GOING TO VENEZUELA
It's just one more tournament during a busy summer 2007 - I shouldn't feel so excited, but I do.
After spending my wee morning hours watching World Cup matches in 2002, I enthusiastically waited four years for the National Team to take such a pitch again, but the abysmal performance in Germany was a complete and utter disappointment.
Four years of hard work, numerous successes in friendly games, as much as a #4 FIFA ranking, winning the 2005 Gold Cup; all the pieces seemed to be in place for a great showing in 2006, yet the glory never materialized and I think we were all left to wonder why.
Unfortunately, in the cacophony of explanations, accusations and excuses that occurred after the team came home, no real answers emerged and I came to understand that no real answers would ever emerge. It just happened, and we have to learn from our failure and move forward.
Sunil Gulati's Monday press conference to announce that we were accepting a Copa America 2007 invitation cheered me up greatly. I didn't hear any World Cup answers, nor did I expect them, but I did hear something much better: resolution.
"Clearly, the results over the summer have not been a wake up call - I won't say that - but emphasized that we need to get in some additional competition," he said.
"I was involved with the decision making beyond 1995 (the last tournament the US participated in) - '97, '99 and 2001, when we didn't go, and there were some very good reasons for not going."
"I think what we've looked at here is the balance needs to shift a little bit for this summer as we start a new cycle, as we look at a whole new group of players potentially."
Gulati may not want to call Germany 2006 a wake-up call, but with a new coach taking the helm in a month and a resolution to compete in the 2007 Copa America, our World Cup disappointment certainly looks like a wake-up call to me!
And a wake-up call it should be.
While the 'Nats cruised through their international competitions after 2002, there won't be any such cruising following 2006. Instead of promotional friendlies, the National Team will be challenged with top-level competition and an aggressive schedule - all the more for the fans to enjoy next summer.
"This is a one-time specific situation," stated The Prez. "In two years' time, if we were invited again, who knows how we would respond."
Sunil, don't stop in 2007. A one-off challenge in 2007 won't help us get stronger for South Africa 2010.
In fact, the '93 Copa America didn't spare us from defeat in the '94 World Cup and the '95 Copa America didn't spare us from disaster in the '98 World Cup. The resolution must be made that the US will be challenged at each and every opportunity, in real tournaments, against top-level competition and with championships on the line.
To get better, the team must be challenged every year. Not just 2007, but 2008 and 2009 as well. During the press conference, Gulati mentioned that the invites could soon dry up.
"This year, in fact, ends the agreement between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF about the invitation as guest teams," he noted, "So how that's looked at in the future, I can't say."
Whatever it takes to get to the 2009 Copa America, that's what we should do.
Gulati mentioned that the Gold Cup will not take back seat to the Copa America, and it shouldn't. "The Gold Cup is our confederation's championship," he declared. "It leads to playing in the Confederations Cup, so that's very important. We're going to put as strong a team as we can on the field for both events."
That's the way to go. USSF needs to take every opportunity to challenge the national team.
Mexico's federation challenged its team at every opportunity - in every Copa America for the last decade as well as every Gold Cup. The result has been the Mexican National Team consistently getting to the second round at the World Cup.
While we've managed to beat Mexico head-to-head, we haven't yet achieved their consistency of results. While El Tri has managed to perform against the top European and South American teams, we've been beaten consistently.
The summer of 2007 will also be a direct challenge to the new coach to get our players up the learning curve quickly. Gold Cup, Copa America, the (Under-20) World Youth Championships, the U-17 World Cup and Pan American games - there will be no shortage of action.
While we were slow and tentative in Germany 2006, we must become fast and aggressive by South Africa 2010. On the conference call, Gulati mentioned that the National Team will likely resume activity soon.
"We have games being scheduled for January and February, and we have a training camp that will take place," he disclosed. If we plan to be competitive in Venezuela, we'll need to get started training as soon as possible.
New coach, lots of tournaments - the summer of 2007 looks to be an exciting time for American soccer. Perhaps most exciting will be the number of new players called up.
We've seen flashes of Benny Feilhaber in a US jersey, but with his recent run of form at Hamburg, it's likely that we'll be seeing a lot of him next summer. Heath Pearce and Chris Rolfe have also made cameos, and it's probable that they'll be called up at some point next summer.
Jeff Cunningham, Brian Ching, Ramiro Corrales, Danny Califf, who knows who will be called up? Start throwing in permutations of who Jose Pekerman would prefer or Jürgen Klinsmann would pick, and the possibilities are too numerous to count. That's reason enough to be excited about this new era in U.S. soccer.
The future is now. It's time to step up.