Amongst my fellow soccer fanatics and amongst my casual soccer fan friends, I have often taken the side of the argument that U.S. soccer is not on the verge of superstardom and that their path to soccer ascendancy will be slow and gradual, wrought with peaks and valleys, rather than an overnight success. While my stances are always supported with evidence and sound reasoning, they are often dismissed because it’s not fun to hear someone attempt to temper your expectations after a short-term success.
Coming off the US Gold Cup victory and in the midst of an all-time record consecutive winning streak, we are certainly in one of the peak stages of U.S. soccer’s development cycle, and fans are feeling great about the program. However, it was not long ago (approximately two months) that the U.S. was played off the field by an emerging, but not yet ascendant, Belgian side. As I stated previously, the United State’s path to world soccer power will take time, and, despite temporary ebbs and flows, fans need to recognize this fact and appreciate the journey.
I came across the following article the other day written by Roger Bennett that discusses the American soccer inferiority complex. While I recommend the article, as it is a good read, the following quote stuck with me and inspired me to write this article.
“Everyone remembers 2002 as a great success, but in truth, we needed South Korea to score a late goal and beat Portugal so we could reach the elimination round. In both World Cups, one play changed everything and transformed the way everybody thought about the health and direction of U.S. soccer.”
– Jimmy Conrad
I have often made this same point in my arguments with friends who are prone to either proclaim American dominance after a string of good performances or an accomplishment, such as the recent Gold Cup, or to lament U.S. soccer to an eternity of mediocrity. As much as I am impressed and satisfied with the United State’s growth and development to this point, I think it’s worthwhile to revisit the last fifteen years of U.S. soccer history and objectively evaluate the United State’s progress.
World Cup 1998
In continuing with our peaks and valleys heuristic, 1998 represented the nadir in U.S. soccer progress over the last twenty years. Following the 1994 World Cup, which the U.S. hosted and advanced to the Round of 16, and the inception of Major League Soccer (MLS), the United States’ last-place performance in France certainly opened some eyes and illustrated that the U.S. still has a long way to go.
World Cup 2002
While many remember the United States’ historical quarterfinal run as the shining moment in U.S. soccer history, the 2002 World Cup was far from a perfect performance. After stunning pre-tournament favorite, Portugal, with a three-goal first-half barrage, the U.S. gave up two goals before clinging to victory in its opening match. In the second match against the host nation, South Korea, the U.S. was largely outplayed (outshout 19-6 and corner kicks 7-0 in South Korea’s favor) and only able to salvage a point off a clinical finish by Clint Mathis.
In the third and final match of group play, the US, in control of its own destiny, failed to secure the tie or win it needed against Poland, a team already eliminated from the tournament. After a crushing 3-1 defeat to Poland, the U.S. team was ready to pack its bags and go home until South Korea, strengthened by their home field advantage, defeated Portugal who were reduced to nine men during the match.
As fate would have it, the U.S. battled its arch-rival Mexico in the Round of 16 following its fortuitous advancement from the group stages. In a game now known simply as “Dos a Cero”, the U.S. shocked its neighbors to the south in a 2-0 victory. In the quarterfinals, the U.S. fought valiantly against international superpower, Germany, only to fall 1-0 in controversial fashion, as a German defender handled a ball on the goaline that was not whistled for a penalty.
World Cup 2006
The luck of the draw did the U.S. no favors, as the Americans were placed in the “Group of Death” with the Czech Republic, Italy, and Ghana. In the United States’ opening match, the Czech Republic destroyed a despondent US team 3-0, in which the U.S. did not manage a single shot on goal. The United State’s finest performance of the tournament came against the future champions of the World Cup, Italy. In a highly memorable game, the US confidently battled Italy to a tie playing nine on ten (red cards to Danielle De Rossi, Pablo Mastroeni, and Eddie Pope) for a majority of the game and even appeared to score a winning goal only for it to be ruled (correctly) offside.
In the final match of the group play, the US faced a must-win game against the upstart Ghanaian national team. The US scored its only goal of the tournament (as its goal versus Italy was an own goal) but failed to defeat Ghana and was knocked out of the tournament on a sour note.
