cup qualifying cycle can be brutally weathering on the heart and nerves when you make the wrong hire (see Sven-Goran Ericksson) or have to change coaches mid-cycle when things go awry (see Rene Simoes replacing Rodrigo Kenton after Costa Rica’s qualifying hopes collapsed late in the cycle). In Simoes case, he was red-carded and about three minutes away from righting the sinking ship. The story of Mexico’s Javier Aguirre also included a red-card, but the ending has been a happy one despite finishing second in the qualifying group.
In all honesty, Bradley, although not an elite world-class coach, is a world-class coach and not a monument to the mediocre. He rightly deserves recognition for what he has accomplished, and the list of accomplishments is impressive. He is the winningest coach by percentage in the history of the Federation; he took the Yanks to the finals of an International FIFA Tournament; his debut was a Gold Cup win capped by a Benny Feilhaber golazo moment that won a tournament for the United States it desperately needed to win after the disaster of Germany 06; he reached the final of the Gold Cup this year with a young and experimental roster that wasn’t even as good as the Olympic team side; he has battled injuries in the mid-field with class and tactical savvy; and his decision to put the American’s finest field player, Landon Donovan, on the flanks with the always dangerous Clint Dempsey has given the Yanks the ability to score early and at times often in the run of play for the first time in the history of the Federation. Let us, for tonight, applaud those accomplishments.
While applauding, let us remember that Bradley will terminally be judged b y whether he is Mariano Rivera or Mark Wohlers, not simply for guiding his team to the big show. As Jen Chang rightly has pointed out on ESPN’s Soccernet, “we still have to remember that qualifying for the World Cup out of CONCACAF is the minimum criterion for any U.S. coach these days.” The hard part begins now—evaluating a team that has just suffered a critical injury in the attack, may be missing a critical defender for a few months, has little depth at left back (if any at all), and still needs a reliable and potent midfield combination—and shaping that team into a team that can make noise in the Southern Hemisphere next summer. The beautiful news is not only are we on our way there, there is great room for optimism about the trip.