Romance, American Soccer Style

Wednesday, June 30, 2010 | View Comments
What's new isn't romantic, or lacks the age-created absorbent qualities that would allow romantic notions to become part of its character. Romance in sports is built up over time, after decades of existence, and is often applied in retrospect; for American soccer, this is a hindrance to widespread acceptance, especially when contrasted to the heavy amounts of romance surrounding clubs and leagues in Europe. Rich histories, historic grounds, and deep cultural relevance give these soccer institutions which compete for the domestic soccer fan's interest and attention a distinct advantage.

MLS doesn't have romance. Attempts are made to turn a few years of success into "tradition" and "honor", and while there's nothing inherently wrong with these efforts, they feel painfully forced. There's no magic number for when tradition kicks in, but fifteen years seems a bit short of the mark. The cross-generational connection is missing, and the stories of the nascent days of the league, which happened only yesterday in relative terms, offer little attraction.

Sports fans are drawn to romance. Baseball's power over legions of fans is as much about its long history as it is the game's appeal itself. We romanticize the game and its legends to the point of hyperbole; Field of Dreams is a two and a half hour ode to the "magic of baseball", a direct product of the game's mythical past.

Soccer's magic doesn't live here. Sure, we try with the few historical moments we possess, but there's only so much romance we can squeeze out of 1950 and the late Joe Gaetjens. The intervening dark period, one in which American soccer dropped off the international map even when a professional league was in operation (which itself suffers from an issue of timing; the 70's are not generally romantic), cancels out most attempts to give American soccer a baseball-like antique sheen.

Even the actual glory days of American professional soccer, a few years in the 1920's when it seems the game had a chance, are buried beneath decades of apathy. Though there is something romantic about the Fall River Marksmen and Bethlehem Steel, the line was broken too early for any of it to resonate. We've settled for putting our romantic names on t-shirts.

England has romance in abundance. It oozes from the century or more of history most clubs have to their names, is buoyed by the ancient nature of England herself, and rings a special note with Americans who romanticize almost anything English anyway. American soccer, and specifically MLS, is the soccer equivalent of an Ikea dresser side-by-side with England's handcrafted Victorian chest. Which will the discerning choose?

Promotion and relegation - now there's a romantic concept. In theory, the perennial underdogs, hamstrung by small fan bases or lesser budgets, can reach the pinnacle of the sport in their country. It's Hoosiers, in soccer terms.

Practically speaking, it's nearly impossible to defer to romance in the way the sport operates in the U.S. The implementation of such a system now would be for romance's sake and romance's sake only; the game will not be served by a succession of dissolving clubs when the harsh realities of relegation hits. Those with money and a bit of interest in soccer may appreciate romance as an abstract concept, but they'd be loathe to accept it as part of their involvement in the game. Not now, when the lack of a reliable historical foundation means failure is conceivably just one demotion away.

So when will romance kick in? Or is American soccer always destined to pale in comparison, unable to create the type of magic we take for granted with baseball, American football, and even basketball (the relative newcomer of the pro sports group)? If England has a monopoly on common-language soccer romance, how many years will our little league need before it inspires the kind of wispy reflection that even the lowliest clubs in modern day England engender?

Accepting, supporting, and appreciating American soccer is unlike doing the same for leagues and clubs abroad whose tomes are packed with glorious victories from the distant past. It takes a clear recognition that we're not leaning on history, we're helping to write it; it's very possible that none of us will live to see the day Major League Soccer clubs cross the magical threshold into "institution." If the league lasts and grows and becomes a undeniable component the American sports fabric, it will still fail to be the Premier League, La Liga, Mexico's Primera, and scores of others we can see on our televisions week after week in terms of romantic appeal. MLS Cup 1996 has none of the cache of the FA Cup Final of 1948. If soccer fans need the romance of days gone by to become attached to a club, MLS is flat out of luck.

There's hope, though. Local bonds can trump the need for romance. Several clubs have proven that. New stadiums, ones the clubs can call their own and in which history can be written, help. More and more fans of the game are either forsaking the richer histories of clubs overseas for American teams they can see in person, or are adding the joy of live soccer and being a part of the creation of a legacy to their distant loyalties. If the right mindset can be found, this can be the best of both worlds.

Romance is intoxicating. History helps tell us what is important. American soccer suffers from a deficit of both.

