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An American Soccer Culture Emerges in South Africa

USA v Algeria: Group C - 2010 FIFA World Cup

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.

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  1. Jambaar Stills

    November 25, 2010 at 2:56 am

    Interesting article. I am a huge fan of the USMNT, however, I find it incredibly frustrating watching the U.S. constantly fall behind and THEN want to play well. In a way, it’s as if they have to fall behind to play well. I understand what we lack technically we replace with athleticism, but in this day and age it takes all factors to be successful at the top level. I hate to give Mexico credit, but they are a better team technically and tactically than we are, and we could actually learn something from the way they play because they have done rather well internationally at youth and at senior team level. I find the point about Torres and Feilhaber to be interesting because those two players along with Dempsey and Donovan are technical masters. Torres I might add had the opportunity to represent Mexico, and plies his trade in Mexico. Instead of seeing Torres and Feilhaber, we got Clark and Edu who with no disrespect really lacked in creativity and Clark ended up costing the U.S. TWICE. If BB wants to continue to rely on physical and athletic ability over actual technical substance, the U.S. will remain on the same level as it is now for years to come.
    As for the point of Concacaf being more difficult than European Qualifying, you may want to take into account just how many European teams there are qualifying. Concacaf is a joke in terms of the first qualifying round with the U.S. being drawn up against the likes of Barbados. Then in the next stage 4 of the 6 teams who beat the small island nations of North America will have a chance of qualifying. The U.S. may have qualified for Concacaf but really who do we play? The teams that are a challenge for us are the teams that end up qualifying alongside us. Besides we pick the coldest locations to play these teams so we always win at home. In European qualifying you have teams like Portugal who barely make it into the World Cup via a play-off. A team like Portugal just beat the World Champions 4-0 and never broke a sweat. There’s so much inconsistency in European Qualifying that there is no such thing as “easy” Also with the U.S. struggling to beat the likes of Poland, Turkey, and the Czech Republic teams that have it “easy,” I would like to see how the U.S. would do in European Qualifying. I think if the U.S. hopes to grow we much take advantage of the technical players that we do have, and challenge ourselves to improve with every match. The World Cup was encouraging, but we need a deeper talent pool and we need to learn how to manage the game. Mexico though I hate to say this, have a model we could actually learn from. The Brasil match after the World Cup put things back into perspective and I hope we can move on to bigger and better things.

  2. Huzefa Chithiwala

    September 8, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    Great article. I never knew you wrote blogs for soccer, I would have followed it with a passion. Well, you will remain immortal in this Great WORLD WIDE WEB forever and in the world of soccer.

  3. Adam

    August 1, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Football is becoming more globalised, and distinctive national styles are becoming less noticeable. Even the distinctive Brazilian, German and Spanish playing styles are being diluted as all of their great players all intermingle in English, Italian or Spanish leagues.

  4. Roger

    July 25, 2010 at 8:31 am

    “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.”

    Most of this talk about American idealism and soccer is really just a way to rationalize what was, in the end, a failure. You write as if every other soccer team in the world is a bunch of slackers and that only Americans work hard. Saying so isn’t patriotic, it is misguided and arrogant. With the exception of France and a few others, all of the teams at this level have extremely high work rates, are very patriotic, and care deeply about the outcomes of each game, just as our players. I will not argue that high work rates aren’t a requirement for success, because they are, but if a team lacks skill, strategy, and occasional good fortune, they will simply go home very tired, just as the US did.

    I also find it ironic that Donovan has emerged from this as the exemplar of this ideal. He may have been the hero against Slovenia, but his absence, practically, against Ghana was an important reason they lost. In my opinion, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, whose work rates remained high to the very end, should be getting heaps more of the praise.

    • short passes

      July 26, 2010 at 1:19 pm

      Roger –Thanks for the note of rationality regarding the US work rate and attitude.

  5. David Penner

    July 22, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    I am very happy with the identity that we established in South Africa, but I do have one concern. Our motto seems to endorse a slow start, and I feel like if we were to carry our gritty attitude on the pitch at the start of matches, we would find more success in the later rounds of tournaments.

