So Thursday I watched the Nats practice for the Chile game. The lack of excitement around Southern California for this game is palpable, sadly enough. Beating Chile won’t make us a world power, and losing to them won’t kill the sport. But it’s the first step of a long process, and I wanted to get a closer look.
What did I learn? Well, about as much as you could watching a ninety minute practice during a three-week camp. Ideally I would have been there every morning, seeing this group of players develop, and charting who is potentially on their way to a national team career, and who will get a copy of the January Garbage Friendly home game.
What entails a Thursday morning practice in January, a mere three and a half years before the World Cup? Well, this particular one had a lot of stretching, and a lot of Gatorade. The weather was REDACTED TO AVOID THE FURY OF EVERYONE OUTSIDE CALIFORNIA FREEZING THEIR ASSES OFF UNDER FOUR FEET OF SNOW. Besides, no one wants to get hurt two days before the game.
The stated goal was to acclimate a new generation of players to international play – so there was a good deal of tactical discussion. Short version, the US would like to control the midfield and make good passes quickly. As opposed to poor passes, or good passes that don’t get made because the player took too long to see the opportunity. I had anticipated more of a proper scrimmage, and I was wrong. It looked a lot like offense versus defense, 10 v. 9 (with goalkeepers practicing off to the side). If that’s what it was, then Brek Shea is starting at forward, and Omar Gonzalez and AJ De La Garza are starting in central D. It probably wasn’t actually offense versus defense, in other words.
But Shea did set up the only goal, once the keepers were brought in to make it a mini-game. He made a great run to the left, and found Dax McCarty open in the middle for the goal. It’s like they’ve played together before, or something.
The keepers were in very good form – even Dominic Cervi, who exists, by the way. During the shooting drills – this wasn’t a practice that broke new ground in training theory, in case you were wondering – one of the few people to score was Jeff Larentowicz, who broke a serious Cervi shutout streak, followed immediately by McCarty. I was all set to write about ginger dominance of the sport when Larentowicz’s next shot sailed into Gardena. So much for the Rapids playing with three forwards next year.
Oh, Grahame Jones didn't use this response in his article, but Scott French did, so you know I'm not lying. Bob Bradley said that Omar Gonzalez needed to work on, I swear to God, "little things like positioning and footwork." Like, yipes. Yeah, he's great, except for things you need to play professional soccer. He did say he had improved since the previous January camp, which should greatly comfort his club coach, Bonehead McNohelp.
I also thought Mix Diskerud looked good – yeah, I know, I’m touting the guy who had the amazing assist against South Africa. I don’t know where I get these insights, really. Just my God-given perceptiveness.
Obviously, I was lucky to be there at all. You might remember last week, when I anticipated not being credentialed. But, I honestly didn't think there would be an issue about watching the US National Team practice.
I mean, listen, we're talking about practice.
Not a game.
Not a game.
Not a game.
We're talking about practice.
I mean how silly is that?
We're not even talking about the game, the actual game, when it matters.
We're talking about practice.
Anyway, when I encountered resistance, I naturally took it personally, like I do everything else. Why wouldn’t the Federation welcome interested observers? This is a fairly interesting time for the Nats, after all. Put it this way – the playing fields of Eton:the Battle of Waterloo::Mooch Myernick Field:the 2014 World Cup. And I thought, if they’re telling the press, that’s pretty much the same as telling the public.
Well, the short answer is, no. I was eventually, and rather gently, told that it was a question of logistics – there weren’t enough Federation employees to take care of a horde of tourists, nor enough Home Depot Center security. There are only a couple of benches – and those are strictly for those who can pass the beep test. The only reason the press was told about practices at all was for the convenience of interviewing players and coaches – which I didn’t necessarily want to do, because I’m so shy.
Seriously, journalists have a tough job, even (or especially) sports journalists. The way I looked at it, these were guys who have spent three weeks in an extended audition for a role in literally the biggest show on earth. But unlike some piddly television reality show, it’s a commitment of four years, minimum. And unlike piddly reality shows, there’s no guarantee you’ve made it even after you’ve made it. Coaches and fans talk openly about how this camp doesn’t have most of the US’ “better” players anyway.
The cold reality is, half of those guys, minimum, are there so that the guys who will be playing against Chile can get some decent scrimmage time. But few, if any, of the players know which is which. The players see themselves as Rocky or Rudy or whoever the guy was from “Goal! The Dream Begins” – facing and triumphing over impossible odds to achieve immortal glory.
Meanwhile, the coaches see the players as your little brother’s Smurfs that you sub in for your Star Wars action figures because you don’t have enough Stormtroopers to chase Han, Luke and Chewie.
That’s a hell of a disconnect. The players in this camp know it on some level, but either don’t dare to admit it or don’t care. Their mindsets are totally focused on achievement.
So no, probably not a good idea to ask them if they were an ice cream cone, what flavor would they be. That’s a job for pros.
Shame, really, because they seem like pretty likeable guys.
Anyway, from the team’s point of view, practices aren’t for random dildos like your obedient servant. It wasn’t that I in particular am an asshole – although that obviously doesn’t help – it’s just that they didn’t want any member of the public to worry about. What if I got hit in the face with a ball and sued the Federation? That wouldn’t be the cowboy way.
I was properly chastened…but I don’t know how wrong I really was with my premise. I can think of a lot of people who would enjoy seeing a practice. Fans, of course – there are a spitload of players in this camp with local connections, after all.
Yeah, you can't just drop in and watch the Lakers or the Dodgers practice. But that's sort of the point - there is enough media coverage of some sports that you don't need to hunt down little tidbits. Right now, US soccer news is released through the USSF website, or through media outlets that have cut back soccer coverage to a sickening degree over the past few years. US fans are likely to go on the computer, write about what they see, generate buzz. aybe I shouldn't be the guy bridging that gap - but somebody should.
Well, Los Angeles is the worst city in America to find US national team fans. It will be the last city in the US to embrace the team, because so many existing fans here are spoken for.
Except, it has more youth soccer players and coaches than anywhere in the entire universe. Those are people who could, maybe should, be watching. Practices can be dull, technical things, but it’s a chance to see Bob Bradley in action.
No, there’s not a punchline coming! He’s one of the best coaches in American history. He’s going to the Hall of Fame someday. He won a double with an expansion team. He made the Metrostars and Chivas USA respectable for a minute. No, I didn’t like the Ghana game either, but that’s not the point.
And under Bob Bradley, the national is more popular than at any point in the decades-long history of the Federation. Hm, maybe the USSF doesn't need my advice. Turns out I'm the schmuck - who knew? (I don't actually want an answer to that.)
I still think I'm right, though.
One of the things I didn’t encounter was handwringing about losing the 2022 World Cup bid. In fact, no one around the team would admit to looking farther than the Gold Cup, let alone 2026. We could all be dead by then. One good meteor, or a series of peach truck accidents.
Yeah, the Federation needs to take a good, long look at itself, and how they took Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman and a million other people and were paid back in chump money. But the team itself - they're living in the now. Maybe that's good advice.