|He'll never be the head of a major corporation.|
Sometimes you wouldn't know it, but investing your god-given free time in following sports is supposed to be, umm, fun.
For instance, the 2012 baseball season following my Detroit Tigers was, in essence, six months of agita and misery -- until Justin Verlander's epic pitching performance in the ALDS Game 5 clincher vs. the Oakland Athletics. Hell, I actually cracked a smile during that four-hit shutout performance, realizing (as a gigantic cartoon light bulb popped up over my head), by golly this is supposed to be enjoyable.
Some of the same logic seems to apply a lot of the time to the United States National (Soccer) Team.
What in the world happened that the No. 2 team in CONCACAF -- a region where it has more resources and people than all other members -- is suddenly in life-and-death struggles against the likes of Antigua and Barbuda? Aren't these supposed to be the games the U.S. wins 6-0 and everybody has fun? Not games where it needs -- gasp -- Eddie Johnson to score a goal in the 90th minute to keep World Cup hopes alive.
Now, in full fairness, I didn't see the match last Friday, and not only because of the beIN sports carriage debacle. I had to work, yet followed (when I could) on Twitter and the reaction was the digital form of an angry mob of villagers storming the castle with pitchforks and torches. It wasn't only the random, cynical, like-minded U.S. fans I follow either, but even prominent writers -- usually against first-guess criticism -- openly questioning coach Jurgen Klinsmann's tactics and lineup selection.(*)
(*) Interesting that so many writer's knives came out with Jozy Altidore dropped from the lineup. Wonder why? Could they be more interested in maintaining a friendly working relationship with the players who'll be around beyond the current coaching staff or covering the team objectively? Just a thought.
A total fiasco was avoided thanks to Johnson and truthfully that's all that's going to matter so long as the U.S. doesn't lose to Guatemala on Tuesday night in Kansas City as it will advance to the final CONCACAF six-team hexagonal with it's three automatic World Cup berths -- and a soft landing for fourth place in a playoff against the Oceania champs.
The bigger question here, is when did simply watching the U.S. play international matches become 90 minutes of frustration? Hell, even the famous win at the Azteca in the summer was a slog until the late smash-and-grab winner. It's been some time since 11 guys put on the striped U.S. shirts and people were wowed by what they did.
Lets say right away, nobody is expecting every time the U.S. plays it channels a combination of the 1970s Ajax teams and current Barcelona teams, playing a brand of passing/pressing/total football that blows minnows out of the water, sending tactics fetishists all atwitter. It would be nice, but with the limitations inside the U.S. lineup and players spread so far across the globe, that level of cohesion isn't going to happen. In fact, that's a product of current international soccer where in most major nations (Spain a notable outlier) its top talent is scattered across numerous clubs around the globe. You could be Klinsmann, you could be Brian Clough, given a couple days of training with 23 players coming from 10 different leagues it's going to be hard to forge a united, cohesive plan. Chemistry doesn't happen with the snap of the fingers.
In the specific case of Antigua and Barbuda last week, a small, narrow, bumpy water-logged pitch probably played a factor, too, in practical terms.
There's definitely an argument to be made the smaller teams around the world, in particular CONCACAF, have improved in recent years, with nations like the U.S. Virgin Islands and it's -38 goal difference in the first group stage of 2014 World Cup qualifying are becoming rarer and rarer.
Still, whatever mitigating factors there might be, the average U.S. National Team fan still has the mindset that the U.S. should blitz a tiny Caribbean island 6-0 and cakewalk through qualification.
There's nothing wrong with that line of thinking. Given how far U.S. Soccer has progressed in recent times, qualification for every World Cup -- without sweating it out either(*) -- should be expected.
(*) Someone needs to writer an alternate history where the U.S. doesn't qualify for the World Cup. Frightening scenario.
You don't want to to take it to the extreme cases where some soccer fans would rather embrace "beautiful winners" than ugly winners. We actually already see enough of that a lot where a 1-0 win is scoffed at, a la Jose Mourinho's years at Chelsea, despite all the trophies. Or look at Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in recent years with all the cries about "Fergie Time" or the officiating at Old Trafford leading to many one-goal wins by the Red Devils.
It's interesting to remember, in about a decade or so's time, the U.S. evolved from plucky, mulleted underdogs in nearly every match to the decided favorite unless it's up against the elite grouping of teams from Europe and South America. Even as late as 1998 the U.S. certainly wasn't an automatic shoo-in to qualify for France. In turn, the U.S. actual style of play still doesn't seem suited to playing the favorite, possessing the ball in the opponent's half for 90 percent of the match, for dictating the tempo and clinically, ruthlessly taking the little guys to the proverbial woodshed. The U.S. is still better using it's physicality, stamina and hustle to beat teams on the counterattack instead of the cultured passing or technical ability to break defenders down 1-v-1.
So once again, like the U.S. under Bob Bradley, we're stuck with the weird contradiction. The U.S. can get results against teams like Spain, Italy or away at Mexico (albeit a friendly) yet has a harder time than a vegan in a slaughterhouse against micro nations and CONCACAF also-rans.
Again, though, the question remains how to look at this like a fan?
Is there any fun left rooting for the U.S., at least until it gets to the World Cup, since everything else probably doesn't matter all that much. Sure the Gold Cup can produce a game with ramifications vs. Mexico and the occasional friendly -- at least on American soil -- is fun to attend in person, but at the end of the day all most fans are worried about are those three group stage World Cup matches every four years -- where the U.S. can finally prove it's worth on the biggest stage.
Is that too narrow a scope?
Ultimately international soccer is always going to be a pass/fail set up. There aren't enough matches during the course of the year for it to be anything else. It's not club soccer where you're with your team 50+ matches, where the manager can try new things and new players and get away with it. Drop three points in the league, you've got 10 months to make it up. Drop them in a four-team round robin international format, you're in massive trouble.
It doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room.
And it's why going through slogs like Friday night in Antigua almost feel more like doing your algebra homework without a calculator than a fun way to use your hard-earned leisure time.
The journey to the destination shouldn't be fraught with this much peril. There should be time to enjoy it-- Tuesday in Kansas City vs. a nice home crowd vs. Guatemala would be a nice start -- instead of worrying about the worst case, sky is falling, possibility of failing to qualify.
Suppose it really all boils down to, when the final whistle blows after 90 minutes of a U.S. match, do you care how the soccer sausage you're eating was made, or do the three points taste delicious no matter what?