14 June 2006

Just pick up the ball and throw it!

Cries of despair rang out from U.S. soccer fans1 across the land Monday as the American squad not only lost to the mighty Czechs, but managed to humiliate themselves, their fans and their parent country in the process. What an utterly pathetic display.

Nowhere do these cries echo louder than the daunting expanse of the blogosphere, of course, with the redoubtable Deadspin at the forefront as always, doing an admirable job of pretending the average American sports fan cares to follow soccer, even casually. The coverage has been top notch, and the links have led me to a couple of fine secondary2 sources as well. Both are highly recommended for knowledgeable and opinionated commentary.

My take on the loss? Well, I don't watch a lot of soccer (though I'm trying to make a point to do so during Cup play this year), so my understanding of the game is rudimentary, but here's my theory:

  • American sports in general are stiflingly overcoached, and this tendency has spilled over onto the soccer team, where it's a woefully poor fit. The Americans looked choppy and hesitant on the offensive end, as though they were trying to set up elaborate attack formations, but couldn't get into position before the Czechs began breaking them up. Compare this to the play of, say, Mexico, whose coach acts as little more than a spectator with a killer ticket hook-up, chain-smoking away on the bench and standing only to cheer goals. His team, meanwhile, runs a freewheeling style up and down the field and gets the job done. Against Iran, anyway.
  • The Americans apparently have more World Cup experience on their team than almost anyone else, but the team's stars have hardly played together at all in the past few years3. This would also explain the hesitancy in their play; they just don't know each other's tendencies. I don't think you can just throw together a soccer team the way you can a baseball team, in which offensive play takes place at an individual level and defense follows an established set of routines. Soccer requires an ability to improvise (which gets back to my first point), and the better a group of players know each other the better they can anticipate each other's moves. The Americans are learning on the fly, and not fast enough.
But hey, what do I know about soccer? I'm just an American. To me, "football" means more equipment, more violence, and for God's sake more coaching.

Quick note on the U.S. team's chances going forward, by the way: it's over. Don't get me wrong, I'm not siding with all the doom-and-gloom pessimists wailing that this loss ruins their chances to get out of the preliminaries; beating Italy and Ghana is completely feasible, and I'm willing to give the Czechs a better than 50-50 shot to take Italia down as well, which puts the Americans in. What I'm saying instead is: you have to win this group, or else start packing. Reason? The runner-up faces the winner of Group F. Perhaps you've heard of their powerhouse attraction: Brazil? Let's assume for a moment that Brazil wins Group F. Nothing's guaranteed, but come on. The runner-up of Group E (U.S., dare we hope?) gets waxed in the first game of the elimination round. The winner, on the other hand (Czechs or Italy at this point) won't have to face Ronald & Ronald, should both teams make it that far, until the finals. Good night, America. Thanks for playing.

    Tangents & Clarifications:
  1. They exist, apparently. Add another item to the list of things I never would have known in the days before the Internet. [Return]
  2. The name on that first link, by the way, is killing me. I know what the reference means, it's a calm-before-the-storm thing, where somebody compared some orderly ritual before some utterly chaotic event to playing the National Anthem before a Cubs game. I can remember reading it, I just can't for the life of me remember who wrote it and why. What's the reference? "And then, just as I was about to fall asleep..." [Return]
  3. Which leads to kind of a side topic: if these guys have hardly played together since the last cup, who was on the squad while they were running up that gaudy world ranking? They're listed at fifth, people. In the world. Are these rankings based on a bunch of exhibition games that real teams just sandbag? Did the Americans inflate their ranking against a bunch of other teams' backups? What's going on here? Why not just play the guys that earned the U.S. their seed? [Return]

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