Justice Is Served

June 18, 2010 12:25 PM

U.S. Soccer: Its near future is right now


Alexi Lalas had it right. The United States had to beat Slovenia, and if the U.S. team couldn't do so, it had no business being in the World Cup, said the free-spirited Lalas, a onetime World Cupper and a mainstay of American soccer for more than two decades.

Well, the U.S. team didn't beat Slovenia; it tied the Slovaks 2-2 Friday, which was the preferred option if the United States couldn't win. But a tie comes close to being a loss for U.S. team. It was a distressing way to showcase soccer U.S. style, so much so that the United States is basically back to Ground Zero in its development of the sport. Its program has a lot more building to do.

Since the World Cup was played in the United States in the summer of '94, the U.S. Soccer Federation has made trying to put life into American soccer its priority. Under the guidance of several men, the Federation has poured millions into youth programs across the country and helped strengthen college programs. It has played a part in starting a professional league here, a league that brought soccer legends like David Beckham to the country in an effort to increase the sport's profile.

All of these moves were supposed to benefit soccer in America.

Now, it was time to show how much U.S. soccer had progressed, and the best place to show it was on the biggest stage in sports: the World Cup. Striker Landon Donovan, perhaps the best U.S. player ever, defender Jay DeMerit and goalkeeper Tim Howard were expected to lead the Americans deep into Cup play.

Theirs was an urgency to prove to the world that U.S. Soccer had arrived.

Instead, coach Bob Bradley and his players proved little to the world in South Africa, aside from their resolve. They again displayed an incapable to embrace greatness on a big stage. They shattered like fine Irish crystal under the pressure of a World Cup match.

Facing the smallest team in the tournament, the United States played as if it were in a purple haze. It had its defense stretched early, and its defense broke down twice in the first 45 minutes, allowing the Slovaks to jump ahead 2-0. It was the sort of performance that has become too typical of U.S. Soccer, though it did come alive to earn a tie.

With two points, the U.S. team left itself with flickering hopes of moving beyond group play. Bradley can almost start having the equipment men pack his players' gear and get ready for their return flight to the States. It doesn't look as if they will be coming home to a hero's welcome; they will be coming home with bags filled with disappointment, a team unable to play to its ability.

Bradley will get the blame for it, and he should. But what will pointing blame at anybody do for soccer in America? The men and women now at the top of the U.S. Soccer Federation will have to do what others tried to do after 1994: put pieces in places for long-term success.

But success hasn't visited America, not the way those who love the sport wanted to see. Its team looks as if it might have to sit and watch as other countries vie to win the Cup. With one game left to play, its most important of the tournament, the United States will have everything at stake. If it falters here, it will wonder why its plans for success went badly.

Its ability to keep a clean slate early in this game is a must. The team can't play catch-up game after game and expect to end up with a result it wants. Unlike basketball, baseball or football, pro soccer isn't a sport built for comebacks. Success is built around steadiness and consistency, and the U.S. team has been neither steady nor consistent in its two games in this 2010 World Cup, which is the pity of it.

Now, what U.S. Soccer is will be decided in its next game. It needs a win, for if it doesn't win, the team will have four years to prepare for the next Cup. Bradley surely won't be the coach in 2014; nor will Donovan, Howard and Clint Dempsey likely make the roster, too. What will be there, if the U.S. team qualifies, is a team that is the outgrowth of this disappointment.

For failure and disappointment teach invaluable lessons, and after what the U.S. team showed early against Slovenia, it has plenty of lessons it needs to learn if the aim is to be a player on the international soccer scene.   

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