The beauty of this seeming disadvantage is that it provides fans with something incredibly unique; the chance to be there in the beginning. There's a certain romance to that, after all.

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Wednesday, June 30, 2010 | View Comments
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The American sports machine, from the daily sportstalk radio stations down to local columnists banging away at dusty keyboards in backwater towns, is much less resistant to soccer than they used to be. Because of the World Cup, soccer is getting much more run than usual; this is not the first time it has happened, but there is a new edge to it all. Social media and the ubiquitous nature of the Internet have lifted the sport's profile to new heights.

We take the good with the bad. For every positive column in our newspapers, there's a negative one declaring that soccer is something America just won't get behind. Our cherished institutions are too entrenched, our sports culture too rich and crowded. "Sorry world", these blowhard columnists say "we don't like your sport."

Ah, such are the heights of presumption. The world doesn't care if America embraces the game, silly writer. They'll go happily along until the end of time whether we appreciate their game or not. You're only wasting your energy with your sarcastic apologies, though I beg you to keeping hacking away. It's mildly amusing, and your words illuminate your rampant bias. It's not about the game, it's about you.

On sportstalk radio, the discussion is one of soccer's ability to hold the ground it gained during this year's World Cup. Of course it won't; the biggest event draws the biggest crowds, and it would be idiotic to believe that all of those people will hang around when the circus pulls up stakes. Some will migrate to our domestic sideshows, and a few may even find themselves jumping up and down in a supporters section in due time; but it's not an indication that "no one cares" if most of the crowd disperses.

Most galling are the battle lines drawn when the subject comes up. They talk about it because they feel they have to, because, well, people are talking about it. So they give it five minutes, batting around the problems with the game (you know the ones), while bemoaning that the sport is being "shoved down our throats."

Words cannot adequately describe how angry that statement makes me, how nonsensical it is, and how little respect I have for anyone who utters it.

Change the damn channel. Maybe poker is on.

I've heard radio personalities become immediately defensive, declaring that just because they don't follow the sport closely doesn't mean they don't understand it. Their efforts to cut off the soccer fans in their audience before those fans ever had a chance to speak is telling; they view them as the enemy, those wacky soccer lovers, and they wanted nothing to do with being called out on their complete lack of understanding. The few calls they did take were typical and telling; disgust dripping from their voices, the callers belittled the game, those who watch it, and the idea that anyone in American gives a rat's ass about it. The hosts then proceeded to dismiss the sport as a curiosity that will disappear for another four years, then moved on to why John Wall has no tattoos. You know, something people care about.

This is the form the rise of the game has taken; people picking sides, a rabid anti-soccer crowd doing everything in their power to convince the country that no one cares, and the pro-soccer soldiers laying waste to the haters with righteous fury. It's not just a sport's place in the landscape that's at stake, it's the soul of the country. Soccer's mere existence is enough to offend a good portion of America's sports media and vocal chunks of the sport-focused population. It's downright odd.

I hate that I'm writing about this. I hate that the subject is top of mind. I hate that the inclusion of soccer in the general sports conversation, the one that takes place on our radios and in our offices, brings with it this reactionary bullshit.

The game is here, get over it. If you're going to cover it, cover it like anything else and talk about the matches, the story lines, and the players. It's time to stop debating the merits of the game every time it comes up and just accept its place as part of the greater sports culture.

I don't care if you like it or not. I don't care if you think it's special or a ninety minute bore. Stop acting like it's any different than most of the other sports you write or talk about, imbued with some sort of anti-American ethos. It's not, and it shouldn't threaten you, "shoved down your throat" or otherwise.

I'm off. Sorry for the shitty post.

With the World Cup over, as far as the United States Men’s National Team is concerned, I’m going to be be taking a multi-part look at the players currently making up our player pool, and the players who will be making their case to be included on the 2014 roster. I’ll be looking at who’s played in their last World Cup, who’s got another tournament (or more) in them, and who will be fighting to make their first World Cup roster.

The Right Backs:

So long, and thanks for the memories:

He's been a stalwart of the national team for over a decade, and was one of the most in-form American players of the 2010 World Cup, but by 2014, Steve Cherundolo will be 35, and very unlikely to be first choice for the national team.

See you next time:

The heir apparent to Cherundolo is West Ham fullback Jonathan Spector (28 in 2014) who was the understudy for the position in South Africa. In all likelihood, Spector will succeed Cherundolo as first choice for the Yanks. A lack of depth could possibly see the unlikely return of a veteran Cherundolo as Spector's backup for his fourth World Cup.

