world cup

Moving On, Without Team USA

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 … dealing with the loss of Team USA.

I woke up yesterday feeling a little like I got dumped. Watching the tournament without America in it was like being the one left behind in the apartment you used to share with your ex. You just keep walking around looking at spaces that seem to have grown larger and more empty somehow, driving yourself crazy with thoughts like, “I remember when Landon was kneeling at that spot. Things seemed so grand and full of promise then.” Or, “It was just yesterday when Benny and Jozy were over there in the grass kicking the ball around. Why can’t we go back and make it all right?”

But we can’t go back. America’s World Cup dream is over, and we’re all going to have to accept that the soccer goes on, and that when it’s all over nearly everyone on earth — or at least fans from 31 of the 32 participating nations — is going to feel as shitty as we do. Because if you don’t win the whole thing, you go home a loser. And you have to wait four long, maddening years for another shot (if you qualify). Four years in which so many things can happen. Some players you came to know over the past two weeks will never get another shot, so think how they’re feeling on that seventeen-hour flight home from Johannesburg. (At least they’re not going home to get pelted with tomatoes, as the Italians were expecting, or sitting in coach class, as the French team did, after its Federation downgraded its players for shaming the nation.)

I imagine by now that there are many people in America who finally realize why the World Cup is so special. Because, as the ESPN commercials so incessantly remind us, one game really does change everything. On Saturday, the New York Post had soccer on its cover (soccer! On the cover!), rallying America behind its team. And on Sunday, soccer was there again, only this time with the dour headline, “This Game Is Stupid Anyway.” That’s how quickly it all goes sideways.

Come to think of it, we have it easy here in the USA. Our expectations were low from the beginning. In England, they expect to win the tournament, and every four years they’re disappointed anew. This was the final Cup, most likely, for the golden generation of Beckham and Gerrard and Lampard and Rio Ferdinand, a group of stars who never really figured out how to play well together. As they ascended as a group, the fans back home — who love soccer as much as any humans; they just care so much — came to expect a slew of titles and yet the team failed to win a single World Cup, or even a European Championship.

England’s Three Lions came into the tournament as the third favorite, at least according to the bookmakers back home, which speaks more to the boundless (and sad) optimism of the legions of bettors than it does to the actual quality of the team. Save for a few minutes after Ricardo Clark handed England a goal (a play that would unfortunately be repeated, almost exactly, against Ghana), the England team that showed up in South Africa didn’t give those bettors the tiniest smidgen of hope. They barely played like a team that deserved to reach the knockout rounds, where they certainly didn’t stay long.

I’m not here to crap all over England’s fans because I know a lot about unrealistic expectations. I too let myself believe my team was better than it was. But I think those of us who will still be following whatever remains of this team when it reconstitutes, under whoever our next coach is (because it won’t be Bob Bradley, I assure you), probably feel a lot more optimistic than the blokes on bar stools in Leeds.

England was so thoroughly trounced on Sunday that it’s hard to find any positives to take away from the loss. Yes, they took the first two punches, scoring on a nice header and then equalizing on a sweet chip from Frank Lampard that everyone but the line judge saw as a goal, despite the excellent play-acting by Germany’s keeper. But even if that goal stands, England wasn’t going to win that game. Fabio Capello’s defense, which was missing key players, was plain awful. Against Germany they appeared to be wearing concrete cleats.

And a lack of speed is a death sentence against these Germans. If you give this team space, it will destroy you. Podolski and Klose (the heroes of the 2006 team) and Ösil and Muller (the new kids) attack fast and space perfectly. It’s the most efficient fast break in this Cup. They don’t build up slowly very well, but watch out if they get space and numbers. They anticipate each other’s next move and rarely miss that one final pass that springs the striker into scoring space. (That pass that our own midfielders seemed to miss time and again, by the way.) Honestly, England is lucky they didn’t score six times. I take no pleasure in noting that, but it’s true.

Does that mean Germany will win the World Cup? Nein. I think a disciplined team that controls the midfield and prevents the Germans from running free in space can beat Germany. Like who? Spain or Holland or — achtung! — Argentina, its next opponent. German manager Joachim Low — who looks like a dark-haired, middle-aged lesbian auditioning to play the role of Sonny Crockett in a Burlington stage production of Miami Vice — will face a far more daunting challenge in Maradona’s team of soccer ninjas.

Mexico never had a chance. Not with the team of officials granting a bullshit goal to Argentina, at least the fifth colossally bad call of the World Cup — and the second of the day — involving goals. (Honestly, could the officiating be any more of a horror show? You need not answer, because it could not be). Carlos Tevez was so offside that he may as well have been sitting on a chaise lounge inside the goal alongside Mexico’s 76-year-old keeper Oscar Perez. (Actually, he’s only 37.)

If that crap call had decided the match, Mexican fans would be rioting right now in the streets of Oaxaca, but Argentina made the point moot when Gonzalo Higuain picked up a gifted blunder from a Mexican defender, dribbled around Perez and added his fourth goal of the tournament (and his sixth in eight appearances with the national team, an astounding percentage). Tevez added a legitimate goal after halftime, an awesome goal, actually, maybe the best of the tournament so far. He dribbled wide of a defender way outside the box and then unleashed a rocket to the upper corner that could probably have knocked a Bugs Bunny–style hole in the chest of Perez, had he the superpowers to fly far enough to get in front of it.

Mexico’s rising star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, headed to Manchester United this summer to play alongside Wayne Rooney, did add a sweet goal to make the score a respectable 3–1, but the only thing in question about this game was whether or not Messi would finally score his first goal. He did not, but he certainly factored in just about every chance and very nearly added a highlight reel goal in the final minute.

But enough about teams that are still actually playing: Where do we go from here? I’m pretty sure this is the last time I’ll write anything about Team USA, so allow me a few final moments to revel in the misery. What went wrong? This one fact really stands out: Over four games and 390 minutes of play, Team USA held a lead for exactly three minutes. Yes, three minutes. That is not exactly a recipe for sustained success.

The other revealing statistic in my mind is that US forwards scored zero goals. Compare that to Germany, or Argentina, or Uruguay, where all (or almost all) of the goals have come from up front, where the bulk of a team’s goals should come from. You can’t rely on midfielders to carry the offensive burden, and yet that’s what we did.

Jozy Altidore had about as good of a tournament as a striker can have without scoring, but the fact remains that he didn’t score. The good news is that he is only 20 and has two or three World Cup cycles in his future, but he needs help. Would Charlie Davies have made a difference? I think so, but we’ll never know. The two certainly looked dynamic last summer, terrorizing first Spain and then Brazil with a combination of strength and speed that Altidore could never replicate with Robbie Findley, who was fast – and, well, just fast. I’m increasingly certain that Findley has caught the soccer version of whatever afflicted Chuck Knoblauch and that he couldn’t shoot the Jabulani into the goal if he was standing on the line. I hope the kid bought some World Cup souvenirs, because there’s almost no chance he’ll be in Brazil.

Do I still think Holland will win? Yes, but I’m developing a crush on Argentina.

By the way, South America is still undefeated. That is just nuts. The streak ends tomorrow one way or the other, because Brazil plays Chile. I guess it’s fitting that when a South American team does finally lose, it’ll be to another South American team. (ED. Note: Oops, I take that back. Chile lost to Spain. Damn colonial overlords, stepping on their subjects – and my point – one last time.)

Moving On, Without Team USA