Midway through the first half of what would become a convincing 2-0 win over Panama for the United States men's national team, an American winger played a cross in from the flank. The raucous crowd at Seattle's CenturyLink Field, more than 40,000 strong, gasped in anticipation as they saw Jozy Altidore lurking in the penalty area, ready to head home the effort. While a Panamanian defender managed to beat the Stars and Stripes attacker to the ball, the subtext was clear: What a difference 10 days makes.
Before June 2's match against Germany, the young forward and his team were reeling. Altidore hadn't scored for the squad since 2011 and Jurgen Klinsmann's side was coming off a sound defeat to Belgium. After Tuesday night's victory in the Pacific Northwest, however, Altidore has a three-match scoring streak and the U.S. has won each fixture. The team, which plays Honduras in a week, posted its most impressive performance during the final round of World Cup qualification and has a 98.5 percent chance of reaching Brazil. Like Altidore elevating for a header, this is a team on the rise.
When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the United States men's national team in the summer of 2011, United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati tasked the former German star with two objectives: (1) qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and (2) remake the American program in an effort to turn a middling soccer nation into something resembling a world power.
Twenty months into the experiment, Klinsmann has succeeded in some areas and failed in others. It's been a battle, partly because those two goals come into conflict with each other. The need to win now butts against the development of players for the future. The head coach talks about imposing a system of high-pressure soccer, complete with skillful, one-touch passing. But changing a style and a culture while raising the overall level of talent takes time. And time is a luxury the squad doesn't have if it plans to reach Brazil '14.
In 2009, Bill Simmons decided to cross another item off his bucket list by traveling south to Mexico City and Estadio Azteca to take in the sights, sounds and passion of a USA-Mexico World Cup qualifying match.
For the past three days, we've been told repeatedly that San Pedro Sula, a city of almost 900,000, is the most dangerous place in the world. The United States Soccer Federation informed journalists who were covering the Americans' first game of the final round of World Cup qualifying of this fact before we arrived. A Monday-night briefing by the State Department reiterated the point, citing a 2011 murder rate that was the highest in the world.
But it was hard to agree with that thesis Wednesday afternoon at Estadio Olimpico. An hour before the home side opened its quest for the 2014 World Cup, the stands were two-thirds full and bouncing with the reverberations of blasting Latin music. The audience consisted of many men, but also plenty of wives and girlfriends (but not WAGs), families, hand-holding, and smiles. Eventually, a reported attendance of 37,000 would fill the venue for the 3 p.m. game. It likely wasn't quite that many — there were more than 3,000 empty spots among the 40,000 seats — but still, more than .004 percent of the country's population turned out to cheer on their Catrachos. It felt like a party, not at all like a war zone.
In truth, the cracks in the SPS-as-Beirut-circa–Spy Game narrative started to show earlier in the week. The city is dangerous, especially at night, but there's a good will here toward visiting tourists. Half a dozen fans from the States offered tales of walking down the streets and getting assaulted by nothing more than good-natured jeers at their red, white, and blue jerseys. They found an excellent local restaurant the previous night. They took cabs, but they were fine. That is admittedly a small sample size, but it's nothing like the horror stories we were told, or the ones that pop up in the papers.
I didn't even know where it came from. Was there an official announcement? Did someone break the news? It turned out it was Richard Deitsch. But all I knew at the time was that one minute Twitter was bubbling along peacefully and the next it had turned fluorescent purple and started belching out smoke and then helicopters were circling and a CNN anchor was talking about "spent fuel rods" and underground pools and evacuation orders. And the thing that did this to Twitter was the news that noted March Madness–intensifier and screamer of screams Gus Johnson was being groomed to be Fox Sports's leading commentator during the 2018 World Cup.
Soccer fans were elated. Soccer fans were enraged. Soccer fans had opinions and they were airing those opinions in all caps.
It wasn't just Didier Drogba. Everyone in an Ivory Coast shirt was helpless. Nigerian midfielder Sunday Mba's 78th-minute run from midfield ended with him running out of options. So he had a shot. The ball took just enough of a deflection off an Ivorian defender to leave the keeper, Boubacar Barry, with no chance.
But even if Ivory Coast's 2-1 elimination loss to Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations over the weekend was surprising as an upset, it should have been predictable as an inevitability. If not that match, then maybe the next or the next would have seen the Ivorians out. Ever since losing the 2006 final to hosts Egypt, Ivory Coast has been the heavy pre-tournament favorite for every ACoN. And each time it has failed to win.
Not the job of hosting of the event, which they apparently aren’t exactly succeeding at right now, though it seems that every host nation of a major sporting event falls behind schedule on stadium and infrastructure projects. But given that over the weekend FIFA held the draw for the Confederations Cup, the World Cup's dress rehearsal, Brazil's host-nation status is as safe as kittens.
No, Brazil lost the World Cup competition. (An impressive feat, considering no games have been played.) They’ve already lost, because they’ve hired Phil Scolari to manage the Seleção, the national football team. Actually, they’ve rehired him.
I hate international weeks. Always have hated international weeks.