  6. Rastiniai namai

    July 21, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    Landon Donovan was one of the best player in world cup!

  7. Jack in TX

    July 21, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    I think that Eric has touched upon something, but just a little off the mark. The US has defined its national character(istic), but it is still searching for its playing style. Playing style isn’t developed overnight, or even over a decade. It takes decades of tradition and a talent pool that has been indoctrinated in it since they first put on boots.

    Most of the US selection plays abroad in Europe. Although this type of exchange will benefit the US through education and preparation, it has done little to help establish American tradition. That will come over time, but won’t be evident in an MLS that has only seen 15 years.

    On a related note, I find it interesting that Brazil’s leadership is noticing an erosion of their national characteristic due to the number of native sons that play in Europe as soon as they can catch the eye of a club. Their tradition keeps the players distinctly Brazilian, but their selection has played more like European teams over time.

    • short passes

      July 21, 2010 at 12:36 pm

      J in T — you make a very very interesting point — how can any “national styles” develop and/or be maintained when the majority of national team players are playing elsewhere ?? Soccer styles are being globalized !! Japanese playing like Brazilians. Brazilians playing like Germans

  8. Tom

    July 21, 2010 at 11:15 am

    I am a fan of the US and enjoyed watching them much more than my other team (and the country of my family’s origin), England, at this World Cup. However, I question the statement that CONCACAF is a tougher qualifying group than the European groups- CONCACAF got 3 and 1/2 places, so the pressure was a lot less than the European groups that got 1 and 1/2 places each.

    • Eric Altshule

      July 21, 2010 at 12:01 pm

      I have made this point elsewhere, but I think it is an interesting distinction. To win CONCACAF, the US had to finish on top of a group that produced three WC teams and travel to some very difficult away atmospheres including Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, Saprissa in Costa Rica, Olimpico in Honduras and others. These are tough competitive atmospheres in very trying conditions. By comparison, England qualified in a group where the next best team was a depleted Croatia and had such weak sisters as Kazakhstan, Andorra and Belarus. Top to bottom, there was no European qualifying group as challenging as the final 10 team qualifying bracket for CONCACAF.

      I recognize that 3 1/2 places (out of 10) as opposed to 1 1/2 places (out of 6) qualify, but the competition and away games are far more challenging

      • Charles

        July 22, 2010 at 10:43 am

        It is not easy to qualify no matter what, but Eric is correct, top to bottom there was not a Euro group as tough as CONCACAF.

        Where it gets tough sometimes in Europe is getting in a group where there are two teams that could make it, then having to play the playoff if you finish second. Winning CONCACAF is tougher than winning a Euro group for sure. Realize that Mexico has made the final 16 virtually every 4 years and the US is right there with them.

        I feel sorry for the rest of CONCACAF because there is 1 spot really available for the remaining 8, with the 1/2 chance playing Uruguay to get in.

      • Dave C

        July 22, 2010 at 2:22 pm

        I don’t think your defense of the concacaf qualifying zone makes sense, for two reasons.
        To qualify for the WC, the US did not have to finish top of the group – it only needed to finish 3rd. Even fourth would have given them a play-off spot. Sure, to “win” the group may be called some sort of achievement, but it remains the fact that simply to “qualify” is pretty easy.

        And to say they finished top of a group “which produced three WC teams” is a completely circular argument. It doesn’t mean the group was necessarily tough, it just means that FIFA has arbitrarily decided that three teams from that group will qualify for the WC.

        I’m not a wholesale defender of the European zones, but I don’t think they’re necessarily “easier” than Concacaf. Sure, there may be weak teams, but there are always multiple “decent” teams competing for just one spot, and it means that dropping points is infinitely more damaging.

  9. Chris_B

    July 20, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    I agree that one of the better US traits is never say die but our players still need more collective “deftness of touch or a military-like precision” as you put it above. Our lack of focus and poor game management in the first 20′ of those games is what did the USMNT in. We have a great base to build from going forward as long as we learn our lessons.

