Soccer has an almost magical ability to reflect a national character. Brazil is a sensuous, musical nation, and for its national soccer team, it is not enough to simply win – they need to win with grace, style and beauty. At the other end of the spectrum, a disciplined, efficient country like Germany has created a team that wins with ruthless well-organized proficiency. Italians always believe that the fix is in, and a player that dives and feigns injury to get a penalty or an opponent sent off is simply a clever person navigating a corrupt world.
After a few weeks and a little bit of perspective, one of the great triumphs for the US team in South Africa ’10 to emerge is the development of an American soccer style.
How to describe this style? It was said best by Landon Donovan in the post-game interview after scoring his famous goal against Algeria. He was asked about the clear goal that was denied to Clint Dempsey from a linesman’s inaccurate offside call. Donovan said, “We embody what Americans are about. We can moan about it or we can keep going. We kept going and we believe.”
In a few words, Donovan hit on a little piece of genius. American soccer culture does not rely on deftness of touch or a military-like precision. Instead, this team assimilated some very basic American values into its style – hard work, self-belief, and the attitude that, eventually, effort will be rewarded.
For many fans, this aspect of American soccer has been viewed as a weakness. Because our skill may not be as high as the soccer elite, we have to rely on fitness, mental toughness and effort to get by. The theory goes that better teams win by playing better soccer, and eventually the US’s lack of skill dooms the team.
I think this entirely misses the point. In a league season, over time the table never lies. However, in a knock-out competition like the World Cup, where anything can happen over the course of 90 minutes, the game is as mental as it is physical. Why did a great team like Holland play with the grace and sophistication of street thugs against Spain? Because they were intimated by Spain’s ability to control the game and approached the contest from a place of fear. Why did France implode so completely? Because they knew they were just lucky to be going to South Africa and deep down they were waiting for the results to validate the injustice of their appearance. Having the right frame of mind is more valuable than having an international superstar in your starting XI.
Teams understand this, and that is what makes the rest of the world nervous about playing the US team. The US team is beatable, but they will never play like they expect to be beaten. You can score against the US team, but the US team will never play like your lead is insurmountable. You can run and press the US team, but chances are the US team will be running at full speed in the 90th minute at the same moment your lungs are burning.
And the US team will never, ever be intimidated.
Many fans and players from other countries laugh that the US is a country of baseball and basketball players who think football is some sport played with hands on a small, 100 yard field. But they make these jokes nervously as if they are trying to convince themselves it is true. Deep down, they know this is a team that knocked Spain out of competitive tournament last summer, was the best team in the second half in all their World Cup games, and won a tougher World Cup qualification bracket than any that a European team had to face. Those other countries know that there are holes in the US line-up, but those holes will get smaller over time. What will not get smaller is the way Americans compete.
The grit that the US team showed in South Africa is more than just a charming trait. It is actually a distinguishing characteristic of American soccer – one that will serve our national team’s character well in the years to come.