SIXTEEN SOCCER CANDLES
RECAPS
PREVIEWS
EXTRA TIME
Saturday, July 30, 2005
Summer is our time. This summer especially. The European leagues are on vacation. There is no World Cup where US players are marginalized even here by comparison to their more famous counterparts.

There aren't even any European Championships to get in the way - only two weeks of the vaguely relevant Confederations Cup - to compete with the Summer of US Soccer.

And what a summer we've had.

The World Youth Championships, World Cup qualifying, the Gold Cup, the MLS season, and, most recently, the visit of some of Europe's most storied clubs (and Fulham) to scrimmage MLS squads rather than each other.

After spending an inordinate amount of my summer watching these events I have come to five realizations.

First, I need more of a life.

Second, there need to be more matches shown in HD (Rupert, get on it).

Third, I have gotten to a place in life where I'm lazy enough to have seriously contemplated buying a second TiVo because I don't want to go upstairs to watch something I've recorded.

Fourth, the person who invented the sectional couch should be sainted.

And fifth, I've realized that America has officially reached its footballing adolescence.

I could probably write 1000 words on any of the above topics and my friends could probably write much more than that on the first, but since this is being written for a soccer web site, I'll focus on the last one.

As the summer wanes and the promise of new league seasons across Europe threaten to draw our attention away from our own shores its time to look back on the summer and evaluate the progress of our teenage soccer nation...

Flashes of Brilliance

Amongst the mumbling to teachers and parents, playing of video games and awkwardness around the opposite sex, adolescents occasionally demonstrate what they have the potential to become. In some cases, this is a good thing. Eddie Johnson has been spectacular almost every time he's stepped on a field for club or country over the last year.

MLS produced one of the most, if not THE most, influential January signings into the English Premier League (and if you haven't checked out Blackburn's defensive record before and after Ryan Nelsen's debut you'll be shocked, they were a different team - too bad for them he doesn't score goals too).

DaMarcus Beasley played an integral part in an Eredivisie championship and a run to the semi-finals of the Champion's League with PSV. Clint Dempsey and Oguchi Onyewu emerged as standouts for their respective clubs and made excellent early showings for the MNT.

Moving from individuals to clubs, the Columbus win against Fulham, the Chicago Fire's performance against AC Milan that could easily have resulted in a 7-2 Chicago win and DC United's first 30 minutes and last 10 minutes against Chelsea are all flashes of what US Soccer can offer at its best.

Don Garber summed up these flashes of brilliance by saying that our new found European opponents "Are surprised and...are opening up their eyes to our game.." and seeing "...more legitimacy..." in the quality of play here.

Good times.

Delusions of Grandeur

As a soccer nation, we have reveled in the events above and going all the way back to our surprise run in World Cup 2002, we've had an excellent run. We've had our first few glowing report cards and we've started getting grouped in with the smart kids.

And then this: "They are tactically very well organized but the players cannot be very talented."

With these post-match comments about his DC United opposition, Jose Mourinho, in his always humble manner, rightly pulled the rug out from under us.

John Terry and Frank Lampard used terms like "work rate" and "organization" to characterize what they saw and they seemed encouraged but they said it the same way an older brother talks about his younger brother - or a good striker talks about Paul Dickov.

I know, we're the big bad bully in our region, but outside of Mexico our region isn't very good.

Yes, our club teams have occasionally done well in the Champion's Cup but again, other than the Mexican entrants, the clubs in the region aren't anything to write home about. We have progressed far enough that we can at least see the big time and, as every teenager does, we have been drinking deeply from the Kool-Aid as a result.

We believe our own press despite plenty of evidence that maybe we shouldn't. We were dismayed when Landon Donovan wasn't an immediate first choice at Leverkusen despite his merely adequate performances - what other soccer power has one of its best two or three players struggling to make the first XI for their club?

We greeted the recent FIFA rankings despite our loss, on home soil, to a lower ranked England squad who beat a combination of our first and second choice XI with a combination of their 3rd and 4th string. Defending MLS Champions DC United were embarrassed 5-0 in Mexico City by Pumas in the Champions Cup - that just doesn't happen to the league champion.

On the development front, while there are many US players out there that seem to have potential, we have produced exactly three exceptional seasons at the highest level of European soccer - Big Bad Brad in '02-'03, T-Ho in '03-'04 and DMB last year.

In most countries, there's nothing wrong with that, but to keep the company we aspire to, it just isn't enough to justify thinking we've arrived.

Expectations

Always a dual edged sword for teenagers.

On one hand, it means that those who are observing you - parents, teachers, and friends - think you have the tools to be a success. On the other hand, it also means that they expect that you'll deliver the goods. Being expected to deliver is never easy and is even less so if you've never faced it before.

Just ask the guys who have represented the USA in tournaments this summer.

Freddy Adu and Eddie Gaven were supposed to give us a preview of World Cup 2010 by leading the US deep into the FIFA U20 World Cup in Holland early in the summer. After the loss to Italy in the first knockout round, words like disappointment and setback were thrown liberally around by the media (and many of the players too).

It even occurred to me that I had looked past Italy in an effort to figure out when we would be play our semi-final match so I could be sure to have my schedule open or at least have my TiVo set - I'm sure I wasn't the only one.

Think about that for a minute.

In one tournament we looked past Italy and were disappointed by the results of a tournament where we beat the eventual champions and won a group containing Germany and Argentina. Those, my friends, are some serious expectations.

More amazing still was the Gold Cup.

First of all, we were favored to win a tournament that also featured Mexico and Colombia. We're not a nation used to being favored to win any tournaments so this is a positive step. The amazing part of the Gold Cup is that we DID win and, as a soccer nation, we were still upset about it.

I freely admit that I fall in this category - I questioned roster selections (Tony Sanneh? Really? Still? Why?) and found much of the play unwatchable but this criticism is something I expect from the press in Brazil or England or Italy - not here.

Impatience

As the expectations mount, we echo the teenager's mantra "we want it all and we want it now".

We want Eddie Johnson to continue his goal scoring pace once the competition comes from Europe and South America rather than Costa Rica and Panama. We want Landon Donovan to start coming up big in big games rather than disappearing.

We want Freddy to be the next Pele - and soon.

We want Marvell Wynne to head to Europe and become the next Ashley Cole.

We want soccer specific stadiums. We want soccer moms to start taking their kids to watch more matches live.

We want TV ratings.

We want teams in states where there are virtually no Spanish speakers to stop using Spanish words in their names (Real San Antonio if you must, but Real Salt Lake - come on).

We aspire to have a dominant team and a Yanks/Sox quality rivalry.

We yearn for the first signs labor unrest in MLS because it will mean that there's enough money to actually merit a fight over it. We can't wait for the old guard of sports journalists who just don't get soccer and never will to retire so that it won't just be dismissed out of habit.

We can't wait for 2010.

So what do we conclude about all of this?

Unfortunately, the overriding conclusion is the same for soccer in the US as it is for nearly every teenager - the only cure for adolescence is time. That said, there are better and worse ways to spend that time so I'll be back in a few days with some ideas on how to speed up the process at least a little bit.
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