Neil Blackmon on the year that was in US Soccer.
“There is no other sport like football. It is beautiful and it imitates life because it is a game of failure. Americans have baseball, and it is beautiful and there you have failure too—but football is different because it is epistemological. You can have failure and it’s to scale of course, but the degree of failure is always a question of method. And you can always answer the question why if you look hard enough. And there are a lot of almosts.”
— Johan Cruyff
There’s an old joke that sportswriters have a tremendously self-important job, that they don’t read the papers, they just write for them. It’s a funny joke but it misses the point: writing about sport is cloaked in insecurity because the challenge of the blank page is so daunting. A sportswriter is essentially given a blank page, some peripheral information that includes numbers and letters and trends and the writer is then tasked with making a series or a ballgame out of the whole thing. It’s a powerful, ego-driven thing, the task of making an event or series of events or story that others may not have seen come to life on a page. And it’s true that it’s less so in the age of instant media, but in the end it’s still one that leaves the writer completely exposed. One failed paragraph, one misguided suggestion, one failed letter and an entire moment in time falls flat.
Why mention any of this? Because even in the age of instant media, it’s been my great privilege despite my day job to write stories about soccer, about the US National teams and the Barclays Premier League, and despite my own insecurities in doing so, I get to recreate the smell, the feeling, the texture of a game that matters to people. We leave the television and internet to the sight, or the sound, and try to capture the ineffable moment. And sometimes, when we’re lucky, we almost do. And for those of us, who like me, have a platform for our passion, even (especially?) without profit, that’s almost as good as it gets. My path to soccer writer that practices law as his day job isn’t exactly a vintage American tale of accomplishment, but it is almost. And it’s one that I couldn’t help but think about as I reflected back on the year that was in US Soccer. For if US Soccer, in the total sense of the phrase “US Soccer”, could be given a one word summation in 2011- wouldn’t that word have to be “almost.”
We entered 2011 coming off a World Cup that was almost the greatest in modern Men’s National Team history. The Americans achieved their greatest draw since Bunker Hill, scored almost the most important goal in the history of US Soccer in the 91st minute, and won a group at the World Cup, and one that included England no less. On this ground alone, you could argue 2010 was the best World Cup for America in the modern era, but to do so you almost have to forget the almost invincible Tim Howard being just off his line on Kevin Prince-Boateng’s early strike, and Carlos Bocanegra almost having enough skill to recover on Jay DeMerit’s blunder leading to the Asamoah Gyan’s extra time winner in the second round.
Fast forward three months, and the Yanks almost got the better of one of the globe’s finest sides, Argentina. Sure, it took a Jim Craig in Lake Placid type performance from Tim Howard in the first forty-five, but Bob Bradley made his typical rope-a-dope adjustments in the second half, where he shored up the US liabilities, addressed the oppositions strengths, and switched his formation. It almost worked, and who knows what a better result than a draw would have delivered—but we do know the game offered two revelations in side back Timothy Chandler, who stopped the Argentinian siege of the right flank (a movie we’d see again in the summer, without the German-American, sadly) and Juan Agudelo, whose work rate coupled with a hard-tackling American midfield created space for the Americans creative engines, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. It was almost a result worth savoring, save the first forty-five minutes, full of reservations.
Across the pond, Clint Dempsey was almost the best CONCACAF field player in the Barclay’s Premier League, except that for every splendid, jersey sullied performance from Fulham’s #23, there was one more attention-grabbing and to the constantly insecure American soccer faithful, more ominous from Mexico’s young Javier Hernandez. And when speaking of Hernandez, it’s almost worth a paragraph to stop.
The rise of Hernandez from Mexican Primera club Chivas– Mexican power but still more or less an outpost on the global map of club importance–was almost antihero role reversal. After all, America is supposed to be the place where a Horatio Alger tale is possible, rise from the one bedroom apartment in some dark corner of Queens or where have you to profit and prominence. Didn’t Herman Cain, one of 2011’s most fascinating figures, suggest that “If you aren’t rich and successful, blame yourself.” There’s still a Calvinist strain connecting prosperity to divine election in the Occupy Wall Street version of America, and isn’t this why we’ve always felt a strong connection to Clint Dempsey of Nacogdoches, Texas? Here’s a guy who came from playing backyard soccer and imitating the ball tricks he saw on public television on Sunday mornings, who was never on the silver spooner American youth developmental radars, who ended up getting a late scholarship to an above-average soccer program, and who has ended up, just this fall, passing the legendary Brian McBride as America’s most successful scorer in the globe’s finest league? Hernandez is antihero precisely for stealing the spotlight in our shadowy little region of the soccer universe from Dempsey, the Horatio Alger tale of American soccer. It would be one thing if Hernandez himself had come from threadbare beginnings, but beyond having a professional soccer player father who thought his son “too small” to make a mark on the game, there’s nothing remarkably compelling about the young man’s life story. Only his game makes for powerful narrative.
