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Posts Tagged ‘United States’

An Injury-Time Strike Upon a Hill

June 23, 2010 | by

Among the new heroes of this World Cup one must now count Bob Bradley, the grim, predestinarian U.S. coach—on the silent sideline his presence seems more foreboding than forbearing—much maligned by American fans in the qualifying campaign for his tactical inflexibility and cautious squad selections.

Like those other steadfast skippers pilloried for poor performance in early games, Bradley has remained loyal, through the group stage, to a cautious 4-4-2, deploying creative flair in the central midfield, when forced to, only behind his quantum destroyer son, Michael Bradley—his head shaved bald like his father in a show of grim emulation. But Bradley père’s central defense suffocated Wayne Rooney in game one, and his bold halftime substitutions saved the Americans in game two, stockpiling on the field all the technical skill the middling U.S. team could muster, heedless of the tactical consequences.

Today his foresight and patient tinkering paid off again—adjustments made at halftime and throughout the final forty-five minutes—producing a steady stream of American chances which our virtuosity in bungling them proved we hardly deserved. And in the panicked ninety-first minute, Bradley’s alignment produced, at the very end of a half thoroughly dominated by U.S. possession, an improbable opportunity to counterattack—the open field being the only soccer habitat, it seems, in which American strikers can actually thrive. Now, pending results this afternoon, it seems the U.S. path forward will take them first through Serbia and then, given a result there, into a quarterfinal against either overperforming Uruguay, or the pinball side from South Korea. Winning those winnable contests means a place in a World Cup semifinal. And these two miraculous end-game assaults—an unrelenting second half against Slovenia, comical incompetence in front of goal against Algeria preceding a single surgical strike—look now a lot less like the anarchic energy of tactical desperation. They look like providence.

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If You Want Entertainment Go to the Circus

June 14, 2010 | by

Photograph by Dundas Football Club, CC-BY.

For the soccerati, the fashionable book for this World Cup is Soccernomics by Simon Kuper, which is, as the title suggests, Freakonomics but about soccer. It has the first explanation of game theory I’ve ever understood and the unlikely thesis that England would do better at the game if they let the posh kids have a go. Its main point though is that thanks to the spread of globalization, the game is about to get a lot duller.

Everybody knows everything about everyone. Teams that have been thought of as tactically naïve (read African), weaker (read Asian), and overly gung-ho (read Latin American), have now adopted a much stricter tactical acumen—they set up defensively, invite the other team onto them and then hope to catch them on the counter attack. It started with South Korea’s run to the semifinal in the 2002 World Cup, took real hold when Greece won the European Championship in 2004, and reached its apotheosis when Inter Milan defeated Barcelona in the Champions League semifinal this year, despite being down to ten men and ceding seventy-five percent of possession to the Catalans.

The pleasures of truly bizarre play or utter annhilation have vanished. Instead we’ve had France versus Uruguay, a game in which both teams looked genuinely frightened of scoring and the 1–0 victories of both Argentina and Ghana, both of which were convincing without being particularly thrilling.

And then there was the US–England match, which had anticlimax written all over it. In England, where I watched, ITV managed to cut to a commercial just before England scored and cut back in the middle of the celebrations, thus denying the nation the collective roar that they had been preparing for since the draw was made, or since 1812 depending on which way you look at it. The less said about the American goal the better. There has been plenty of talk about the unpredictability of the Jabulani but until Rob Green’s howler, the main effect of it seemed to be long-range shots endlessly flying miles over the bar. There was something rather end-of-Empire about the ball squirming into the net. The teams took turns in the second half to press, both had one good chance to score and both, predictably, failed. (There is something Paxil-requiring in thinking about Emile Heskey, the misser of the England chance who has the astonishing goal-scoring record of seven goals in fifty nine internationals. It never seemed to cross his mind that he might score, let alone ours.) A draw had been emotionally agreed upon. Even the fans in the stand looked rather similar in their red, white, and blue; you had to really lean in to see if the focus was on stars or crosses.

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On Being an American

June 11, 2010 | by

Photograph by Jen, CC-BY-NC-SA

There is nationalism, Arthur Koestler said, and then there is football nationalism, the latter being much more deeply felt.

But soccer nationalism—soccer nationalism is another thing entirely. For a Brit like Will Frears, English football encodes plenty of thinking-man's-ambivalence about the country itself—its haughty self-regard, its classishness, its sporadic hooliganism. In America, delightfully, conveniently, soccer decodes ambivalence. On the field, the United States is not a superpower but a scrappy younger sibling, not racially strifed but Benetton-harmonious, not stratified by class but unified blandly by a rec-league middle-classness. Soccer isn't war, it's much more self-denying than that, something closer to noble pacifism. Americans have tribal instincts, too, though we check them, and soccer nationalism might be our only form of bloodless imperialism—a chance to root for our country when it doesn't actually mean anything. Soccer loyalty, unlike national loyalty, is lightly-felt and light on its feet; it is a weak nuclear force; it is winning.

Not literally winning, of course. Over the last generation American soccer has climbed out of the realm of the putrid but pitiful and ascended to discourteous mediocrity. This makes us, somehow, only less loveable to the rest of the world. But being an underdog is perhaps the most cherished position in American sports. Here, we actually like surprises, unlike Europeans—whose leagues feature no playoffs, no salary caps, and punish lackluster teams by actually demoting them, like bad students—and all the more so when we've been along for the ride. Here, we might even prefer surprises to excellence. And being mediocre means we're only a lucky break from attaining decency.

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