Saturday, June 26, 2010

The U.S. at the World Cup, Part 2

Well, the U.S. lost to Ghana today in the "round of sixteen" of the World Cup finals, which is disappointing, especially after the heroic efforts the team put forth to make it out of the group stage.  In truth, the U.S. simply isn't among the elite soccer nations, nor is it poised to enter their ranks. That's probably puzzling to a lot of the world, given our population of some 300 million people, but our talent pool is overwhelmingly diluted by other sports that appeal much more to most Americans (basketball, American football, baseball, boxing, track and field, etc.). That said, the U.S. did better in the tournament than a number of inarguably "elite" soccer nations -- France and Italy being chief among them -- and it won its group over England after tying with the Brits head-to-head and scoring more goals in the three group-stage games.  (The two-goal comeback against Slovenia, and Landon Donovan's electrifying winner against Algeria in stoppage time, will be the stuff of American soccer legend.)

Here are a few observations on the tournament in general:

1. The refereeing, as usual, has left a lot to be desired -- the U.S. had to overcome two very bad calls that cost them goals, and several other nations (e.g., Chile, against Spain) received questionable "red cards" (leaving them down one player) that severely impacted the outcome of key games. Just why FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, continues to ascribe to the "multi-culti" school of thought concerning the use of relatively untested referees from third-world countries in the World Cup finals is beyond me.

2. The U.S. suffered greatly this year from the traditional flaws of past U.S. World Cup teams: an inability to finish prime goal-scoring chances, an inability to maintain possession in the midfield, a strong tendency to "go for the home run" on deep balls down the middle instead of building the attack on the wings, and a ball-watching back line that conceded early goals in three of the U.S.'s four games (and nearly did so in the other one). All of these shortcomings were on display today against Ghana, whose two goals came after (a) a bad give-away in the midfield five minutes into the game, and (b) an even worse "skinning," in extra time, of the central defense.

3. I think it's telling that all five South American teams in the tournament (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay) made it out of the group stage and looked strong doing so. Spain may still be the top-rated team in the world (and Germany and the Netherlands have played well), but I expect a team from South America to win the World Cup.

4. As much as I like soccer, I can fully understand why a lot of Americans don't care for it. There's something about a sport characterized by the following that offends American sensibilities. One, that scoring seems to depend at least as much on the Fates (not to mention the referees) as on individual skill, team play, and execution. Two, that esoteric rules, such as the "offside" law -- the origins of which lie in outdated notions of "fair play," but which seems to be called erroneously, even by the world's top referees, at least as often as it is called correctly -- have a tremendous effect on the game. Three, that obvious time-wasting tactics, not to mention "diving" in an attempt to fool the referee into calling a foul, are not punished to any appreciable degree (see the reference above to "fair play"). And, four, that one lucky score in 90 minutes of play can determine the outcome of the game. (Americans like to root for underdogs, but we also like to see the dominant team win -- at least when our national side isn't playing -- which often isn't the case in soccer.)

What is the future of American (men's) soccer? The U.S. side has now qualified for six consecutive World Cup finals, as it benefits greatly from being located in a region consisting of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean; however, there's no telling when it will be ready to advance into the semifinals or championship of the World Cup. The current generation of players will probably not be up to the task, and Major League Soccer, the American professional league, isn't nearly on par with the top European leagues. We'll probably know America is close when it wins a U-17 or U-20 World Cup.

[Update 6/27/10: The games today, Germany vs. England and Argentina vs. Mexico, highlighted one more reason why Americans might rightfully dislike soccer: the lack of video replay to review questionable calls, or non-calls, that determine (a) whether goals are allowed or disallowed, and (b) whether penalty kicks are awarded. Considering that the laws of the sport evolved on the quaint notion of "fair play," what could be more fair than to verify the correctness of calls on which the result of a game hinges? There's simply no question that video review today would have resulted in (a) Argentina's first goal against Mexico being disallowed for an obvious offside infraction, and (b) England's being given its clear (to everyone in the world except the assistant referee) equalizing goal in the first half against Germany. One can argue that the margin of victory in each of these games made the bad non-calls moot, but it is a soccer truism that the score dictates tactics, and no one can say what might have happened if the refs hadn't screwed up. My prediction: FIFA will find itself obligated to institute video replay --
despite its being an American (ptui!) innovation, and at least at the goal line -- by the 2014 World Cup finals. "Fair play" is practically screaming for it!]

[Update 7/6/10: Okay, so I was wrong about a South American side winning the Cup; in fact, the only South American country to make it to the semi-final round, Uruguay, was the fifth-place team in the CONMEBOL region. Boy, did Brazil and Argentina crap out!]

[Update 7/13/10: Spain has defeated the Netherlands for the World Cup Championship, capping off a series of clinical, efficient (but pretty boring) 1-0 wins in the four "knock-out" stages of the tournament. Again, the refereeing became a cause for criticism and had a noticeable impact on the game. FIFA will probably keep pretending that its referees aren't a factor in the outcome of games with world-wide import -- shoot, some commentators have gone so far as to imply that blown calls are characteristic of soccer and part of its beauty as a sport -- but I think most people, not just Americans, will agree that the best-refereed game in any sport is one in which the referees are barely noticed. I'll grant that soccer, especially as played at elite levels, is particularly susceptible to game-changing intrusions by refereeing crews, but a lot of that is due to tolerance of a whole host of player shenanigans, from clutching, grabbing, gouging, punching, and kicking to diving and faking injuries. (Virtually all set pieces in this tournament made the penalty area look like a groping party; once a referee lets a hundred fouls go by, how is it possible to call one without seeming arbitrary and capricious?) Something must be done to clean up the sport -- even if it involves stopping the game several times each half for video review -- or else FIFA risks losing audience. Oh, and one more thing: I agree with American commentators that an intentional handball on the goal line to prevent what was otherwise certain to be a goal -- as happened at the end of the Uruguay-Ghana game -- should simply be counted as a goal, and should not result merely in an expulsion and a too-easily-missed penalty kick.]