Who else has a chance?

After Spector and Cherundolo, there's a drop-off in quality and experience in the right back position. Frank Simek (29) is the most experienced of the options in the pool right now with 5 caps, but he is often injured and recently parted with Sheffield Wednesday after 5 seasons. Colorado's Marvell Wynne (28) is another player with limited national team time. Uncapped options include FC Roskilde's Jamil Fearrington, New England's Kevin Alston (26) IK Start's Hunter Freeman (29), and Aston Villa's Eric Lichaj (25).

Determination: Broken

Tuesday, June 29, 2010 | View Comments
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World Cup success is determined in a narrow, interminably cruel window of four weeks, usually less for those not traditional powers, once every four years. Through the collision of time, money, effort, coaching, tactics, health, form, draw, and referees, a singular determination is made about the relative quality of a national team program based on a handful of games.

For the also-rans, the U.S., England, and a host of others, the self-examination that takes place even as hope and dreams are still smoldering is painful and invasive. The crashing out of the senior team, made up of men who are as much chosen warriors tasked with glorifying entire nations as they are mere footballers hoping to win a trophy, represents the failures of complex machines of development meant to spring them upon the world fully-formed and capable of delivering. The fruit is rotten, but it's the seed with which we become obsessed.

A wrinkle in time brings the chosen's successors to the forefront in a rush of renewed hope, even as we're unable to identify them definitively. Never mind that the players likely to represent us in four years are already too far along to be affected by any change made now; this is myopia, extended, and an approach that failed to produce a winner, even if the approach itself has been rehashed and revamped since directly impacting the men who wore the shirt last, cannot be allowed to stand. Steps taken in the interlude are meaningless or overlooked, or if they are noted, are assumed to be part of the same flawed thinking that brought us the most recent painful end.

For the developing soccer nation, the one perhaps on the rise but likely not because things are NOT MOVING FAST ENOUGH, a crisis of confidence leads to panicked assertions and pained howling. Fix it, it's all a jumbled mess, upside down and reversed and inside out and it's holding us back, and we just can't take it anymore. We know in our guts that this isn't right, that our development is stunted, and if only the stirred the pot faster it will give us magical results.

But stirring, constantly and vigorously, might mean our weightiest natural talents never have a chance to settle. Without trust that at some point in the past we got something right, without seeing it through, we might never know if we hit on the right formula. Our perspective is a function of time, and the danger lies in giving too much weight to the vagaries of the four week window that just ended. One or two more victories and our angst may have never erupted; a spot in the quarterfinals, which may have come with just one less mistake, and most of the problems that today we're so sure exist might otherwise be obscured. Our perspective, changed.

But mistakes were made; there is no reason to rest. What we've done in an effort to produce American players of whom we can be proud is simply not enough.

It will never be enough, not until our players return victorious with golden trophy in hand and the nation rises in celebration. That dream won't allow us to just let things be. Critical evaluation will never stop as long as that dream remains out of reach, and if that means calling for overhaul at every turn while ignoring the practical applications of our learned recommendations, so be it. We can see it, WHY CAN'T THEY? They, the ones in positions to mold our young hopes, are simply not listening, are surely ignoring the obvious, must be guilty of corruption or worse. Why else are we underachieving?

If we're not harrumphing over broken pipelines, we're dreaming of what is just emerging from them. The names are flowing, and even though many of them have yet to produce a drop of professional results, they're already causing us to leap ahead four years to when the window opens again. Our highly-touted youngsters are sure to burst onto the world scene, lifting us to new heights where their outgoing predecessors were unable; broken or not, the pipeline brings us something, and the promise is enough to let us believe it will be an undoubtedly richer batch.

Despair and hope, muddled together in a expectant fan base desperate for an American mark, a deep and meaningful one, on the soccer world. Our insecurities make us mad. Our love of the game and our teams make us uproariously passionate.

Let us take solace in the truth that mad and passionate is better than just mad.

With the World Cup over, as far as the United States Men’s National Team is concerned, I’m going to be be taking a multi-part look at the players currently making up our player pool, and the players who will be making their case to be included on the 2014 roster. I’ll be looking at who’s played in their last World Cup, who’s got another tournament (or more) in them, and who will be fighting to make their first World Cup roster.

