Sunday, September 19, 2004
Since reaching the quarterfinals at World Cup 2002, the United States Men's National Team has moved into and remained in the top ten of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings. This would seem to signal the arrival of American soccer on the global stage.
However, anyone who follows world soccer has to question whether the United States really belongs in the company of such powerhouses as Brazil, Italy, Spain and England, while teams like Germany, Portugal and even reigning European Champions Greece get relegated to the second tier.
The rankings are based on a complex calculation of match results, regional strength and number of goals scored over the past eight years. These numbers reflect a teams average success over time, but world soccer isn't about average success. It's about winning championships.
The ability of a team to peak at just the right time in a tournament, to seize the moment, creating an attack that is so fluid it seems to happen in slow motion, or protecting the lead with all their heart during the longest final five minutes of their lives. These are the things that win big games, and winning big games is what makes champions.
What championships has the United States ever won?
Sure, they've won a couple Gold Cups against mostly small regional teams, and a few Nike U.S. Cups against hand-picked opponents, but they have yet to really succeed in the important tournaments. During the four World Cups they qualified for in the last fifty years, they only managed to win a total of three games, despite advancing twice out of the first round and reaching the quarterfinals once.
Let's compare these accomplishments with a country like Germany, who sits two places behind the United States in the world rankings.
In the last fifty years, Germany has participated in every World Cup, winning it twice, and playing in the final match seven times, including beating the United States in the quarterfinals of the last World Cup. The Germans have also won the European Championships three times, appearing as finalists five times. They may be behind them in rankings, but the bookies will still take Germany over the United States anytime.
To earn the respect of the world, the United States has to place themselves more often in a position to play and win important games against top competition, as well as hoist some meaningful trophies.
One of the most distinguished championships in the Western hemisphere, the Copa America, is a major tournament the United States has repeatedly declined to play in, citing timing conflicts with the domestic Major League Soccer season.
There is no doubt that the scheduling conflicts of major tournaments is a challenge all national teams face, but it's one the United States must overcome if they are to truly emerge on the world stage.
The last time the United States participated in 1995, they placed fourth and upset several teams including Argentina, Chile, and long-time rival Mexico.
Copa America represents the best opportunity to play against top opponents in between World Cups, and it provides a crucial opportunity for the development and confidence of the United States team. Winning big games against the competition there could prove that they actually deserve the world ranking they've accumulated.
There are increasingly more American players in top leagues around the world, but no real superstars or even many consistent starters at top clubs. One of the marks of a world soccer power is the depth of the squad, and many have a second team that can beat most country's first team squads. While the depth of the United States player pool continues to strengthen, the team still struggles when it's top players aren't present.
Their quality of play often lacks coherence and understanding between the players. There continues to be a lack of finishing in the offense, and a tendency to give up late goals or penalties in the waning minutes of important matches. Most importantly, they don't seem to be able to create that moment during the crucial match where soccer becomes a thing of perfection that propels them to the top of the champions podium.
Only time and continued experience against top players and teams will create a United States national team that should be considered amongst the top teams in the world. The United States is a reemerging soccer power, with a large amount of new investment and a crop of talented young players, but one that has shown they still have a long way to go before their accomplishments catch up with their ranking.