Confederations Cup 2009
The other peak of U.S. soccer over the last twenty years was its runner-up finish in the 2009 Confederations Cup. However, like the 2002 World Cup, the U.S. relied on some fortuitous events to advance and ultimately achieve its memorable finish. In its opening match, the U.S. lost to the defending World Cup champions, Italy, 3-1 on the strength of two goals from Italy’s American-born striker, Giuseppe Rossi. In their second match, the U.S. lost 3-0 to Brazil in a convincing manner.
Going into its final group match, the U.S. looked all but eliminated. The U.S. needed to defeat Egypt by three or more goals and have Italy score three fewer goals than the U.S. in a loss to Brazil. Prior to the U.S. match, Brazil did its part and beat Italy 3-0 to provide the U.S. with a sliver of hope. With their backs against the wall, the U.S. played a terrific match and defeated Egypt 3-0 to complete its improbable advancement out of the group stage.
In the semi-final match, the U.S. played one of its finest matches of all-time in its historic 2-0 victory over Spain, which ended Spain’s 35 match unbeaten streak. Carrying the momentum of its extraordinary victory over Spain, the U.S. jumped out to a 2-0 lead over Brazil in the Championship match. However, the U.S., unsure if they should sit back and defend their lead or if they should continue to attack, eventually surrendered three unanswered goals to the superior Brazilian side.
World Cup 2010
Coming off a strong qualifying campaign, the U.S. had high aspirations for its performance in the 2010 World Cup, especially after being placed into one of the weaker groups. In its first match, the U.S. took advantage of a goalkeeping error to steal a tie against England who outplayed the U.S. throughout the match. In its second match, the U.S. saw the opposite side of lady luck. With the scored tied 2-2 against Slovenia, the U.S. saw its game-winning goal disallowed on an incorrect call late in the match.
Entering the final match day of the group, all four teams remained eligible to advance to the knockout rounds. The U.S., favored against Algeria, appeared set to exit the tournament following a disappointing performance. However, as we all remember, Landon Donovan rescued the U.S. by scoring a thrilling, extra time goal that will go down in the lore of U.S. soccer history. However, the pendulum of luck swung back against the U.S. in the following round, as the U.S. faced its World Cup kryptonite, Ghana, who eliminated the U.S. for the second time in as many tries.
Now that we have revisited the United States’ performance in its last five major international tournaments, it is time draw conclusions. Most fans are quick to remember the notable highs (the quarterfinal run in the 2002 World Cup and the second-place finish at the 2009 Confederations Cup) and lows (the last place finish in 1998 and the defeats to Ghana in 2006 and 2010) but forget how those memorable moments came to be.
It’s interesting to note that both highs were only made possible by extremely fortuitous occurrences in the group stages. Had South Korea not beaten Portugal or had Brazil not beaten Italy 3-0, the United States’ two shining moments would never have occurred and the United State’s tournament results would appear quite bleak. On the other hand, luck is a factor, for better or worse, in every tournament so it cannot be discounted entirely. In each instance, the U.S. made the most of its opportunity and played its best soccer and achieved its greatest successes after it benefited from having luck on its side.
That being said, the U.S. did not play two, let alone three, complete matches in any of the group stages of the five tournaments analyzed, proving two key points. One, these tournaments are tough, gruelling affairs that are as much about survival as playing perfect soccer. It is rare for any team, aside from the superpowers, to play three complete games in the group stages of any major international tournament. Two, the U.S. has been nothing more than a slightly-above-average team, capable of beating great teams but equally capable of struggling against weaker teams.
The U.S. soccer team has largely embodied the spirit of America, as its successes have been predicated on opportunism, perseverance, and the refusal to give up. It should be noted that it is an accomplishment in and of itself that the U.S. has qualified for six consecutive World Cups and is on the verge of securing a berth to number seven. Moreover, when the U.S. did advance to the knockout stages, it rose to the occasion and fearlessly battled whichever opponent it faced leading to memorable wins over teams like Mexico and Spain and hard-fought, respectable losses to Germany and Brazil.
While the U.S. has made steady, albeit slow, progress over the last fifteen years, its goal in each World Cup should still simply be to advance to the knockout stages. That being said, the U.S. has improved to the point where it should expect to play good soccer and impose itself on its opponents, rather than simply seek results. Moreso than ever before, the U.S. is prepared to play three complete games in the group stages and is ready to challenge virtually any opponent in the knockout stages of the competition. Progress is being made, people, but let’s evaluate and project the United State’s future performances with the complete knowledge of their past.