The Goalkeepers:

So long, and thanks for the memories:

Marcus Hahnemann is 38 right now, which means he'll be 42 by the time that red, white, and blue plane leaves for Rio, and last time I checked, Roger Milla is the only person allowed to play in the World Cup at 42. Truth be told, Hahnemann is unlucky that he never became the USA number 1. Over the better part of the last decade, he has had a stellar career in the English Premiership and Championship divisions, but always found himself behind American goalkeeping greats like Kasey Keller and Tim Howard.

See you next time:

Barring injury or catastrophic career spiral, both Tim Howard and Brad Guzan will be back in 2014. Timmy will be in his mid thirties, the peak of a goalkeeper's career, and should still be the starter, although if Guzan, who will be just 29 in 2014, can earn himself a starting spot at Aston Villa, he could certainly stake his own claim for the number 1 shirt.

Who else has a shot?

As usual, the US has a strong contingent of keepers vying for the third spot in 2014. The inside track probably belongs to US international Troy Perkins, who will be 32 when the next World Cup rolls around. He will be challenged by teammate Bill Hamid (23 in 2014), Under-23 international and Celtic FC backup Dominic Cervi (27), U-23 international and Philadelphia Union starter Chris Seitz (27), occasional US international and Real Salt Lake starter Nick Rimando (35), and Kaiserslautern backup Luis Robles (30).

Thanks to Kevin McCauley for his help preparing this piece.

by Vlad Bouchouev

After chasing Thierry Henry’s tail for nearly a year now, the NY Red Bulls are set to sign the Frenchman within the coming weeks. Henry once looked like the ideal candidate to fill a designated player slot in New York, but I’m afraid this is no longer the case. The issue lies in a number of things that just have not gone in Henry’s favor.

As a brief background, Henry has been expressing his interest in playing in the States and his appreciation for New York City for a few years. Once Henry transferred to FC Barcelona in 2007, many began to speculate that the Catalan club was his last pit stop before the Big Apple. He is also one of the most decorated French players of all-time. Having had some of the most dynamic partnerships on the field with legends like Zinedine Zidane and Dennis Bergkamp, Henry has been no stranger to success. As a result, his undisputed legacy seemed to have been locked as a legend of the game - that is until things began to turn sour.

Barcelona seemed to have always been just a bit too crowded for a player of his age. With players like Messi and Eto’o, Henry struggled to get a lot of playing time there. That was the first of several obstacles to a smooth end to Henry’s career.

Then came the big one: the infamous handball against Ireland in the second leg of the 2010 World Cup Qualifier playoff. The controversy was huge. The Football Association of Ireland launched a formal complaint to FIFA seeking to replay the game. Although the complaint was rejected, the damage to Henry’s legacy was done. Nasty headlines were published across the world describing Henry as a “cheat” and death threats soon came after. Even the President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, described the move as “blatant unfair play.” The whole thing got blown out of proportion. Henry never meant to “cheat.” It was clearly a natural reflex to handle the ball and the play was missed by the referee. Henry helped France qualify for the World Cup but never did he try to cheat his way in. That’s just not him. Regardless, Henry’s reputation was no longer the same.

Seven months later, karma came around and slapped the French team in the face. The French national team fell into shambles at the 2010 World Cup after head coach Raymond Domenech dismissed starting forward Nicolas Anelka from the team and the rest of the team threatened to boycott the rest of the tournament. The team finished the tournament with 0 wins, 1 tie, and 2 losses. To top it off, France had themselves further embarrassed after Domenech refused to shake the hand of the host country’s head coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, after their 2-1 loss to South Africa. Bottom line, even though Henry was in the background of all of these events, he was still a part of it all.

Assuming the deal goes through, Henry will no longer be bringing the excitement to New York City that once seemed so appealing about him. Instead, Henry will look to use MLS as an escape from everything that he has experienced in the past year or so. And unfortunately most Red Bull fans aren’t as keen on him as they once were. Although he still is Thierry Henry, his reputation has been tarnished and excitement levels in New York City have fallen. With Juan Pablo Angel slowly coming back into form, some people don’t even want Henry to come.

Personally, I welcome Henry with open arms as I don’t blame him for anything that has happened. He obviously will not have the same effect on the MLS as David Beckham, but he will definitely bring in a little bit more quality to the league. And at the very least, we can still expect him to sell a few shirts and score some goals.

