Every four years in America, there is a great debate: is soccer making progress in America? There are strong arguments on both sides.
Pro “soccer in American” pundits will point to the tv rankings and public viewings. The counter argument could be made that the US was in the best tv viewing time slot since we hosted the Cup in 1994. In 2010, 2 out of three games were at 9 AM (CST) on a weekday. In 2002 when the US made an unlikely run to the semifinals, the three group stage games were during the weekday at 4 AM, 1:30 AM, and 6:30 AM. Our round of 16 game was at 1:30 AM and our loss in the semifinals was at 6:30 AM. Hard to captivate the casual soccer fan at 4 AM on a weekday, right.
Pro “soccer in America” people will point to the great success that this squad had. Nearly nobody picked the US to get out of the American proclaimed “group of death” (let the official record show that Group B and Group D were every bit as difficult). Ghana was a huge victory to start the tournament. The point versus Portugal was very vital. However, you could argue that we got outplayed in 2 out of 3 games (Ghana, Germany) and only nicked 1 point in the game where we were obviously the superior team (Portugal). You could also argue that we had a lot of things go our way. Portugal’s best defender Pepe got a red card which likely cost Portugal at least 2 goals vs. Germany and made it highly unlikely they would score any plus it put him out of the US game. Portugal’s other top defender Fábio Coentrão was injured in the first half of the 1st game, as well. Nearly every goal we conceded was off a boneheaded mistake and it took a tournament for the ages from Tim Howard to hide some of our defensive deficiencies.
At the end of the day (one of my favorite sports clichés), we managed to minimize the damage and do what we needed to do to advance. As a team rated somewhere between 15th and 25th coming into the tournament, we managed to beat a similarly ranked squad in Ghana, we managed to outplay a slightly better Portuguese team, and we stayed in the game with two of the top teams in the world in Germany and Belgium. Most importantly, the US never looked like they didn’t belong.
Looking at individuals on our roster, that just shouldn’t happen. Our goalkeeper is viewed in the top third among the English Premiere League goalkeepers. Clint Dempsey was solid, but isn’t good enough to start for one of the top 16 clubs in the world. The rest of the team is made up of guys who aren’t even standouts for mediocre European clubs in big leagues (Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, John Anthony Brooks), guys that player in “lesser” European Leagues (Jermaine Jones, Aron Johanson, Mix Diskerud) guys the essentially are still in the minor leagues in Europe (Timmy Chandler, Julian Green, Alejandro Bedoya), and a whole slew of MLS guys. In comparison, 16 of the 23 guys for Belgium play for teams that have qualified for Champions League football in the past few years and many of them are thought of as one of the top handful of guys on really good teams or among the most promising young players in the world. Portugal has one of the 2 best players in the world. Germany has the best goalkeeper in the world, the best right back in the world (who strangely is playing out of position in the World Cup) 8 midfielders who would be the single best player on the US squad, 3 forwards who do nothing but score goals. What’s scary is both squads are not only more talented than the US, but also younger.
So, what’s next? First of all, we’ve got a ton of guys who have been staples in the US squad who have likely played their last World Cup game. It’s entirely possible (in fact likely) that Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, DeMarcus Beasley, Jermaine Jones, Chris Wondolowski, Kyle Beckerman, and Brad Davis will all be off the next World Cup roster simply due to age. Scary when you consider Howard, Dempsey, Beasley, and Jones were probably our four best and most consistent players for the entire tournament.
There are lots of young guys with huge potential. It’s likely that you’ve never even heard of 15 or so of the guys that will populate the 2018 World Cup roster (hopefully including Arsenal reserve/wunderkid Gedion Zelalem.
Enough speculating about the US soccer team for now. Did you find yourself actually enjoying soccer, but don’t really know where to find it next. Good news, there is a LOT of great soccer to watch. First of all, there are 8 more games left in this World Cup. From August through May, there is soccer to watch on NBC Sport Network nearly every single Saturday and Sunday morning. BeIN Sports features a few other leagues such as La Liga (Spain), Bundesliga (Germany), and Serie A (Italy). More importantly, they have Ray Hudson (my single favorite sports commentator on the planet). From August thru October and January thru May, Fox Sports 1 has Champions League games on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s around 2 PM. There are literally thousands of great people to follow on Twitter, newspapers, blogs, etc. Personally, I’d start by checking out the Men in Blazers podcast.