It's time Americans changed their attitude
9 July ~ This has been going on a long time. And I'm tired. That was my first thought as I settled in to watch the US play Belgium. It's an odd mental state, I'll give you, since most everyone else in the World-Cup-qualifying world has been enduring these ups and downs their whole lives. Maybe that's my problem. I'm a convert. We always expect more and usually get less. For me, this long journey began in 1990. I was in New York, the US team were in Italy at the World Cup for the first time in four decades and the matches were on Ted Turner's TNT, tape delayed, edited for commercials, a mess.
I think I saw Czechoslovakia slaughter us. Since that tournament, I have been strapped in to the national team rollercoaster – through to the knockout rounds in 1994, last place in 1998, and then, oh then came the revelation of 2002. We went all the way to the quarter-finals after beating arch rivals Mexico, and only a German finger kept us from the semis. We were on our way as a football nation.
Actually, not so much. The ups and downs continued. They have aged me, made me cynical like many a fan of teams with longer and more illustrious World Cup histories. For me, the slide to the dark side in this tournament came in the group game against Portugal. Thirty seconds away from six points and qualifying after two games for the first time ever, we let Cristiano Ronaldo put in that cross.
We'd played well for so long against the Portuguese and kept Ronaldo in check. And didn't, in the end. I want history; I want to do something we haven't before. I don't want to squeak out of the groups to lose 2-1 in the last 16. (Some will say this World Cup was different because we squeaked out of the group of death. I'll credit that. But I still want more.)
The Portugal result told me we weren't ready to go on. I somehow knew we'd lose to Germany and half expected to get out of the group anyway. We played Belgium and tried to hang on for a result as we did in two of our three group games, ceding tons of possession and hoping for a miracle on the counter. The problem is, in knockout football you don't hang on for results. That rarely works. You have to go and get the win (ironically, that's a typically American idea). With each marvellous Tim Howard save, I heard a warning gong in my head.
Something else about these finals has me feeling old. Commentators here burbled incessantly about the growing ratings, the traveling support and the viewing parties like they were the new new thing. The latest generation of viewers and journalists shows up every four years, and for them, everything must be new because they're seeing it for the first time. The incremental, evolutionary and massive growth of football in America since 1990 is there for all to see. But they don't, and I'm tired of repeating myself. One ESPN commentator said of getting out the group: "It's a heck of a landmark day for US soccer." No, not really.
In interviews, US coach Jürgen Klinsmann said he was disappointed the US didn't take the game to the Belgians. We were too respectful, he said. Having seen them do that against Ghana and Germany, I was left wondering what coach has been saying on the training ground, before the games and at half time. Was no one listening to him? The Klinsmann era will continue here. I'm fine with that.
Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena and Bora Milutinovic were good coaches for their times, which called for a game-by-game effort to survive to the next match. Klinsmann, I think, has a bigger target in mind. The key deficiency in the US team is technique (I refer you to the chances not finished against Belgium). A guy with Klinsmann's credentials banging the drum for improving technique in US soccer will be heard by our own men in blazers.
Some of our current technique is coming from the half-German, half-American players in the squad. Klinsmann did very well signing those men and I'd keep him just for that benefit. I'm sure there are many more sons of service men in Germany who won't get picked for the German team. We'd love to have them and their technique. Rich Zahradnik