I Come Not to Bury the USMNT, But to Praise Them
• The USMNT is well ensconced in the second tier of international soccer, which is no small feat. Over the past 20 years, the USMNT has moved from international laughing stock to the group just below the tier that includes the best teams of Europe and South America.
• The US team is good enough to ruin anybody’s day, including world powers like Spain and England and, for a half, Brazil. But they are not yet good enough to do that on a consistent basis for an elongated run.
• They are the best team in CONCACAF (yes, you heard that right Mexico) and finished in first place in the World Cup Qualifying in CONCACAF, which is a far more grueling and challenging ordeal than finishing in first place in most of the European World Cup Qualifying groups.
• They are team with big quality in certain places (especially the midfield and in goal) and deficits in others (strikers and the back line). That is a criticism that most teams, including teams in the top tier, must often endure.
• The USMNT clearly has more heart and courage than they do soccer skill. That is not a small triumph. Italy and France have a lot more skill, but without any heart, they became national embarrassments.
There was a time not too long ago when watching the US team was absolutely cringe-worthy. The US could not string together passes in the midfield, release midfielders on a break and what passed for defense was a series of harried clearances to nobody in particular. Occasionally those teams would emerge victorious based on shear tenacity, but nobody would ever confuse those teams with something good.
Our current team still makes some foolish mistake that leads to early, soft goals, but they also have the ability to conjure up moments of beautiful, flowing skill. The two goals against Slovenia (and possibly the third that was unjustly ruled out) were moments of great quality from a team that expects to be able to move the ball forward and score a needed goal.
So what for the future? The current squad has a core of young players who will only get better. Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Torres, and Maurice Edu are very far from finished products and all have at least one and probably two World Cups left in them. Charlie Davies, whose absence was sorely missed by this team, will hopefully fully recover. Combined with Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, who all probably have one more Cup in them at their current skill level, this is a nucleus of a team that will only improve.
I would not be at all surprised to see a completely new backline in 2014, perhaps anchored by Clarence Goodson and Omar Gonzalez. Furthermore, it is easy to forget how long four years is in soccer time. Four years ago, Jozy, Maurice, Benny and many others were not on the radar, and I am sure that there are potential godsends being prepared for this team that are, at the moment, largely unnoticed.
Finally, I am writing this dispatch from Italy right now, which may help me with my perspective on all of this. Do you know which team the Italians hate the most? The Italian team – at least this year. They despise their own team, and its failure, with a NASA-hot fury. That is not a healthy way to lead your life – to hate the thing you love – and US fans should always try to avoid such a decent into the abyss.
Moreover, the Italians expressed an admiration boarding on jealously for the US team. For the Italians, the US team is everything the Italian team is not – passionate, honest, young and with great room for improvement. They see the US team as something to be admired and feared, perhaps not now but sometime soon.
South Africa 2010 may not have ended in triumph, and the game against Ghana was clearly an opportunity for greatness lost. But it was absolutely another step on the road to the USMNT’s ultimate destination, and the glory that will come with that summit.