AmSoc 32: The Postmortem

Monday, June 28, 2010 | View Comments

The U.S.A. World Cup postmortem effort from me and a reflective Zach Woosley.

You can download it, get in iTunes or head over to the American Soccer Show website to listen there.

The American Soccer Show for download
The American Soccer Show on iTunes
The American Soccer Show website.

June 26, 2010 - Durban, South Africa - epa02224877 An American soccer fan can hardly watch the USA play Ghana in a FIFA World Cup Round of 16 soccer match in Rustenburg, South Africa, 26 June 2010.

A few days more, and the loss continues to sting. Time heals all wounds, but these wounds will remain open as long as the World Cup continues without the United States as part of it. I certainly can't turn away from the tournament now, not with the greatest drama yet to unfold.

The hangover is debilitating, though. MLS has started up again, and while I peeked in on the opening of PPL Park via ESPN2 yesterday, I had trouble properly appreciating what I was seeing. It was a glorious day for Union fans and MLS as yet another new facility gave the game in America a proper home, and yet I could do nothing but watch dispassionately. The World Cup has stolen my soul.

Oh, I know I'll get it back. Sometime soon, I'll find myself excited again for the domestic league, for watching the silly season exert itself on American interests, and for churning out thousand word essays on the state of this or the problem with that. Something, perhaps just the aforementioned time, will rejuvenate me.

This little dilemma, if it is in fact anything of the kind, has me wondering about anyone not as invested in the sport here as I happen to be. If I'm suffering from burnout, what must half-hearted fans who jumped on the soccer bandwagon with both feet a week or two ago be thinking? Is there any way to conceive of massive numbers of new fans finding solace in the lesser lights of MLS? When put up against the World Cup and the comfortable sports-inspired patriotic fervor of the U.S. National Team, the Philadelphia Union versus the Seattle Sounders will naturally let us down.

So while I love seeing things like the massive TV ratings for U.S.A.-Ghana, and it heartens me to see so many Americans take even a small interest in the game, I know it's all ephemeral. Not because the game can't, or shouldn't, pull people in, but because their palates have been spoiled.

As I wrote for Four Four Two during the heady days post-Algeria (short-lived as it was), soccer gains coverts organically. The big event is actually the worst way to sell the game because appreciating beyond the conclusion of the event requires a commitment to something significantly less attractive. English Premier League followers who reject MLS are prime examples of this phenomenon.

As I write this, MLS has marketing experts desperately searching for ways to leverage the World Cup fad into a positive for the league. I don't envy them their task. Transforming national team excitement into local club interest is not a straight line from "A" to "B", no matter what logic seems to say.

I won't fret if MLS doesn't see some wonderful uptick in attendance and television ratings. I won't process it as a failure on the part of the league or a sign that soccer will never "catch on" here. Instead I'll see it for what it is; another indication that Americans love big events, that millions of minds are at least open to the game, and that slowly but surely the sport will continue to increase in visibility and popularity. The "turning point" is a unicorn. Even a deeper run for our boys wouldn't have changed that from an MLS perspective.

Nothing about the league's mandate has changed because a few million more people watched the world's greatest event for a few weeks in June.

Soccer will continue to grow as a spectator sport in the United States. How quickly that happens has little to do with the World Cup.

Sun and Smiles at PPL Park

Monday, June 28, 2010 | View Comments
CHESTER, PA - JUNE 27: The final score is shown on the scoreboard after the stadium opener between the Philadelphia Union and the Seattle Sounders FC at the PPL Park stadium opener on June 27, 2010 in Chester, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

by Matt Acconciamessa - US Soccer Daily

For me, Sunday started about 14 miles north of Chester at Citizens Bank Park, the south Philadelphia home of the Phillies. When the Toronto Blue Jays moved their home games against the Phils to the City of Brotherly Love because of the G-20 Summit, I snapped up a ticket, figuring that a stop at the ballpark would be a good appetizer for the main course: the opening of PPL Park.

Mother Nature was conspiring against me, however, as the oppressive heat and humidity of another summer heat wave in the Philadelphia area sapped the life out of me by the time I wandered out of the stadium after 6 innings. I was sun burnt, had a headache, and really was just ready for a nap more than anything, but I soldiered on down I-95 towards the promised land.

