August 13, 2008

Lady Luck Frowns on US Mens Soccer

Today in Beijing, the Men's Olympic National Team failed to qualify for the quarterfinals after looking like it had won the group in about the 92nd minute of the match against the Netherlands on Sunday. While the team was not widely expected to advance given the difficulty of the group (Netherlands and Nigeria generally being regarded as superior squads), the loss is still gut-wrenching at this point given how it all played out.

If the U.S. had come out in the first match against Japan and laid an egg, most people would have probably stopped watching and it would have been a relatively painless 3 and out. However, the team claimed a 1-0 victory and three points. That combined with a draw in the Nigeria - Netherlands match set the U.S. up for potential success in the group stage. However, the 1-0 final score belies the actual play of the match. The U.S. were lucky to escape with a victory as Japan had significantly more opportunities than the U.S. but failed to capitalize. Unfortunately, the squad's luck would slowly turn around over the next couple matches.

In the second match against a Dutch team that just finished repeating as the U-23 UEFA champions, widely regarded as one of the favorites for the tournament, the U.S. appeared outclassed at first. However, after settling in around the 30th minute, the U.S played some exceptional soccer. The back four finally seemed to gel and Freddy Adu was driving the ball forward with the exceptional skill that he has always flashed but consistently delivered. The decision to sub Altidore in for an under-performing Rogers was also an excellent decision that the U.S. capitalized on to take a 2-1 lead. Unfortunately, this is where their luck changed. In the 93rd minute, after an unfortunate foul just outside the box, the Dutch's Sibon brilliantly sent the free kick under the wall and into the goal to tie the match 2-2. It is truly unfortunate, because the U.S. outplayed one of the best U-23 squads in the world for about 60 minutes of the match. To make matters worse, with the match appearing to be in hand, both Adu and Michael Bradley picked up their 2nd yellow card in as many games and therefore would have to sit for the 3rd match. Things would only get worse from here, however.

That brings us to this morning in the U.S., bright and early. Up at 4 a.m. to watch the third match against a Nigerian squad, which was also without 2 players due to yellow. You can imagine my ire with less than 4 minutes into the match Michael Orozco picks up a red card and we're stuck playing 10 v. 11 for 90 minutes! Many people will complain that so early in a match, a weak elbow like that was not deserving of a red card, particularly given that the 2 players were somewhat tangled. However, I don't think this is that great of an argument. Was it a weak red? Probably. However, Orozco has got to know that you cannot throw an intentional elbow (which it clearly was) directly in front of the ref and expect to get away with it. Things like that are one of the focus points of FIFA to try and "clean up" the game. Throw in the fact that the U.S. historically does not get much benefit of the doubt on the international level and you just can't do that. The rest of the squad played valiantly, but it is extremely tough to play down a man for a full match. When Parkhurst made one of his relatively few defensive errors in 39th, Nigeria capitalized with a beautiful goal to take a 1-0 lead.

At that point it looked like the U.S. was done in their match. However, a draw in the Japan Argentina match would still send the U.S. on to the next round. Unfortunately, Argentina went up 1-0 on Japan and the U.S. were forced to go into all out attack. Nigeria, however, was able to mount a successful counter and make it 2-0 in the 80th. The U.S. finally got on the board with a PK after one of the dumbest goalie decisions I've ever seen when the Nigerian goalie came way out of goal and made a cleats up tackle inside the box. However, it was too little too late even though the U.S. did have a late header off the post that would have tied the match.

It was clear throughout the match that the U.S. missed Adu and Bradley in the midfield as Kljestan and Szetela (and later Feilhaber) never seemed to get it together. Even a man down, the lazy passes and several turnovers left the U.S. with even fewer opportunities than they should have. I'm also not sure I agree with with the substitution of Feilhaber for Altidore. We either needed additional help on the defensive line (Rogers was stuck playing woefully out of position) or additional ability to counter. Pulling out our best offensive threat for another midfielder didnt' seem to make much sense.

What's this mean for U.S. Soccer? To be honest, I'm not sure how much we can take away from the Olympics that we didn't already know. The U.S. continues to show flashes of having the ability to compete on a global level. However, they still seem unable to sustain the performance for long periods of time (multiple matches - or even full matches at times). Some of the drives by Adu in the match against the Dutch were pure beauty. However, against Japan, he constantly seemed frustrated and spent more time complaining than succesfully driving at goal. Altidore showed some real promise as a substitute (especially against the Dutch), but also seemed like he committed some needless fouls that slowed us down against Japan. It is hard to say much about him against the Dutch as the red card forced him to play out of position. If Adu, Bradley, and Altidore can continue to develop in Europe (where all 3 play professionally), then maybe the Men's National Team can really start to develop and compete internationally. However, I don't see much potential for anything better than making the round of 16 (and only that if we get a good draw) in 2010 unless the tream really starts to play more consistently.


