BLAME THE RUBY SLIPPERS
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Why haven't Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Oguchi Onyewu moved to bigger clubs by now?

Well, MLS (reasonably) wants to retain its star acts and many a voyage of talented Americans to Europe has hit the icebergs of greedy clubs and agents before making landfall - but, of course, the failure of the US National Team in Germany did not help.

And to think it all looked so rosy back in May. We licked our lips at the prospect of hordes of US soccer players crossing the pond in chartered cruise liners after another virtuoso performance from the States at the World Cup had confounded the football globe yet again.

Now, the stars have not arrived on the quayside as expected and there seems little can be done about this unexpected reversal of fortune. In fact, the 2006 World Cup has proven to be more than just a damp squib for US Soccer and its followers.

Most of us shrugged our shoulders and moved on after the States failed to beat Ghana in Nürnberg, but perhaps only now are we realizing quite how pivotal those three games were in determining the immediate future.

Apart from enjoying more Yanks playing in the top leagues, we should have been experiencing a boost in participation, stadium attendance, sponsorship and media interest in the game as a whole back home after a successful show by the National Team in front of the cameras.

I attended all three US games in Germany, have watched them again on tape, digested and masticated over the myriad of verdicts in my head until it hurt, but have still not resolved something.

Basically, I understand how more than why the US failed, all factors considered. Finding no remedy to my ills in this world, I have happily found the reason(s) for this summer of disillusion in a parallel universe.

At the highest level of soccer, there is often little to divide teams. The fine line between winning and losing often boils down to apparently minor events that are hard to foresee and harder to prevent: a missed tackle in midfield leads to a breakaway goal, a wicked last minute swerve sends the ball into the top corner instead of cannoning off the post, a grass cutter hits a bobble and wrong foots the goalie or a referee falls asleep for a split-second and misses an obvious handball in the box (hello, Hugh Dallas).

These cruel twists of fate happen again and again, and the football gods never tire of spinning the fates of players and fans alike, creating chaos and confounding expectations. It is the butterfly effect in the Beautiful Game – the ability of small changes in the short term to make big differences in the long run.

Cast your minds back to Tuesday, March 9th of 2004, when a single freak action by a Yank changed the course of European football.

It was the last minute of a round of 16 Champions League tie at Old Trafford.

Benni McCarthy swings over a free kick, Tim Howard shockingly fumbles the ball, Costinha pounces and scores. Porto go through at Man United's expense and win the Champions League two months later. Their coach Jose Mourinho is then poached by Chelsea and a whole new chapter of English soccer opens...

If the beat of a butterfly's wings in Mexico has been proven to create a tornado further down the line in Illinois, then I proffer that the Czech Republic defender Tomáš Ujfaluši's curious decision to wear red shoes in Gelsenkirchen, alone among his teammates, set US Soccer on the road to a disappointing 2006!

Now don't tut - putting on ruby slippers worked wonders for an American icon - and just imagine if the US had gotten out of that Group of Death after all.

Sure, it is hard to see how we could have beaten the Czechs, losing the way we did. But what if Claudio Reyna's shot had swerved inside the post instead of hitting the woodwork? Who knows the different direction that game may have taken?

For 45 minutes, England dominated Sweden at least as much as the Czechs did us, but ended up tying 2-2. With the game tied at ones at the half, maybe Bruce Arena would have felt more confident in going for the win after the break.

Maybe we would then have watched Ujfalusi & Co. beat a gradual retreat before Johnson clinched it late on with a 25-yard effort that took a wicked deflection off the ruby slippers, spinning away from the despairing Petr Cech and over the line.

Next stop in this tantalizing 'what-if?' world is K-town, where Brian McBride might well have spotted DaMarcus Beasley shaping to shoot, quickly stepped up and watched the ball hit the net without that linesman's flag rising.

Let's face it, the US could have beaten the Azzurri that night with only a little more fortune - I know, Italy did score an own goal, but we had two avoidable sendings off too. Split-second decisions by Eddie Pope and Pablo Mastroeni to lunge into tackles reduced the US team to nine men and even then, they almost won it.

Even when it came to our Nuremberg trial, we could yet have set off along the yellow brick road in this alternate tournament. Consider the permutations had that Ghanaian penalty not been called by the overzealous Markus Merk, the 'Nats entering the dressing room level and fired up for the second half.

It would not have been beyond the realms of possibility to see Clint Dempsey popping up, as he is wont to, to head a late winner, or McBride hitting the onion bag at his third World Cup Finals. After all, despite the confluence of adverse fates circling above us, we still only lost 2-1 and were not overwhelmed.

Okay, chances are we would have lost to Brazil in the second round, but when you look at their busted flush against France, there could even have been a glimmer of hope there for the US.

I know what you are thinking - yes, these things are possible in theory, but the odds were so stacked up against the US thanks to below par players and below par coaching and powerful opposition, that these hypotheses are more improbable than realistic.

We will never know anyway, and this is meaningless as we cannot return to rectify wrongs, unless Marty McFly appears on the US Soccer doorstep with a rigged DeLorean.

Fair comment, but just stop and ask yourself why the expected American post-WC influx has not happened, why Bruce Arena is coaching the New York Red Bulls instead of a Premiership club and why MLS is looking at four more years of toil in search of investment.

Was not that an implausible scenario back in May in our optimistic supporter minds? You may mock my Ujfaluši theory, but take the time to look up 'butterfly effect' on Wikipedia and prepare to defer to superior science.