  10. short passes

    July 20, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    Eric — I agree that there has been progress in US Soccer — specifically Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley and Howard however, I think that you would agree that the talent pool is still extremely shallow. In that aspect I think that we aren’t too different from England. Their pool is slightly deeper but it appears to have sprung some leaks. I am actually very happy that they have announced their “plan”. Admittedly there has to be some major fleshing out of the plan but at least they have sent the “message” to their young players describing what type of skills will be looked for in the future. That is a major first step which the US is far from taking. Based on how Feilhaber and Torres were treated by BB, what message was sent to US youth? The same one that has been sent for ever — you need to be physical and fast (Clark and Findley) and skills are a nice addition. That message needs to change and it must start with the USMNT coach announcing that the current coaching situation in youth and college programs must change. I realize that’s not an overnight fix here or in England but it wouldn’t take more than a few “Messi’s” to sneak through to make it all worth while.
    I look forward to your article — good luck

    • enrico

      July 21, 2010 at 8:08 am

      short passes – I’m from Switzerland and I became a fan of the US National Team at the World Cup because of the american “never give up attitude”. But I agree with you, that this is not enough to play a better role at future World Cups. Technically and tactically there are clearly not enough excellent players. In this regard they are far away from the best european and south american teams. They struggeled against all the teams they have played at the World Cup and these were not first class teams. Even the good results at the Confederation Cup are not indication enough, that they can compete on a real high level, because here in Europe the Confederation Cup has absolutely no value and is seen as nothing but a warmup tournament. Yes, because of the team spirit and the american winner mentality they can get some wins also against excellent teams but deep inside they know, they can not yet do it on a regular basis. Furthermore they lack the quality (passing, technic, strategy) to outplay mediocre teams (see group stage) to save energy. That’s why you could even question the fitness, because against Ghana they were just flat after the second goal and could not react. That’s also why just a few teams are able to win a tournament like the World Cup, because you need stamina, a lot of first class players, a great team spirit, a strong self belief and excellent coaching to do so. The US Team was just world class in team spirit, but that’s just not enough. That’s why they are not better than most of the other middle class teams (perhaps you could name 20 or 30 teams at a similar stage).
      As you mentioned, better player skills, better coaching, better youth programs are required to change that situation in the future.

  11. short passes

    July 20, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    As a locker room pep talk this was and excellent article. However based on your own statement, “the devel­op­ment of an Amer­i­can soc­cer style”, I thought you would truly discuss our playing style, but you didn’t.
    What you described is a truly unique American trait which is “never give up”. This is a fantastic trait and a compliment to this team that it so well characterizes them. I’m sure that keyboards are now blazing already saying that this is merely a semantic quibble. I deny that categorically because a distinctive US style has yet to be developed and it is one of the reasons that we seem to have hit a brick wall in our development. The best way to describe the current US style is “all —holes and elbows”. We run fast and kick hard, but, at bottom there is no “method” to our madness. I really don’t mean to dump on your parade, but as hard as the team worked, there was no “style”. Until we do develop a real US style (Argentina is probably our best model — physical, and athletic but skilled also) we will periodically make it to the KO round and maybe win one or tow games but never the big prize. US Soccer needs to follow England’s FA example as reported in the Daily mirror: ———–“The English FA, which held talks last week with Coach Fabio Capello in the wake of England’s disappointing World Cup showing, announced its rebuilding plan includes calling up a new generation of young England stars, order them to play like Spain, and groom a group of top ex-players into coaching as part of the FA’s post World Cup blueprint. The FA said Capello’s new generation must be schooled to play soccer with “similar technique, mental alertness and passing ability, combined with goals” of the world champion Spain.”

    • Eric Altshule

      July 20, 2010 at 9:22 pm

      Short passes- I am not going to disagree that the US will never win the biggest prize on heart alone. Skills need to be improved, but I think that is happening. A decade ago, the US could not dribble or pass worth beans (John O’Brien who grew up in the Ajax system being the lone exception) and defense was just a bunch of boots downfield by a back line that had more hustle than talent. The team has improved dramatically, and I expect that improvement to continue.

