With the game at Azteca looming we are nearing the end of a great stretch of soccer in the US. If you search around the web you’ll find all sorts of retrospectives about the Confed Cup, the Gold Cup, the World Soccer Challenge, World Cup qualifying, international club friendlies and even the US Open and CONCACAF Champions League, so I won’t rehash all that. But I would like to touch on one thing I have learned watching, reading and writing about soccer this summer: sometimes perception counts more than performance (and that is unfortunate).
We are in a period in America where every result is judged not just on the quality of performance, but on how it is perceived by diehards, sportscasters/journalists, the casual fan and the disinterested American. While I don’t like it, I think it is just the reality we must live in during the current phase of Soccer in America.
Here are two examples.
The perception of the Confed Cup for most of the list of four above (diehard to disinterested) was that it was a rousing success that included possibly the greatest upset in modern US Soccer history and the “emergence” of a Landon Donovan. Based on performance, I would submit, it clearly showed that the US is an inconsistent squad that can only beat a world power through will and determination coupled with the best brand of soccer they can muster. Don’t get me wrong, I was jumping up and down with a bunch of other crazies at Shakespeare’s Pub in San Diego as time expired versus Spain. I loved that win. But was it really anything more than Appalachian St. taking down Michigan? A great upset that really didn’t mean all that much except for some stunned fans of the “Goliath?”
The reverse happened with the Gold Cup. The non-diehards (and even some of the diehards) viewed the 5-0 defeat as an embarrassment of epic proportions, took US Soccer to the mat for bringing the “C” team and discounted everything before the final 45-minutes. Whereas the performance for the level of talent on the field leading up to the 2nd half of the final was decidedly strong (although not spectacular) and the tournament shed some light on the 2nd and 3rd tiers of the US Player pool.
So now we reach the metaphorical end of the Summer of Soccer ’09 with the match versus Mexico next week representing the cherry on the sundae. (Incidentally, Mexico will be without Rafa Marquez due to injury.) From the performance viewpoint, a US victory would go a long way towards showing some consistency and growth on the world stage and all but secure a World Cup berth (while putting Mexico’s bid on life support). A draw could be an admirable showing depending on how the Yanks played. And a loss by more than a goal would be the proverbial “two steps back” for the US Soccer program after the small step forward at the Confed Cup.
As for perception? Surprisingly, the 2nd half collapse at Giants Stadium a few weeks ago could be a good thing for US Soccer as expectations are now tempered for the August 12 showdown. But should they be? The US “A” team will be playing its first game since the Confed Cup and the resulting hype. So, why should expectations be any different?
Regardless, I think perception meets reality next Wednesday for US Soccer. A loss would be and be perceived as a mis-step. A win would be a giant step forward performance-wise while wiping some of the perceived stink off the Gold Cup final. And a draw would fall somewhere in the middle with the performance being graded on collection of great plays and missed opportunities along with perceptions probably falling equally across the spectrum.
One other thing I learned this summer…Americans dig soccer and that’s just reality.