As one commentator put it, “the American dream has come to an end.” The men’s US nation soccer team fell out of the 2010 World Cup in the round-of-16. Once the dust settles, there are many questions to be answered: did the US exceed expectations or fall short? Where does US soccer rank in comparison to the top teams in the world? Finally, what conclusions can be drawn about US soccer and, ultimately, North American soccer?
You want the good news or the bad news? Let’s start with the bad news…
The US were behind in every group match that they played. Although they had to deal with controversial calls, they continuously rolled up their sleeves and worked tirelessly to get back into the games. In true American fashion, they not only staged comebacks, but they staged heroic comebacks. Although this is wonderful to watch and great for entertainment, it cannot be sustained forever; this will hold especially true against strong teams.
Take their round-of-16 game against Ghana as an example. After being down early, the Americans roared back into the game with a late goal. Once the American hearts finished swelling, the quality of soccer from Ghana took over. In the overtime period, Ghana proved to be too much to handle. In what seemed to be inevitable, Ghana scored an overtime goal and won the game. After the game, Landon Donovan explained that when you play teams of Ghana’s caliber, they will make you pay for even the slightest of mistakes. In the US’s case, falling behind early was a mistake they couldn’t afford to make as Ghana made them pay. Listen as a proud Donovan explains the US were too vulnerable and ultimately not good enough:
Cinderella stories exist in many sports; soccer is not one known for cinderella stories. Soccer is such a calculated game based on tactics, positioning and formations that the better team will almost always win. To stage a comeback against weaker teams is reasonable, but to stage a comeback against a good team and expect to win is unreasonable.
Even if the US managed to get into the quarter-finals with a stroke of luck, they would be completely out-matched by a superior team. The fact of the matter is that US soccer is getting better and better, but it isn’t anywhere near where it needs to be in order for the US to play with the big boys.
Baring in mind that US soccer is still very young and very fragile, the good news is that the US met their expectations and played to their full potential. Consider some of these facts. The FIFA World Cup has been around since 1930 and the US have only played a legitimate role in a fraction of those World Cups. In essence, it is only since the US hosted the 1994 World Cup — in what was labeled as the “re-birth of US soccer” — that there have been legitimate efforts to develop soccer in the US. Compare that to the generations Europe and South America have poured into the development of great players, coaches and teams. Understanding that the US is still years behind in the quality of play, development, soccer programs, soccer players and soccer coaches…they’ve done well.
The US came out of their group in 1st place. With Slovenia, Algeria and the almighty England making up the table, this was by no means an easy task. Many had England rising out of their group in 1st place while the second and final spot was arguably up for grabs between the US and Slovenia. So for the US to defy the odds of not just making it out of the group, but finishing ahead of England is a giant leap forward for US soccer. Not only will this get the attention of the North American public, but the worldwide public as well.
Some more good news: everywhere you go in the US (and North America) there are children, teenagers and grown adults populating soccer fields. Thousands upon thousands of players are increasingly playing the beautiful game. The MLS (Major Soccer League) is expanding and continuously adding teams and cities to its repertoire. World re-known players such as David Beckham, Freddie Ljunberg and Julian DeGuzman have been attracted to the MLS even though they have the ability to play anywhere in the world. What this means is that slowly, but surely, North America is cementing its place in the world as a soccer power.
Let’s not be naive and think the US under-achieved at the 2010 World Cup. People can say what they’d like, but the reality is that North American soccer still has quite a way to go and quite of few obstacles to conquer before beginning to set the bar any higher. Having said that, let’s be proud of how far North American soccer has come in such a short period of time; let’s be proud of the potential for growth in every realm of the game; and let’s be proud that the world is taking notice.