      It is interesting that you site the Mirror article. I actually have a piece going up on tomorrow talking about how far from the mark that “plan” by the FA is. They want their national team to play more like Spain? Great. Who doesn’t? However, in order to make that happen, the FA needs to have a plan now that will pay-off in a decade. It does not seem like the FA has a plan beyond tomorrow’s lunch.

  12. jim

    July 20, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Eric —

    love it and agree. hadn’t considered how France’s cheating their way in might have affected their mindset, I just thought that they were a shaky ship all the way in and were ripe for implosion under Domenech. Also I think too many people (latecomers?) look at France’s success during the ZZ years and postulate that they will always be good. I see them returning to the norm — a top 40 team but not top 10.

    I’d respect Van Marwijk more if he fessed up that the Dutch hacking was part of his game plan, and not some unfortunate thing his players happened to do because I don’t believe it for a second. If it wasn’t part of his plan, then he had no control over his players. I think he drew up the Spanish lineup and said “Xavi, Xabi, Iniesta — all go down hard in the first 15m.” Not Busquets because he’s big enough to defend himself.

    But I started to post to say I agree with your highlighting the Donovan quote. I thought it was spot-on and used it as the title of something I wrote earlier (

    Thanks for the great analysis. Stuff like this blog makes it possible for US coaches to read, learn and improve our level.

  13. Clayton

    July 20, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Great article…nice to hear someone take a positive (and realistic) viewpoint on our world cup. All of the points you mentioned are why the US should never hire a foreign coach (besides maybe Klinnsman bc he’s been here). First of all the national team coach does not have enough time with the players to magically improve their skill on the ball and first touch. Also, there is no way a guy who barely speaks English could motivate the guys to play as hard as they do.

    I do disagree that the US was never intimidated…I think tightness had a lot to do with allowing those early goals, but it was as if the tightness went away once the other team scored.

  14. ELAC

    July 20, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Well said, sir. We still need better skill on the ball AND better first touch overall.

  15. Dan

    July 20, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Lol, France “believed” they didn’t deserve to be there which is why they played horrible? Or perhaps because their manager had no authority on the team and was a complete idiot? Or Holland was scared of Spain? Give me a break, Spain outplayed them and Holland had many chances to win the game. This article is retarded and the guy writing is too

    • Eric Altshule

      July 20, 2010 at 11:40 am

      It is a side note to what I wrote, but I don’t think it is even controversial to say that Holland changed their style because they were intimidated by Spain. This is what Dutch coach Bert Van Marwijk said after the game:

      “Let me put it this way, it’s not our style to commit horrible fouls. It’s not our kind of football. It was a World Cup final and people were tense. …It was still our intention to play beautiful football, but we were facing a very good opponent. Spain are the best footballing country in the past few years.”

  16. Vince CLortho

    July 20, 2010 at 10:48 am

    Great point. We haven’t won a World Cup but at least we go down playing our game. The same can’t be said of the Dutch. There is only 1 winner per tournament, but victories can be had at many points. As skill improves, so should the brand of US Soccer, but we should never get away from the ‘Never say die’ attitude. DTOM.

  17. UpTheBlues

    July 20, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Another low blow against Holland. Come on.

  18. Charles

    July 20, 2010 at 10:09 am

    I like this article. We read too much about what is wrong with US soccer. I guys that “really know football” put US soccer down to show us they know more than everyone else.
    Quite frankly I think they are threatened that they will be exposed if US soccer becomes the standard.

    After watching Ljungberg whining all season, followed by the World Cup, the Landon Donovan comment and what Eric is writing about really is exactly what I want US soccer style to be. It is for a majority of MLS players/games. It is for the US national team too. It is a joy to watch.

  19. Robert

    July 20, 2010 at 8:22 am

    Great article, with one exception – yes there may be diving in Italian soccer, but their style is game management with quick bursts of action (usually toward the end) to take advantage of a fortuitous situation. I requires patience, skill, and some luck in a “corrupt world”.

    But 100% agree that the American style of soccer is excellent soccer.

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