This summer brought the Gold Cup, and the story almost had a happy ending. There was a moment in late May at Wembley Stadium where a few of the more optimistic believed Hernandez was mortal. Barcelona’s backline had trapped Hernandez into submission in the Champions League final, and Hernandez wandered around the midfield for the latter portion of the game, pouting and half-chasing the ball. But the cynical knew better. The US backline, with or without the German revelation we met against Argentina in March, is no Barcelona. And despite a second consecutive international tournament where the Pride of Nacogdoches was the States’ finest player, it was Hernandez who was the difference, along with the enigmatic youngster Gio Dos Santos, who plays every bit the role of wimpy Clark Kent at his clubs but climbs into a phone book and dons a green, red, and white cape upon his every return to international play.
After a Gold Cup that saw the Americans almost fail to get out of group play, and The Americans almost had enough that day too—they found a belated Father’s Day goal gift from Michael Bradley, and an under-attack from various media outlets and inconsistent Landon Donovan doubled the lead minutes later, donning his own cape from whatever energy he seems to find when seeing the green, red and white in front of him. It was a 2-0 lead that was almost too good to be true, and when longtime, understated and underappreciated side back Steve Cherundolo’s 32 year old legs could carry him no further after twenty minutes, the slow death of America’s title hopes began. Javier Hernandez’s continual darting runs sliced open a patchwork American back four, and after Clint Dempsey had a rocket shot ricochet off the bar that almost tied the game at 3-3, Gio Dos’ Santos scored the tournament’s most brilliant goal, to put Mexico ahead 4-2 and help El Tri hoist the trophy.
Two years prior to this June’s final in Pasadena, it was almost safe to say that in under the decade since Brian McBride’s header found the back of the net in Korea in 2002, the United States had changed the power structure of CONCACAF for good. In the last World Cup cycle, after all, the Americans had won the qualifying group (again) and a World Cup group. Perhaps Mexico and the rise of Chicarito then were a well-timed reminder that in sport, as in life, things can change very quickly. Mexico won the U-17 World Cup this year and finished second in the U-20 tournament. Top team vs. top team, June’s result made it almost safe to argue El Tri are two goals better on a neutral field. The American players, and their Federation officials, left Pasadena wondering how to narrow the gap.
As fans and journalists alike, there wasn’t much time to stew over Gold Cup defeat. The Women’s World Cup in Germany in late June and early July came as welcome respite, and delivered the proverbial goods. The whole tournament was broadcast in beautiful high-definition by ESPN and as the group stages progressed, the ratings, and the number of American television sets TIVOing matches expanded exponentially. Read that sentence again, and it’s almost beyond the realm. People were locked in and this group of incredible athletes, these women, were more than compelling.
Soccer is a global village these days in the men’s game, this much we know, but this gamble by ESPN was a societal experiment that almost failed before it even started. The Americans almost failed to qualify long after the television deal had been inked. It took a clutch goal from a 21 year old to help the Americans out of the hole, and in the aftermath, ESPN promptly dubbed young Alex Morgan, who had just graduated from Cal-Berkeley “NEXT” in its annual year-end magazine honoring special young athletes who should and will command our attention in the years to come.
With the country tuned in, the World Cup run almost ended like the men’s did—right when it was becoming magical and people were paying attention. After 120 minutes, the Americans trailed Brazil in the quarterfinals and as the fourth official signaled “three minutes” of stoppage time, hearts had left throats, beginning the descent into pit-of-the-stomach despair. In a flick of the foot of Megan Rapinoe, a short-haired pile of spunk and tenacity, everything changed. The “cross”, as I would call it writing that evening, was perhaps the most remarkable goal in the history of US Soccer. That came two minutes into stoppage time after 120 minutes of play was remarkable enough—that it was a precise cross from twenty-five yards to the head of a late running American legend in Abby Wambach, who was likely playing her final Women’s World Cup was drama of Shakespearian measure.
