We should congratulate Mexico for becoming the first CONCACAF nation to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. But, because we are bad sports, we won’t.
But at least spare a thought for Honduras. They were given a tremendous gift last Friday when Costa Rica smacked the United States in New Jersey. Then for most of the sweltering Tuesday evening they were set for the World Cup, at the expense of the same team that thundered six past them earlier in qualifying. It was a glorious, fantastic, remarkable turn in fortune…and then Bobby Wood set it all ablaze. Now Honduras is in fifth place, deep in goal differential hell, utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers (or at least antipathetic acquaintances) even if they do manage to defeat the hottest team in the Hexagonal. It may be the beautiful game, but Jesus, is it cruel.
Costa Rica’s win last week over the US men’s national team was fascinating revenge. Not for the Gold Cup, or the 2013 Snow Bowl in Commerce City, but for a more fondly-remembered qualifier in Portland in 1997.
On September 7, Preki pulled off the most important patented left foot move of his career, found Marcelo Balboa, who in turn found Tab Ramos.
It was a euphoric moment in a milestone game. Here are highlights:
Here's an old pal of mine reminiscing about it from 2011:
The modern reader might wonder why American fans were in such a good mood, seeing as how it took nearly eighty minutes to get one darn goal in a vital match. Perhaps we were more patient then. Considering we had cost ourselves two points earlier in the cycle when Kasey Keller scored a bank shot own goal off Carlos Hermosillo’s head, and considering we would follow up the Portland triumph with an ugly and ill-deserved draw with Jamaica, and considering we would follow THAT up with the most improbable Azteca point since Cortés burned his ships – I think we had quickly realized that the life of a US men’s national team fan was going to be an emotional roller coaster. Americans who wanted ease and comfort had to rely on Mia Hamm.
This was the first game that showed the United States men’s national team could fill a stadium with its own fans. Previous qualifiers in Washington and Foxboro, of course, had thousands of American fans, in itself a sign of progress during a hectic decade. But Portland’s cozy little baseball stadium provided the United States with its first true hands-down partisan support that anyone could recall. An attentive US Soccer Federation would be putting important games in cozy venues from that day to this.
The other lesson was that the Pacific Northwest remained an obvious location for MLS expansion – once venues were found, that is. Everyone knew Civic Stadium wasn’t a possibility.
Had Costa Rica scored early that day in 1997, and/or had the United States played with the verve, skill and élan they would bring to France less than a year later – well, it probably would have looked like Harrison on Friday. For twenty years the positive examples of Portland and Columbus, juxtaposed with hugely profitable but demoralizing fan unsupport in Southern California, would guide USSF scheduling philosophy, as everything was put through the prism of where there might be “friendly” fans.
It would be nice if the legacy of this Costa Rica game would be to realize that the team drives fan support wherever in America it plays, and that the United States national team cannot be wary of playing anywhere in the country it represents.
Costa Rica is, at this moment, an incumbent World Cup quarterfinalist that would be an incumbent World Cup semifinalist (or more?!) had a penalty kick competition against the Netherlands ended up more favorably. The US is good enough to beat Costa Rica, but not good enough to always beat Costa Rica.
You would think our fans would accept this, at least in theory. Especially since between Costa Rica losses in the Hex, the United States did this in meaningful games: WDWDDWWWWW.
Well, all that, and the trophy it came with, cuts no ice with no fans. In fairness, losing at home in the Hex is a really stupid thing to do, so it’s understandable that US fans had to face the Honduras game with trepidation instead of overconfidence.
And by trepidation, I mean, “acting like a troop of howler monkeys dunked in lemon juice.” “Profiles in Courage: The American Soccer Fan Edition” is going to save a lot of money on ink.
Gentle reader, I love you. I don’t say it often enough, but it’s true. You played along when I didn’t even mention David Beckham in a Hall of Fame post. I will never forget all that you’ve done for me. And I would hate for you to take this the wrong way. But I don’t want you to take it the right way, either. Hopefully now Matt Doyle will finally get off my case for wanting Bruce Arena fired from the Galaxy after the 2008 season, because you all wanted Arena fired at halftime.
I mean, at least let the plane crash before you start eating the survivors.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say there was a segment of American soccer fans who have invested some or all of their fan identity into ways that derive more pleasure and satisfaction from defeat than victory. Don’t know what to tell you, friends and neighbors. I like being right, too, and one of the ways you can be right more often than not is to look at facts and apply them consistently.
Let’s pretend, for example, that the complaint is that two embarrassing losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, on the one hand, and an embarrassing loss to Costa Rica and a halftime deficit to Honduras are being treated differently.
