It was just seven years ago that America appeared, finally, to have a soccer future.
The 2002 World Cup had been a revelation. Sparked by two fast, feisty and fearless kids, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, the U.S. team had stunned Portugal, dominated Mexico and, in the quarterfinals, even outplayed Germany before losing 1-0. There was actually talk, at least in American soccer circles, about the U.S. team winning a World Cup someday, maybe by 2018 or even 2014.
Indeed since that tournament, the United States has supplanted Mexico as the dominant team in the region and has ascended to the upper reaches — 14th at last count — of the international soccer rankings.
The Confederations Cup in South Africa loomed as a test of the American team’s elevated status. But after just two games this week — there is no need to wait for the “consolation” game against Egypt Sunday to render a verdict — the U.S. team has been thoroughly exposed. It is not a contender, not even an emerging world power, but rather a workman-like, middle-rank team that can excel only in a region of soccer pygmies.
In two games with soccer superpowers, Monday against Italy and Thursday against Brazil, the U.S. team displayed no cohesion, grit, discipline, maturity or indeed much of anything that might enable it to compete with the game’s elite at next year’s World Cup back in South Africa. Stats may never deliver the full measure of the two defeats — 3-1 to Italy and 3-0 to Brazil — but suffice it to say that Italy had 10 corner kicks to the United States' one and the Brazilian goalkeeper was not required to make a single save.
And what about those two fearless and feisty kids from World Cup 2002? Donovan, who has gone on to become the team’s all-time leader in both goals and assists, seems to be flying solo, totally disconnected from his teammates on the front line. And Beasley appears to have lost at least a few steps off his greatest asset, speed, along with virtually all of his other skills. He didn’t make the starting lineup for the opener and, in the second contest, was replaced at halftime after an embarrassingly, inept performance.
Ironically, the only American player who has created any buzz in this tournament is New Jersey-born and -bred Giuseppe Rossi, who opted to cast his lot instead with Italy and scored two goals against his countrymen. One is tempted to conclude that the American team is left with little more than what it had back in 1990 when it went to its first World Cup in decades: superb goalkeepers.
It is too often the U.S. soccer fan’s lot to make excuses. The team was, in fact, missing several key players, including its captain Carlos Bocanegra, due to injuries. And it’s hard enough to play Italy and Brazil even, let alone down a man for much of the game, as the U.S. was forced to do in both contests after players were red-carded for late tackles. The apologists will grouse about the ejections and insist the fouls only warranted yellow cards. But both fouls were reckless and demonstrated poor judgment, a pattern that goes back to the team’s last World Cup match against Italy when it wound up with just nine players on the field.
ESPN commentators Alexi Lalas and John Harkes, stars of the World Cup teams in the ‘90s, had been warning even before this tourney that this American team seems to lack both chemistry and grit — and now they have added maturity to their indictment.
The U.S. has almost two months to regroup for the final five matches of World Cup qualifying. There will be calls to blow up the team, starting with coach Bob Bradley, who was never the object of U.S. soccer’s affection. But after a strong tenure as interim coach, he inherited the job when the long courtship of Jurgen Klinsmann didn’t succeed in attracting the former German national coach.
Bradley, who has been criticized for a lack of imagination in both his tactics and his lineups, has certainly suffered in South Africa by comparison with a former American coach, Bora Milutinovic, who arrived at the helm of Iraq. Bora, who has coached five different countries at World Cups, understands when his team is outgunned. And he can organize a tenacious and disciplined defense, as Iraq demonstrated in its 1-0 loss to world No. 1 Spain. Without having scored in its two games, Iraq is well positioned to qualify for the semi-finals with a victory over New Zealand Saturday.
Bora’s approach is often criticized as boring. But right now boring would be a vast improvement over all the excitement the American team appears to stir up among its opponents. Bradley has a very tall order to restore both touch and toughness to his squad not to mention some kind of boost to team confidence and morale.
The game Sunday against a solid Egyptian team will be a chance for the U.S. team to show some pride. But when World Cup qualifying resumes, the Americans will need more than that. The next American game that truly counts will be Aug. 12 on the road in Mexico, a place the United States has never won. And off the dismal Confederations Cup showing, U.S. fans can contemplate a fate they once thought unimaginable: not even making it back to South Africa for World Cup 2010.
More GlobalPost dispatches on soccer: