Sunday, July 15, 2007

Assessing the State of U.S. Soccer

Last month, I wrote that this summer was vital in looking forward to the U.S. begin qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. Now that all the men's teams are done with their summer after the under-20 team was eliminated from the U-20 World Cup yesterday, losing 2-1 to Austria, I think it's only fair that I look back at what I wrote then, and assess where the teams stand today.

This summer of soccer was a drama (only occasionally comedic) in four acts.

Act 1: Winning the Gold Cup in Style
The first act was CONCACAF's regional tournament, the Gold Cup. The U.S. won the Gold Cup handily. They were easily the most consistent team in the tournament, and in the final came from behind to defeat Mexico 2-1. In the end, the U.S. cemented its status as the big dog in CONCACAF.

Coach Bradley fielded a very experienced group of players who play in both the U.S. and in Europe. All in all, they acquitted themselves very well. Landon Donovan continued to model his newly rediscovered form and Clint Dempsey took his opportunity to emerge from Donovan's shadow to show that he is penciled in for all qualifiers, barring injuring and club commitments.

Of all the competitions this summer, this was the one that was most important to the team, as it is our region's major tournament and it guarantees that the U.S. will be participating in the Confederations Cup in South Africa in 2009, a crucial pre-World Cup warmup.

Act 2: Fizzling in Venezuela
The second act was Copa America. The U.S. sent a less-experienced side to Venezuela for this competition, and it showed in the results. The U.S. lost all three of their group matches and came home quickly. On paper, that looks like a disaster, but I don't view it so dimly. The U.S. held their own against Argentina in the opener for 70 minutes. They outplayed Paraguay but were plagued by poor finishing. Once they got to Colombia, both teams knew they were going home and played like it.

I always thought that the Copa America would be a chance for Coach Bradley to really begin evaluating the more fringe players on the national scene. His "experimental" line up proved that was indeed the case. However, we can learn some valuable lessons from the performance. All the players involved, mostly new to the national scene, gained valuable lessons playing quality opponents away from home, experience that will serve them well in the future.

What did we specifically learn from failing in South America? First, Taylor Twellman just cannot play at this level. He's just too slow. He shouldn't feature in the qualification battle that begins next year. Second, Benny Feilhaber is the real deal. He should be integral to the coming qualification campaign. The jury is still out on Eddie Johnson, but he'd better begin producing or else he may lose his spot to Jozy Altidore (more on that below). Finally, the U.S. has more quality options at defense than ever before. Farewell Frankie Hejduk, thanks for the memories.

Act 3: The Future is Bright
Although it ended perhaps prematurely yesterday against Austria, the U.S. kids provided an astonishing run at the U-20 World Cup in Canada. Along the way, they played beautiful, attacking football and a number of the participants have surely sparked interest across the pond (and more than likely in Coach Bradley's office).

Freddy Adu showed why everyone knows his name, even though he's mostly been a non-entity for his club lately. Of all the games I watched, he was easily the player of the tournament. He absolutely controlled the games from his attacking midfield role, setting up many of the goals he didn't score himself. Jozy Altidore appears to be the real deal as well. Finally, a forward who can score goals. Michael Bradley and Danny Szetela also cemented their status a part of the future of the U.S. midfield alongside Benny Feilhaber.

In the end, the 120 gritty minutes against Uruguay, which forced the team to come behind for a thrilling win showed yesterday against Austria, a very disciplined if not pretty side. This performance is still one they can be proud of and it shows that the future is still bright for the U.S. Soccer team.

Act 4: That Beckham Fellow
Yeah, that guy was introduced Friday as the newest member of the Los Angeles Galaxy. I don't have any idea what the long-term impact of his arrival means for the sport in the U.S., but despite the usual bleating from the British press about MLS, it's telling that Beckham still has a lot left in his tank, and his commitment to the Galaxy has opened the door for others that have a lot of game left in them: Blanco, Angel, and Xavier for example.

Also, his arrival will probably make many people who are just curious about all the hubbub tune into MLS games. Even now, ticket demand is up throughout the league. If MLS can convert even some of the curious to fans, then Beckham's arrival will indeed have left its mark.

NP: "I Can't Sleep Tonight" - The La's

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