Soccer in the United States is poised for a major breakthrough. A win against England would likely bring interest in the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) to an all time high. However, while it may seem counterintuitive, the England v. US game is likely the most overhyped match of the 2010 World Cup group stage.
The cultural connection and the English Premier League being the most popular foreign league in the English speaking United States have led ESPN to hype the game non-stop, both on TV and the Internet. What this hype ignores is the fact that the US’s chances at advancing will be decided primarily by its other two group games. Yes, three points against England would be nice, but if we cannot beat both Slovenia and Algeria, the USMNT will likely be heading home from South Africa early. If the team does beat England on Saturday, it’ll still need at least two draws, if not one win, to have a reasonable expectation of moving on to the Round of 16. If the US wins against England and performs as it has in the past, not only will the hopes of US supporters be crushed, so will soccer’s prospects of finally taking center stage in the United States.
There has been a great deal of attention paid to the USMNT’s 1-0 defeat of England in the 1950 World Cup. While this was certainly a historic upset, what seems to be forgotten every time this win is mentioned is that the United States lost its other two group games in horrendous fashion and was bounced from the World Cup without getting out of group play- not to return for another 40 years. Instead of being celebrated as a shining moment, this should mark the beginning of US Soccer’s Dark Age.
In the past two World Cups, when the US has found itself in a position of upsetting a favorite in a group stage match, it has had a very difficult time winning its other group games. The US team seems to thrive as underdogs, and an early good result against a favored opponent has been accompanied by lackluster results in other group stage games. In 2002, remembered by many as the US’s breakout World Cup, the team was lucky to qualify for the Round of 16 despite a stunning 3-2 win over heavy favorites Portugal. It may be a game that many of us remember for the rest of our lives, but it was followed by a dismal 1-1 draw against the talented South Koreans and an even worse 3-1 loss against a Poland team that was beaten 4-0 by Portugal and 2-0 by South Korea. It was only a 70th minute goal by South Korean star Park Ji-Sung against Portugal in the group’s final game that allowed the US to progress out of the Group Stage. Because of these poor performances, the US went into the Round of 16 and Quarterfinals as the underdog and benefited from strong performances as a result.
In 2006, the USMNT was handed a very tough draw, with a group that included Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana. Riding the wave of hype created by the US’s unexpected Quarterfinals finish in the 2002 World Cup and a 2005 Gold Cup win, the US were expected to draw, if not narrowly beat a solid Czech side. Instead, the Czech team took control a mere five minutes into the match with an easy goal off a header and finished the US side with two more goals despite having less possession. With very few people expecting the team to win against Italy, the US put in a Herculean effort, finishing the game with 9 men against 10 and holding Italy to a 1-1 tie. Without the help of some creative reffing, the US would likely have won the match. The US had one point, Ghana and the Czech Republic both had three and Italy had four going into the final match of the Group Stage. As long as Italy fulfilled expectations and won against the Czech Republic, the US could advance with a win over Ghana. Italy performed as expected and the US fell flat. The youngest team in the tournament had help from the referee and an injury to Claudio Reyna, but ultimately it was the United States’ lack of cohesion and creative play that led to its downfall. The overhyped United States had only 3 shots on goal the entire game. Somehow the team managed to play well against the heavily favored side and have two abysmal games against opponents that it should have beaten.
The last thing the American team needs is to go into the 2010 World Cup overhyped. Much of these expectations are based on an improbable upset of Spain, one of the two best teams in the world and Euro 2008 winners, in the 2009 Confederations Cup. A dismal display in the first two games of the Cup led to an improbable 3-0 win over Egypt that coincided with Brazil’s 3-0 win over Italy, allowing the United States to advance instead of Italy based on goal difference. It was a fantastic turn of events that led a US team, which had no real expectation of staying in South Africa after the group stage, to face off against a heavily favored Spanish team that had not lost in 35 games. Boosted by an amazing performance from Tim Howard and goals from Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, the US pulled off its greatest upset in the team’s modern era, beating Spain 2-0 in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup. This was surely an achievement, but it follows the US’s familiar pattern of a great performance on the heels of some serious underachievement.
As in 2006, the team is favored to make it out of their group and the mainstream media is finally paying attention. Skip Bayless and Jim Rome are busy mispronouncing common soccer names on ESPN and Americans are starting to take serious notice of the sport. Unfortunately, when Americans tune in to watch matches, they’re treated to the inane and idiotic analysis of John Harkes and Alexi Lalas. Both of these former USMNT players are quick to turn on the team after the slightest mistake and you can be sure they will hyperbolize about a win or a loss against England. The commentary following a US win over England would be grossly out of proportion compared to what the result means and will combine with the win against Spain in 2009 to create a line of drivel from know-nothing American sports commentators claiming the US have the potential to lift the Cup this year. The attention would be sudden and full of expectation, just like during the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. If the team then fails to perform, the media will quickly turn against it (as it did in the aftermath of the Czech defeat in 2006) and US Soccer will again miss out on the opportunity to advance the game on its home soil.
The World Cup is about consistency, something the team has struggled to find. The build up to the England game is worrying because it’s no different than the hype in 2006. This lack of consistency coupled with our continued poor play in matches where we are not the underdogs should be worrying to US supporters. New fans need to recognize that it’s a recipe for disaster to ignore the fact that good results against lower ranked sides are what will get the US team into the knockout stage. The last thing the United States needs is an upset against England that leads to a characteristic fizzle against Slovenia and Algeria. Don’t take this the wrong way: I’ll be screaming my head off for the red, white, and blue this Saturday. The US has the potential to show the gains the program has made in the last four years by beating the sides it’s favored to beat and not by upsetting England. American fans would do well to remember that a win on Saturday doesn’t make us world-beaters, just as a loss doesn’t mean we’re back to square one.