I love international games of course. Not the friendlies, obviously — I hate those — and all but the very final game of qualifying, or the games in the tournament that don't involve my side after we've been eliminated. I hate those, too. I probably hate the first two "phony war" group games in tournament play — I like the extended state of exception of tournaments themselves, just not the majority of the games in them — and there's usually a game during a tournament where your side gets involved in an epic, extra-time-then-penalties struggle during which you're dimly aware of the zero-sum truth that there are no actual winners emerging from this and that the tournament peaks here for both sides, regardless of final score. I hate the hollow feeling those leave afterward. But yes, I love international games — that much should be clear.
But I'm basically a club man. And those weeks where I'm wrenched from my cozy circadian rhythms of predictions, spreads, form teams/players, multiple staggered games (one of the joys of watching MLS is a fact that is often touted as a potential weakness in its promotion — the staggered kickoff times) and localized micro-intrigues ("Is Danny Califf going to grow a new knee by Saturday?" "Is Brad Evans preparing to comment?") into the international realm — those are weeks I resent.
Eddie Johnson's first goal for the United States Men's National Team came in the forward's first start on October 10, 2004. Johnson, then 20 years old, netted three more three days later against Panama and finished 2006 World Cup qualifying with seven goals in six games. The Florida-born Johnson was strong, fast, and talented, exactly what the future of U.S. soccer was supposed to look like.
Then, perhaps inevitably, he began to struggle. A combination of injuries, believing the hype, and bad luck plagued Johnson, who played for five clubs between 2006 and 2011. There were occasional highs — a goal for the U.S. against Barbados in 2008, a strong if brief run with Cardiff City in 2009 — but mostly lows. He continued to make money to play soccer, which is not a bad life, but that incredible promise was slipping away. When a deal to play for Puebla in the Mexican League fell apart last winter because Johnson was out of shape, the subsequent conversation didn't revolve around when we would see the forward in the Stars and Stripes again, it focused on whether he would continue to play professionally at all.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Andy Murray won his first career Grand Slam, outlasting Novak Djokovic in a five-set marathon to take the U.S. Open title. The Scottish Murray credited his win to watching the inspirational parts from Braveheart before the match, while Djokovic blamed his loss on watching scenes from the depressing Serbian silent art house film A Lifetime of Sidewalks.
Perhaps the least surprising surprise at the heart of the traditional “handover” segment of the 2012 London Olympics Closing Ceremony — its big reveal — was the presence of the ubiquitous, loved-worldwide or just merely tolerated figure of Brazilian soccer legend Pelé, there to “embrace” the world and welcome the Games to Rio in 2016. At first incognito underneath a rakishly cocked black hat and jacket that were no sartorial match for the brilliant white duds that singer Seu Jorge absolutely smashed out of the Olympic Park, Pelé soon shed both, displaying the familiar yellow-and-green shirt of the Brazilian national team emblazoned with his name and his iconic no. 10. It was, for many, an exciting way to whet the appetite for the surely fantastic spectacle to come four years hence in a Cidade Maravilhosa, but the sight of the Seleção’s jersey on its nation’s most famous footballer was also a reminder of the not-at-all-small affair only two years away, which we all know as World Cup 2014.
In the second in a series of posts on the future of soccer, Andrew Lewellen looks back on a pivotal moment in U.S. soccer history — the 1990 World Cup — and how it changed the trajectory of the sport in the States. For Part I of the series, on the recent changes in high school and youth soccer, click here.
If a “modern era” in American soccer exists, it began on November 19, 1989, when the U.S. National team, made up of current and former college players, played Trinidad and Tobago in Port-of-Spain for the final spot in the 1990 World Cup. Trinidad and Tobago needed only a tie to advance to the World Cup. The U.S. needed a victory. Of course nobody expected the U.S. to win; they hadn’t played in a World Cup since 1950.
But that game against Trinidad and Tobago had an additional dramatic wrinkle: The year before, in 1989, FIFA had awarded the United States the rights to host the 1994 World Cup. Because of the country’s lack of a professional league and its general ambivalence toward the world’s sport, the decision — as FIFA’s decisions often are — was met with criticism and disdain. But FIFA saw an opportunity to use the World Cup to grow the sport in the United States. As the host country, the U.S. would get an automatic bid to the ’94 World Cup. But if they failed to qualify for the ’90 World Cup, it would be an embarrassment, proof that the U.S. could not play at an elite, international level — and did not deserve to host the ’94 World Cup.
Not only was American pride at stake, so were the players’ jobs; they knew that if they lost to Trinidad and Tobago, their contracts — and their salaries — with the U.S. Soccer Federation would be in jeopardy.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Kevin Durant scored 36 points and grabbed eight boards as the Thunder topped the Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, 105-94. After the game, LeBron James remained confident. "Just wait till we get to the fourth quarter," said James, who has been undergoing successful hypnosis therapy to erase bad fourth quarters from his memory. "That's when the stars come out."
Tuesday saw a ton of international football action, as European nations wrapped up the initial qualifying stages for the Euro 2012 Finals and non-Euro national teams played some high-profile friendlies. So fire up "Sweet Georgia Brown" and let's do some globe-trotting, shall we?