If national soccer teams were like sports cars, then the US men’s national team would have to be a mid-90s Mitsubishi Eclipse—exciting, cheap, but prone to terrible collapses at the worst possible times.
Consider the team’s progression over the years. After flaming out in horrific fashion at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the identity of US soccer was very much in question. Then came a startling Confederations Cup run in which we unseated powerhouse Spain and a World Cup campaign in South Africa that was marked by—you guessed it—a performance worthy of the cardiac kids. Early concessions of goals, followed by dramatic fight-backs and scintillating victories—this was US soccer, for better or worse.
After watching the US fight and scratch to a wild, wacky and wantonly ebullient 4-3 win over Germany this past weekend, there is no doubt: US soccer is the wild card, the mystery flavor, the “you-never-know-what-you’re-gonna-get” international team. As a partial bystander, I would be overjoyed; as a fan, I am terrified.
Today, the position of the team stands at a crossroads. Under coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the US Soccer Federation has pursued a style of soccer difficult to create even in the best of circumstances—beautiful flowing attacking, backed up by dominant, direct midfield play and a stout back line. However, these are skills and attributes that must be honed and trained from impossibly young ages; without famed academies drilling these tactics into young impressionable athletes until they become second nature, there is no chance for a team to mesh in this mold.
As far as US soccer is concerned, in recent years, it remains an eclectic mix of transplanted internationals and a few transcendental native-born superstars, patched together with duct tape and quick words of coaching. The cohesiveness that so defines the Spains of the world is lacking.
In contrast, the team that let Klinsmann go, Germany, has seen its youth-development reach new heights. Other than evergreen striker Miroslav Klose, the entirety of the German B-team that voyaged to Washington, D.C., this weekend to play the US (the A-team is still recovering from the all-German Champions League final and league cup) was under the age of 23. Even with this depleted lineup, the Germans probably would have won had it not been for some heroic defending and some shoddy finishing by many a player (I’m especially looking at you, Per Mertesacker).
Why? Quite simply, their players, even lacking experience, know exactly what style of play they are supposed to espouse. The turns they make on the ball, the runs they execute off of it, everything is simply natural. They know exactly who they are and what they are doing. The US is still hashing that out.
The US qualifying for the World Cup is far from assured; as the win pointed out, the defense remains shaky and generating offense remains a hit-or-miss deal. However, the one thing that can be said is that the popularity of US soccer is steadily growing. Right now, the priority of sports that a typical athlete elects to pursue is football, then basketball, then baseball, then hockey and then soccer as a last resort.
But in the future, who knows? Maybe soccer will ascend to a place higher on the pantheon of sports.
Until then, I fear that watching US soccer, while incredibly entertaining, may also be hazardous to my health.
Vignesh Venkataraman is trying to will himself into a soccer fan, but with the upcoming release of “Rags to Rose: The Rise of Stanford Football,” football will reign supreme in his mind. Convince him otherwise at viggy’at’stanford.edu.