For Rapinoe, the women who made the pass, it meant becoming a household name and an indie heartthrob with her own Portlandia-esque love song, who challenged, if only for a moment, the most zealous Zooey Deschanel adulator for affection. For Wambach, it was vindication of a spectacular career in an unappreciated sport, one that ultimately made her the first women’s soccer player ever to be named the Associated Press’ female athlete of the year.
Almost forgotten in the aftermath of Wambach’s perfect header, in the months that have followed, was that the Americans had to convert five penalties and get an otherworldly save from Hope Solo to win the game, and then they had to win a semifinal before they had a chance to really win anything. They did both of those things of course, and almost won the whole tournament too. Alex Morgan, whose teammates call her “Baby Horse”, scored a goal even more enormous than the one she scored to help the team qualify, netting in the World Cup Final. Again a fourth official signaled “three minutes”, but this time, the Yanks were on the wrong side of riveting. Japan, playing in a tournament with heavy hearts in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy, found a goal off Homare Sawa’s head. Then it buried all its penalties and the US didn’t. The women almost won the World Cup. In that tournament, we were reminded of how pure and wonderful this game we’re so passionate about can be. But in those three minutes, we were also reminded how gut-wrenching almost can be.
Speaking of gut-wrenching, how about the way things ended with Bob Bradley, the man who helped an American team win a group at the World Cup and, with a 2-0 win that ultimately denied Spain an international treble, brought the United States within a half of winning a FIFA international tournament? Bob Bradley was always America’s second choice. You don’t get hired on an interim basis amid public longing and contractual breakdown news leaks about Jürgen Klinsmann when that isn’t the case. I’d like to write that Bob Bradley didn’t care about being second-choice in the beginning and second-choice in the end, but the truth is, we just don’t know. What we do know is that he left as the winningest manager in the history of American men’s soccer, with a record of 43-25-12. He worked his rear end off, and he instilled, for a long while, a sense of pride and “can do” into the team that had disappeared in the complacency of the Bruce Arena second World Cup cycle.
Of course, it wasn’t all roses and sunshine. Bradley was tactically limited and, like any manager, had his favorites. Some, like Jon Bornstein, made it hard to forget that he capped more players than any US manager ever. Bradley was fine at in-game adjustments, but his team sheets often left us scratching our heads. And for every decision to start Conor Casey resulting in a brace and road qualifying points there was a Ricardo Clark against Ghana after Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley had bossed the midfield in two games type decision. The Gold Cup might have been the last straw, but the truth is the Bradley era ended when the Americans lost to Ghana, and too many folks forgot that they won the World Cup group. The focus was on what almost happened. A reasonable quarterfinal draw, a path to the final. What almost was in 2010, and another almost in the 2011 Gold Cup Final meant Bob had to go. He was replaced by Jürgen Klinsmann, the man Sunil Gulati almost hired in 2006.
The choice to hire Klinsmann was remarkably consistent with the American fear of regretting choices we never make. Gulati had to know, much like the killer in Dirty Harry had to know if Callahan had a bullet left in the gun. It was also a question of method, as the Cruyff quote that precedes the piece notes. The US had tried things Bruce’s way, and done things Bob’s. Perhaps it was time for a different method. And yes, if in the larger context, Bob Bradley’s fate reads like a down-on-his-luck figure in a Fitzgerald novel, that’s because he is. And maybe letting Bradley go early in his second-term is a good thing. As Fitzgerald wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives.”
Klinsmann’s term almost got off to a storybook start, but the Americans couldn’t muster a winner against a Chicharito-less Mexico side. Since then, there’s been the usual pendulum, just one reoriented towards a new manager: cynics who feel Klinsmann is the classic great player, inept-manager—a void who will be exposed as such without Joachim Low playing the role of wizard behind the curtain, and those who think his infusion of German-American and Latin-American talent will help the Yanks forge a desperately needed offensive spark and identity—one that is essential if they are to maintain any semblance of regional primacy. In my view, the jury’s still out. But the great news is that World Cup qualifying starts in 2012, and by next holiday season, we’ll almost know.
Happy New Year’s to all The Shin Guardian readers. All the best in 2012. And remember, it’s almost time for another Olympics, and another chance to see US Soccer do something quite special.