Bobby Wood, with considerable help from Matt Besler in keeping that ball in bounds, made this an even more unfair argument – it seemed like it was going to be a much more apple to apple, er, application.
On the other hand, Bruce Arena ran his smartass mouth about what a misunderstood genius he was before the Honduras game, so I think we were owed something more than one point after a Perils of Pauline miracle escape, don’t you?
But we can be unfair to Arena, and still be fair to him – no, he wouldn’t have deserved to be fired if Bobby Wood had missed the shot. You perhaps remember those Ws and Ds from…one two three…eight paragraphs ago. This is what Arena’s predecessor had done in meaningful games in 2016: LWLWWWLLWWLL. There were only two meaningful losses the US men’s national team suffered in 2015...except one was at home, to Jamaica, considerably earlier in the Gold Cup than to which we’ve become accustomed. And the other cost us a trip to the Confederations Cup. Which would have crowded the schedule something terrible - ask Mexico - but it still would have helped the program.
There might indeed be plenty of fantastic reasons to tell Bruce Arena to take a long walk off a cloud. But I’m afraid you’re going to have to be patient until he loses twice. Cheer up, if he loses the next one, he’s probably gone, how about that?
I hate to keep randomly bashing Eric Wynalda, but this is pretty indicative of US men’s national team criticism, both in quality and opportunism:
Being right about what's wrong doesn't get any of us anywhere --too many people do not want change nor do they think it's necessary https://t.co/R1dhyDYP0V— Eric (@EricWynalda) September 2, 2017
The population argument should be dismissed without a second thought - China doesn’t have twenty stars over its crest. When you’re trying to judge any population, on anything, by the extreme right end of the bell curve, you’re going to get some weird and unhelpful results. I don’t pretend to know the exact details of how Eric Wynalda would structure American soccer so we never lose to Costa Rica again, but whatever they are, he should also share them with Uruguay, Italy and England.
Wynalda has brought up in the past the importance of spreading the gospel of soccer among what we patronizingly call the urban market. That’s why Eric’s Tweet isn’t wrong - Costa Rica is getting the most out of its population, and we’re not.
(We assume. I’ve pointed this out well beyond the point of tedium, but Argentina has produced a ton of great players with governments that might as well have bought ad space in Amnesty International newsletters, and with economies that would make the Weimar Republic roll its eyes. Liberia produced George Weah during a period of their history where getting the most of their soccer talent was not on top of the priority list. Same with Northern Ireland and George Best. Since 1990, Costa Rica has consistently been a real bright spot in the League of Little Nations, but I’d be a little more quick to credit Medford, Wanchope and Ruiz than the suits in the Costa Rica federation.)
In any case, saving the cutting criticisms for national team losses, though, accomplishes extremely little. Conflating senior national team results with the overall program is worse than unscientific. I will give you an example. Gyasi Zardes was not called up to the national team for these past qualifiers - one point in two games. Called up to the previous two? Six points.
This kind of analysis is inexcusable, of course, but let’s say I’ve decided to really invest myself in this. If I’ve gone on record saying “The US national team is nothing without Gyasi,” and for some weird reason Zardes isn’t called up to end the Hex...well, hey, if we lose, American soccer comes to a grinding halt, but at least I get a cheap “I was right” post.
The problem isn’t “Criticizing the national team is un-American” any more than the problem is “Criticizing American soccer is un-American.” It’s the enthusiasm to mash the two together. (We never do this for the women’s teams, interestingly.)
The former is pretty much down to players and coaches, and baby, you can criticize them all day. But again, that’s a busload of people out of a population of millions, or hundreds of millions. Again, that’s the skinniest part of the far end of the graph. If human beings fought wars eleven people at a time, well, the map of the world would look pretty different.
(Political map of the world. I don’t think oceans or mountains or continental drift would change that much.)
The latter - well, the issues in our sport can range from petty to foundational. I want to see a lot more African-Americans marketed to as fans and welcomed into coaching and management, for example. And I think that’s a problem for both the men’s and the women’s sides...so why on Earth would I let a World Cup win, or an Olympic loss, change that opinion?
“Wow, that Wood goal saved our bacon. Guess we don’t need black fans after all.”
The national team is important, sure. It brings in fans and sweet, delicious money. But if it’s going to keep doing that - as opposed to what it did from, to pick an example at random, 1913 to 1990? We can’t roll it in bubble wrap and keep it for a precious few. Nor can we use it as a proxy for some wider struggle against tyranny.
There’s only so much we can ask of eleven people at a time. “Please don’t suck” is enough for me.