ERIC ROSENBERG - Wednesday, April 19, 2006
We are now the fourth best team in the world, according to the FIFA rankings. Woo-hoo! By "we" I mean, of course, the US National Team. And by "the US", of course, I mean the team that is desperately seeking a backup left back in the case of injury to Eddie Lewis, who is a midfielder. Makes sense.
My point? Through their ludicrous rankings, FIFA has taken away one of our few competitive advantages, making me angry with them. Let me try to explain.
I'm a cynic. I read the "23 tickets" column, and I want to participate in the fun. I remind myself of the guidelines: it isn't about who I think should go, it's about who I think will go.
From that perspective, worthiness, in my own eyes, is a specious criterion, non-applicable, beyond the frame – sort of like how 'which team could beat which other team' is irrelevant to the FIFA rankings.
But I just find it all so depressing. I can't distance myself critically, sufficiently, to choose more than about four players. And then I start to wonder if my Spanish residency will allow me to take a few of their rejects.
Oleguer didn't get a call-up this time around. De la Peña is a fringe player at best. Jose Mari is looking solid for Villarreal. Alas, the nationality of this writer's wife does not qualify them for the US team.
That I don't believe in our ranking, much less our players, doesn't make me any less of a fan. I do not go into matches bracing myself psychologically for the blow of defeat. I'm not a coward. In Germany, I will support our chosen 23 unconditionally.
Such is my declaration this Easter season: not only will I fly the US flag at the World Cup, I will also bear the cross when the goals start falling, whatever the end result for my (distant) home side.
But that doesn't mean I think we have a snowball's chance in June.
Not that all hope is to be abandoned. For example, consider Bruce Arena: the strongest element in the US arsenal. Different coaches have different skills. Arsene Wenger is an extraordinary judge of youth talent. Frank Rijkaard is capable of fusing egos and a variety of styles into the collaborative pursuit of a common goal.
Arena's forte is his ability to pick competitive lineups from his given player pool, even when, position-by-position, he is outmanned and overmatched.
So we have that going for us. No wonder we are 10 places ahead of Italy in the rankings! Lippi schmippi.
Arena aside, what are the other keys to victory? A Nedved past his prime? Italian overconfidence? A Ghana team overwhelmed by the gravitas of the moment? I wouldn't count on it. And even if those scenarios come to pass, they don't help me count to 23.
True, we still have our stars – defined in the US as any active player with European experience. Beasley has been a part of PSV Eindhoven's two league titles in as many years. McBride is scoring in the Premiership. Reyna is... Reyna, and Keller is... a very good goalie.
So why am I still worried? To put it mildly, these players are all mild. They are not the backbone of a World Cup winner. With the possible exception of Keller, no American playing abroad is even the backbone of his club side.
If they all, collectively – together with Berhalter and Bocanegra and Convey and company – play the best games of their lives, they still don't have the necessary skill and will to challenge an on-form Italy or Czech Republic. Ghana they could give a run for their money.
So, if I'm right, where does that leave us?
Staring into the abyss of the national team week after week in "23 Tickets", one thought has sustained me: MLS players are the keys to victory – even if I don't even know who most of them are.
It's all I've got, and I'm going to cling to it like an Eddie Pope clings to a younger, faster striker: desperately, awkwardly, but maybe – just maybe – with some success.
Dempsey. Johnson. Schwartz. Nahassapeemapetilan. Blitzen. I don't know – I really don't follow the league. But somewhere out there, on a team whose name changes every other season, is a decent natural athlete ready to play well for the US. And the good news is I'm not the only one who hasn't got a clue as to his identity. The element of surprise is on our side!
At least, it would have been if FIFA hadn't blown it for us.