Dan said...

Yikes. Normal font is way too big. Guess I need to go smaller next time.

Doug said...

Just curious about something since I am not a soccer expert by any means.

If this Olympic tournament is only for players 23 years old and under, is it really an important indicator of how we will perform in the World Cup?? Are the guys who played in this tournament going to be the guys in the World Cup, or will there be a bunch of older guys??

What were the expectations for this team in the Olympics?? Was there talk that we could have made the semifinals or anything like that?

Is Freddie Adu a good player now?? I read an article about him in ESPN the Magazine, and it sounded like he was doing really well in Portugal or wherever he is.

I'm out of my league with these discussions, but figured I would inquire since I don't know.

Dan said...

A couple thoughts:

1) The world cup is 2 years from now, so these players will all be older. More of them will continue to grow up and be on the MNT.

2) Several players on this squad are also on the MNT - mainly Adu and Bradley.

3) Historically, our U23 Squad has performed *better* than our MNT. As such, if our U23 squad is struggling, it doesn't bode well for the future

4) Adu is becoming a good player. He played will in Portugal until he was mysteriously benched partway through the season. Some people speculate that there were come contract clauses that kicked in after a certain number of games. However, he has since signed with Monaco, which is in the French league. While the French league is probably a better league, the Monaco squad is not good at all. So it's hard to say whether it is a good move for his development or not.

4) I think given our group, the expectations were probably 3rd. However, in an easier group we would have been expected to advance. Additionally, expectations change. Once we beat Japan, and NED-NIG ended in a draw, things started to look more favorable. 90 minutes into the NED match, we were all but assured of advancing.

BloodyBrit said...

The States will never win a World Cup or any other major football tournament.

Jeremy said...

I really think soccer/futbol is a dead sport in the US with no chance of making a comeback (was it ever really here?). Although almost every kid starts out playing soccer as a tyke, the best athletes in the country naturally gravitate away to other "big money" sports, including baseball, football and basketball.

The troubling thing is that there are clearly a great number of US athletes playing other sports as well - the Olympics have consistently shown the dominance of the Americans in swimming, track and field, and even some winter events like skiing and snowboarding. Even those athletes that aren't out for the big payday are eschewing soccer for other options.

Imagine if guys like Chris Paul, Michael Phelps, Tyson Gay, Dwight Howard, Patrick Kane and David Wright had decided to be soccer players growing up? No one would be within 3 goals of a team with those kinds of athletes. The bottom line is that no one in this country gives a crap about the sport, for whatever reason. We might as well just go ahead and disband the national team.

Dan said...

In 1992, no one would have called you dumb (or even disagreed necessarily) if you said that the U.S. would never lose a major basketball tourney either.

That worked out well.

That said, I never said we would win one. We are certainly capable fielding a squad that can make it out of the group stage and even to the quarters.

Doug said...

I know we've been around and around with this debate for years, but I agree with what Jeremy is saying. The US could easily dominate worldwide soccer if we made an effort to put our best athletes there at an early age. We have proven that we have the best athletes in the world, and it really isn't all that close. Do people really think guys like Allen Iverson and Deion Sanders wouldn't dominate those white boys in Europe if they had proper training and instruction from early childhood?? Cmon. If we took all of our resources out of football, baseball, and basketball and put them toward soccer, we would be the best soccer nation in the world without question. Nothing can convince me otherwise. It would probably take us a decade or so to catch up, but once we started cranking, look out.

As Jeremy pointed out, there is no money in soccer in the US. I read an article awhile back in the Columbus Dispatch about the money players are making for the Columbus Crew, and these MLS guys are making pennies compared to football and baseball players. The best athletes in Europe are playing soccer because there is big money in soccer over there.

I have nothing against soccer and enjoyed watching the World Cup and would like to see the US team do well, but it doesn't really bother me that we don't perform well in these worldwide tournaments. We are a mid-major in soccer by choice, so it's hard for me to have a lot of expectations.

(Note: This post is not an attempt to demean soccer in any way. I know the soccer fans are sensitive about non-soccer people criticizing the sport, but that's not where I was going with this post. European soccer is world class sport, and I appreciate what those guys can do. I'm just agreeing with the general premise that the US team would be much more successful than we are if our best athletes were playing soccer.)

Jeremy said...

I think this is just another example of the fact that the US can't field a world-class, competitive soccer team. And it has nothing to do with the level of athletes in our country. No one cares about the sport. No one wants to play it. There's no appeal or interest right now and no sign that its getting any better.