Strange as this may seem to those who know me, I coached some high school and middle school soccer many years ago. In fact, I co-coached (neither of us wanted the distinction of “head”) what might have been one of the worst high school girls’ teams in the country.
We were outscored 52-2 over the 10 game season. We had two decent players and had no choice to put one at sweeper and the other in goal — and then we just tried to hold on. All but one of our players were smokers. Because of various illnesses and excuses, we never once had enough players ready so that we could use a substitution. During one match, a player became so disrespectful that we pulled her off, prompting the opposing coach to tell us we only had 10 on the field. “We know,” we replied. He pulled one of his players off in sympathy to make things 10 on 10, but of course we got stomped.
So I’m no soccer expert, not by a long shot. But I’ve been following the sport loosely for a long time, and I’m not always the type to jump on the easy bandwagon.
After the U.S. had a rather remarkable draw versus Italy in the 2006 World Cup, the media commentators were obsessed by the fact that a U.S. player got a red card for a late tackle leading with cleats on both feet. Did the clear foul deserve a red rather than a yellow? One could argue the point, but FIFA warned teams explicitly about such two-footed tackling. The Sunday Times called the tackle “so late and so vicious, it was a wonder there was no breaking of bone.”
The whining of media commentators prompted me to write the following letter, which was published in the NYT:
To the Sports Editor:
Before the World Cup, officials made it clear that tackling an opponent with both feet up would merit a red card. So when a United States player did that against Italy, what did we see? A predictable red card. Sadly, the subsequent whining from the United States coaches, news media and public was even more predictable.
If the United States is ever to have a soccer team that can consistently compete on the world stage, the public and the news media need to stop patting players on the head for effort and cease blaming officials for results we don’t like.
I didn’t hear any blaming of the referee after the U.S. was beaten in the 2014 World Cup by Belgium (amazingly, the French-speaking Algerian official didn’t seem to show any particular favoritism to the French-speaking Belgians!), but just about the only themes struck after the match by American media were a) Tim Howard is amazing and b) we played so hard!
Yes, Howard was amazing, but how in the world did we put our keeper in a position where he had to make 16 saves? If Howard had had a pretty good game instead of an exceptional one, the U.S. could have lost by four or five goals — maybe even more. Belgium had 27 shots on goal compared to 9 for the U.S. Belgium had 19 corners; the U.S., 4.
Right now, while the defeat still stings, mainstream American media should be asking the most basic question: what went so wrong for the U.S. defense?
Was Belgium really that good?
There might be an answer in some of the match statistics. The U.S. had 32 tackles compared to Belgium’s 23, but the U.S. had only 11 fouls compared to 27 for Belgium.
In most sports, it’s better to commit fewer fouls, but soccer is not most sports. Yellow and red cards are bad, sure, but fouls are different. Given the impunity with which Belgium moved into striking range, the American team’s low foul total suggests insufficient challenge on the ball.
Were the Belgians so skilled that the U.S. couldn’t even slow them down with fouls that would buy a little time and break the attacking rhythm? If the answer is yes, then where are the better players? If the answer is no, then why didn’t the U.S. step up the pressure?
And is anyone going to have the guts to ask Klinsmann hard questions about why Julian Green did not see more playing time throughout the World Cup? Check out this prescient piece by Phil Keidel at Bleacher Report: Why Julian Green Must Be Handed a World Cup Starting Spot for USA Against Ghana
Klinsmann had the foresight to pick the exciting young Green for the team, but didn’t go all in.
We need media that will go all in too.