EURO WINS ARE A NECESSITY
The year 2008 marks the ten year anniversary of the United States Soccer Federation's infamous road map for long term success known as Project 2010. The explicit mission of Project 2010 was to transform the United States into a legitimate soccer power in time for the 2010 World Cup, which is slated to be hosted in South Africa for the first time.
Unfortunately America's most recent performance at World Cup 2006 shows that the 'Nats have substantial ground to make up in order to compete with the world's elite on a frequent basis. Successes in CONCACAF should whet the appetite of America's aficionados, but victories against quality European opposition on European soil are the triumphs Sam's Army really want to savor.
This Wednesday the United States begins the start of at least a three-game stretch in Europe, with the aspiration of establishing itself as a viable candidate to compete for ultimate glory in South Africa in two years time. The opponent this week is Euro 2008 qualifier Poland, a squad that beat down the United States back in the 2002 World Cup worse than Ivan Drago beat down Apollo Creed in their Vegas "exhibition" match.
The Poles are very capable and a win over a Euro 2008 qualification group winner in Krakow should be viewed as a notable accomplishment.
Team America should be able to draw on its 1-0 successes on Polish soil back in 2004 and in Kaiserslautern in 2006 ,as a template for overcoming a potentially hostile environment.
A draw would also be viewed in a positive light in my mind, considering that Major League Soccer has not yet begun its 2008 campaign, but a loss has the potential to erode the confidence of some of the squad's younger players and will hinder the progress the team has already made in the Bob Bradley Era.
This week the USSF finally confirmed that the national team will also be heading across the pond at the end of May to take on England.
The English are soccer's equivalent of Duke Basketball in the sense that every year they bring in top notch talent and every year they find a way to get the minimum out of its players (sorry Duke fans, but a narrow win over Belmont and a second round loss to West Virginia doesn't count as successful in my book). I witnessed a mediocre Three Lions beat perhaps an even more mediocre United States in Chicago back in 2005 and I wasn't very impressed with their soccer style at all.
The English national team lacks identity and individual creativity and these are attributes that America has a chance to exploit at Wembley. Former AC Milan/Juventus/Roma/Real Madrid/Any other good European club team coach Fabio Capello has been brought in to help save England from the embarrassment of failing to qualify for World Cup 2010, an objective that would differentiate himself from his horrendous predecessor who couldn't even qualify England for Euro 2008.
English fans have a massive inferiority complex yet when it comes to playing the United States they believe it is their birthright to humiliate us at soccer simply because they invented the sport. The Three Lions will be heavy favorites against us, but if we can somehow take an early lead I think the English faithful will turn on their players.
Anyone who doesn't believe that just needs to remember the Bronx Cheer that Steve McClaren received after his team were stunned by Croatia who had already qualified for Euro 2008 as group winners and subsequently had nothing but pride to play for.
A one goal loss would not be the worst result for America in this encounter, especially considering that even Brazil was only able to get a draw at Wembley, but if our aim is to be a legitimate threat to compete for the Jules Rimet Trophy in two years a draw or win might just provide the springboard we need heading into World Cup qualifiers.
The third leg of the European schedule sees our squad head to Sevilla to take on Spain on June 4th. The Spanish would most aptly be described as the Susan Lucci of world soccer: they qualify for every major competition almost every year, yet only have the 1964 European Championship to show for their efforts. Their squad boasts talent from perennial European powers like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool, but each time their cast of superstars puts on La Furia jersey they become entirely unimpressive.
The key to defeating the Spanish starts with neutralizing the threat posed by strikers Fernando Torres and David Villa and midfield maestro Cesc Fabregas. I understand that stopping these three playmakers is easier said than done, but the United States must stifle their influence on the game's proceedings to have any chance of winning on Spanish soil. The Spanish backline is anchored by Barcelona captain Carles Puyol, but his fellow defenders protecting goalkeeper Iker Casillas are marginal at best.
The power of Josmer Altidore and the speed of Eddie Johnson could pose serious threats to the Spanish backline. They will depend on quality service from players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey for goalscoring opportunities, but if they receive the ball in decent spots on the field EJ and Jozy could definitely wreak havoc on the aging Spanish defense.
The United States backline is fragile as well, so an up-tempo game is the formula for success in Spain. Again I believe that a draw is obtainable in this matchup. The Spanish will feel all the pressure as their preparations for Euro 2008 draw to a conclusion and anything other than a resounding victory over the Yanks will be viewed as unacceptable by the fans of La Furia.
Project 2010 set out lofty ambitions for the future of American soccer and ten years later it is time for its conceivers to reap the dividends. The United States now has a dynamic mixture of young talent like Altidore and Michael Bradley along with experienced veterans like Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, and Donovan. All of the resources required for success in soccer are at America's disposal and it is time to take advantage of that fact.
In 2006 the United States took one point from three games, but that one point happened to be against eventual World Cup Champion Italy in a game the United States could have won had a DaMarcus Beasley goal not been ruled out due to Brian McBride's offside. The potential exists for the United States to make a push deep into the World Cup just as we did back in 2002, but the draw will be key as will the confidence of the entire squad.
The easiest way to build confidence is to beat world class competition, and if the United States can leave their European tour with at least one victory and one draw under their belts, there is no doubt in my mind we will be empowered with the belief that we can beat any team on the planet.
Any team that lacks confidence will never win any trophy of importance and at the moment America needs positive results to grow the confidence they have been so desperately lacking in recent years.