Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today, saying good-bye to the defending champs.
Well, it's here: The Biggest Game in American Soccer History, Part Two. Just as it was on Wednesday — at least Wednesday after the English victory was assured — the situation is simple. Win and we advance. Lose and we go home. Already, what the U.S. team has done will be considered a success. We won our group, and if not for a certain Louis Gossett Jr. impersonator whose name shall never again pass my lips, we would have done so in convincing style.
But no matter.
Because here we are, the higher-ranked team in the World Cup's knockout round, facing a beatable opponent and the most favorable draw in the tournament. It is conceivable (even believable) that we could see the United States soccer team in the World Cup semifinals not too many days in the future. (We are the highest-ranked team in our quarter of the draw, as impossible as that sounds.) But first we need to beat Ghana. As I said yesterday, that is not as easy as it may sound. The Black Stars dashed America's World Cup dream in 2006 and are probably better now, even without Michael Essien. They have a combination of speed and size that nullifies the one advantage our team has had in all three of its first round matches — athleticism — and the ability to create offense while also shutting down an opponent's attack, even if it doesn't always work out that way. Ghana has given up just two goals in the tournament, but it has also only scored twice, both on penalty kicks.
What Ghana is also likely to have in its favor is crowd support. One thing I've long enjoyed about being a fan of American soccer is that it's a rare chance (maybe the only chance) to be out there in the world as an underdog. As the planet's sole superpower, and a bully in most international events (at least the ones people back home pay attention to), we're constantly the bad guys. Everywhere we go, the crowd is against us. Except for soccer. If Team USA were playing any other team in this tournament, it would be the overwhelming crowd favorite. The one exception is this one, and you can hardly take it personally. Ghana is the lone African survivor of the first-ever African World Cup, so you can't blame the locals for getting behind the Black Stars.
I'm trying hard to muster some hatred for our opponents, and I'm having a hard time. The truth is Ghana is a likable side with likable players. They play fairly, aren't known for fouling or diving, and have a pretty cool flag. It's a stable democracy, a relatively prosperous nation, and the world's second-largest producer of cocoa. For Christ's sake, who doesn't love chocolate?!
Here's what I'm telling myself. They're just a bunch of guys in shirts standing between America and its destiny. Or, if that's too overwrought for you: the quarterfinals. We've overcome too much adversity to go home now, and if it means me and Landon Donovan and Benny Feilhaber need to pretend that Ghana is Team Taliban — or at least Italy — for one day, so be it. After all, they did knock us out of the World Cup last time around, and they didn't even share their orange wedges. Also, they rank only 48th on the Global Peace Index!***
The other weird thing about this game for me is that I'm starting to believe what I've been telling my more naysayer soccer fan friends for the past year or so (I'm talking to you, Mike Snow******): We are legitimately a good team that plays good soccer and not just a bunch of hustle-y go-getters who sometimes get lucky on a header. I decided this morning that the team is perfectly embodied by center midfielder (and coach's son) Michael Bradley. When Bradley first came onto the scene a few years back he was, well, kind of a hustle-y go-getter, a tireless worker who would chase the ball for hours. He reminded me of a kid who lived next door to me when I was a teenager. This towhead was tiny and adorable and also a little annoying; he would just burst into the house and commence bugging my stepmom, who would solve the problem by asking him to race around the property while she timed him. When he got back she would suggest that he could do it faster and he'd try again. And again. In a sense, that was Little Bradley.
But when he was 19, Bradley went to Europe and developed his offensive game playing for Heerenveen in Holland. He scored sixteen goals, setting a record for an American playing in a foreign league. Improving fast, he jumped to the Bundesliga, Germany's top league, and grew into a gifted, well-rounded midfielder with good touch and good vision — very much the kind of player you find all over Europe's top sides. And underneath that, of course, the bulldog remains. (The dude just keeps running, and running, and running.)
To a large degree, that's been Team USA: a couple of yellow labs chasing a team of squirrels. We were Rocky in the yard with the chicken, a little slower and uglier, but so tough and gritty and conditioned that every once in a while the chicken got lazy and we pounced on it. Then we, too, began to change.
It was part of an evolution that's been ongoing for a decade or so now. Nearly all of our players now earn a wage in Europe, and the one regular who doesn't is Landon Donovan, who proved in a short stint this season with Everton that he's plenty good enough to do it too. Even if we aren't as good per-man as Spain or Brazil (and I'm not so blindly fan boy–ish to think we are, though I can't promise I'll be so reasonable if we survive another round or two), we are as good per-man as most any team outside the very top tier. And that would include Ghana. And the thing about narrowing the gap is that you need less and less of a break to beat even the best, at least every once in awhile, so if we get further, well, anything can happen. Ask Spain, an awesome team with an epic streak that this same team ended last summer, also in South Africa.
But first let's focus on getting past Ghana. We could still lose this game and set soccer back another four years. I doubt that will happen — too much good has already come of these few games — but I'd rather not find out. Let's trounce the Evil Black Stars! USA!
***Oops, just checked — we're No. 85.
******The person, not the band.