Having put the most-hyped soccer match in American history in their rearview, capturing a point and putting at least some of the doubters regarding American soccer to rest, for the time being, the Yanks now prepare to play the most important game of this tournament. In many ways, Friday morning’s tilt with Slovenia is more than that—it’s one of the most important games in the history of American soccer, if only because beyond the obvious tournament implications it is a the first time the U.S. enters a game favored with its home nation paying attention.
Around the world, it is important too because international respect comes in teaspoons, and while growing club player success, last summer’s victory over Spain and tremendous effort in defeat against Brazil caught the eyes of many, the 1-1 tie with the Three Lions had only a minimal impact in the fight for respect and is mostly being filed away as a fortuitous break after a fatuous bit of goalkeeping. Maybe it would have been a bigger deal if English goalkeeper Robert Green hadn’t appeared drunker than Amy Winehouse after a weekend in Vegas, but the goal that never should have been has left the United States with many doubters as they head into the morning’s match with the tiny eastern-European nation with the Charlie Brown uniforms. While the Yanks have rightly taken the point (one they deserved, I’ve said), they’re still the subject of intense scrutiny both at home and abroad and this only magnifies the meaning of a match where defeat all but formally means elimination. Indeed, Friday’s match against Slovenia is lighter on hype and richer in substance, and victory can go great lengths to helping them advance in the tournament, keeping eyes on the Yanks at home and respect increasing in the world, and more than that—it can allow this particular rendition of the U.S. National Team to carve out a unique place in the annals of American soccer: they can be the team that finally won a game they were supposed to win while the world was watching. Heady stuff to be sure, but one these Yanks seem ready to embrace.
They’d better be ready for it, because to fail to capitalize on this opportunity would be devastating for American soccer. A simple scroll through the Facebook news feed reveals the emergence of soccer neophytes, many of whom aren’t completely sure where Slovenia is and are completely sure they can’t name a single Slovenian player. Being less aware of what to expect goes hand-in-hand with being new to this whole “international soccer” thing, but so too does lofty expectation. Those fans won’t see the team that is essentially a mirror-image of the United States tactically, using the same 4-4-2 formation and relying on the same defense-first, counterattack swiftly principles that have become the meal ticket of the U.S. federation over the last decade. They won’t see a team with a goalkeeper who is clearly among their best three players, a coach who receives little global media acclaim but certainly has the belief of his players and the respect of his coaching colleagues, or a team that seems to play its absolute best when at their most underestimated. Those fans will only see USA and SVN in the top right hand corner of their television screens, and they’ll expect their countrymen to handle a tiny nation they’ve hardly ever heard that has a population half that of Atlanta. The new fans who are just now paying attention will expect that—but here’s the kicker: so should we, the bloggers and Sam’s Army members, the Outlaws and fans who travel and wake up early on fall weekends to watch our boys ply their trade throughout Europe. We should expect to get a result.
We should expect it, and so should our players. Take a good, hard look, friends—in an era with me-first teams like the French, unbalanced supernovas (enjoy the goalfest until your lack of balance meets you in the knockout stages, Argentina), and potentially dream-crushing goaltending YouTube clips, the United States Soccer Federation has spent the better part of a decade and a half putting together a genuine team. I’m not saying there’s nothing like them—indeed, as noted, the team they play tomorrow is eerily similar in its makeup—but they are, for this soccer federation, a once-a-generation collective designed to raise the level of discussion about soccer in the United States and raise the degree of expectation in this country regarding its national team from its current state of cautious and hopeful optimism to understated but stern confidence and self-belief. Bob Bradley has put together a tremendous team, not in terms of wins and losses, but in the sense of the word team. They’ve taken on all comers in this cycle: Mexico several times, Holland in Amsterdam, Argentina (a draw), Brazil on three occasions, Australia, Turkey, Spain. They’ve taken them on and with collective resolve they’ve gotten better and they haven’t backed down. And last Saturday, with their backs against the wall yet again, they fought bravely, played well and got what this Federation has seemed to avoid since Torsten Frings somehow wasn’t whistled for handball in the quarterfinal defeat to Germany in 2002: they got a break. Robert Green’s blunder can be looked at in no other light—it was a huge break for a team that, thanks to its spirit and willingness to leave it all on the field for each other, probably deserved one. Tim Howard, with nearly broken ribs a metaphor for that fighting spirit, put it best when he noted that “I don’t know what it is about us — we’re resilient after we get punched in the face. I wish I could bottle it up and sell it. When it happens, we seem to respond. Our foundation is hard work and running, kicking, scratching and clawing.”
The thing is, as of tomorrow, the Yanks find themselves in an odd position: one where resiliency and resolve are less important than the ability to seize a victory against a lesser adversary. They’re the hunted now, and they’ll need to deal with the level of discomfort and the feeling of newness that comes with that. Sure, they’ve reached the point in CONCACAF where they are the hunted, favored in all but one qualifying fixture. This is different. This is the World Cup. This is the Yanks playing a team playing the role of the Yanks. This is an opponent who exemplify the mantra Bob Bradley has tried to instill in his tenure as national team manager, a team that is organized, physical and defensively-stout, a team that as Bradley would say, is “difficult to play against.” This is the type of team the term “trap-game” was invented for. This is a homecoming game against a bowl-level but quietly overlooked opponent in college football after you’ve beaten a top ten team the week before. This is that game that as the clock continues to run and the scoreboard doesn’t change, the fingernails disappear and the nerves ratchet up exponentially. It’s the type of game that requires risks. As Landon Donovan noted, “When a team is organized like that, at some point you have to take some risks if you want to score” This is a game leaders were made for, and it is good to hear Donovan and Howard aware, ready to lead. It is good to know the captain, Carlos Bocanegra, is aware that no result is the functional end of World Cup 2010. Deep down, I’m sure he knows it’s the end of more than that. It’s the end of yet another opportunity to raise the profile of the game in this country without a complementary side of national team letdown. For him, a defeat could make it his last meaningful World Cup match as captain.
Heady stuff, to be sure. But here’s the thing, it’s a challenge I think we’re ready for. We learned too many lessons watching this team play in this cycle to think they’ll falter here. We learned about the magical against an entrenched defense playing for penalties when Feilhaber scored against Mexico to usher in the Bradley era with a championship. We learned about a centrally located scoring threat that has to be accounted for, even against elite competition, when MB 90 fired home a brace on a cold, foggy and damp night in Columbus against El Tri to open the final round of qualifying. We learned about resolve and veteran leadership when Frankie Hejduk salvaged a critical point on the road against El Salvador in March 2009.
We learned about heart after the near disgraceful opening to the Confederations Cup last summer didn’t stop this team, instead bringing joy against Egypt and near infinite bliss in the upset of Spain that followed. We learned even more about heart and their will to win when we saw Clint Dempsey’s tears after defeat to Brazil in the Confed Cup Final days later. We learned about pulling something out of nothing when you aren’t at your best when Ricardo Clark secured three points on an otherwise lackluster night in Trinidad last September. We learned about Bradley’s ability to make tough decisions after tragedy left Charlie Davies too questionably unfit to earn a roster spot, even though his and our collective hearts desired another result. Yes, in the end, Yanks fans—we learned too many lessons to count a team that is more or less a mirror-image of us out Friday morning. Here’s the thing—we’re a more talented version of them. And we’ve learned too much to write that off. I guess that’s what happens when you pay attention.
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.