With the Commodore Barry Bridge over head and the stadium roof in sight, I was tantalizingly close to PPL Park when my brain finally caught up with the situation and realized that trying to find a parking spot would be yet another hurdle to test my already withering patience. After considering all of the legitimate options while hardly moving an inch in traffic, I opted for the quickest out, which ended up being parking on the grass next to a weathered building in a residential area. I would not be alone in this choice, with countless others choosing to improvise with the lack of lots in the area.

CHESTER, PA - JUNE 27: A general view of PPL Park is seen as the Philadelphia Union play the Seattle Sounders FC at the PPL Park stadium opener on June 27, 2010 in Chester, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

My dad and I then made the long walk over to stadium, made only longer by the sweltering and unrelenting sun. We finally got through the gates, only to be greeted by a packed concourse that was in stark contrast to what we saw at the open house a few weeks ago. Shuffling along, I was increasingly crotchety, just wanting to get to my seat and sit down for a minute before the game started.

After coming out of the tunnel by section 135, though, everything changed.

It was the kind of sight that wiped away all of my weariness. Seeing hordes of fans decked out in their blue and gold with players warming up on a pristine field at a soccer stadium – our stadium – was something that was once nothing more than a pipe dream for me and thousands of other Philadelphians. But there it was, PPL Park, rising up out of the wilderness of this impoverished suburb like a desert oasis, breathing life into me and into a community that on most other days is front and center for all the wrong reasons.

As the match kicked off, I could hardly believe just what was happening and where I was: a state-of-the-art MLS stadium in Chester on a plot of land that was nothing more than trees and dirt a couple of years ago (and still is according to Google Maps). Nothing could put a damper on the day from that point on, from the triple digit heat index to Pat Noonan’s first half goal to Baldomero Toledo.

CHESTER, PA - JUNE 27: Sebastien Le Toux  of the Philadelphia Union celebrates win over Seattle Sounders FC at the PPL Park stadium opener on June 27, 2010 in Chester, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Regardless of the result, yesterday would have felt like a win, both for Chester and the thousands (millions? Okay, maybe that’s wishful thinking) of soccer fans in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. It was just icing on the cake when the Union came out and controlled the match in the second half, leveling the score early on after the break. The stadium erupted just minutes later following Chris Seitz’s game-changing penalty save, and it was all downhill from there, with a memorable home win seeming inevitable for PPL Park’s grand opening. The goals eventually came, and it was nothing but celebrations once the final whistle was blown. Players and coaches saluted the fans and joined in the fun, reveling in a win that meant a little more than just three points.

Filing out of the stadium, there were nothing but smiles on the faces of fans, save for a dozen or so outsiders clad in rave green. By the time I got home, the adrenaline had died down, and six hours of standing in the sun finally caught up to me. But as exhausted as I was, I couldn’t stop smiling as I basked in the victory. From start to finish, it really was just an unforgettable evening on the bank of the Delaware River for me and everyone else in attendance.

Hopefully it’s just the first of many.

Speaking Ill of the Dead

Saturday, June 26, 2010 | View Comments
SOCCER/FUTBOL WORLD CUP 2010 OCTAVOS DE FINAL USA VS GHANA Action photo of USA team, during game of the 2010 World Cup held at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg, South Africa./Foto de accion del equipo de USA, durante juego de la Copa del Mundo 2010 celebrado en el Royal Bafokeng Stadium de Rustenburg, Sudafrica. 26 June 2010 MEXSPORT/OSVALDO AGUILAR Photo via Newscom

I know what you're thinking.

Let it all out Jason, let the disgust be your guide.

Maybe I should. Bob Bradley certainly made poor lineup choices today, our strikers can still not buy a goal for all their industry, and several American players endeavored to make Ghana look like world beaters. Which they're clearly not.

But I can't do it. I can't find the bitter seed in my soul, the one that should rightly be taking root, fed by such an inglorious exit. The glory of Wednesday, canceled out by this? An unforgivable turnover by Ricardo Clark and slack defending on a long ball in extra time? A nation united...for nothing.

I'm not bitter. Really. I'm simply spent. Maybe the ups and downs of this team over the past four years, from the highs of the '07 Gold Cup and beating Spain, in the same country they'll make hasty tracks from tomorrow, to the lows spread across the breadth of the time line has combined to make me oddly numb. I believed, for what it's worth, because the highs gave me reason to; but deep down I knew their frailties, that losing Davies and having our best defender laid up for so long was going to make it all too difficult, and that the task to go beyond this round was a mountain they were ill-equipped to climb.

Bob Bradley is a solid coach who made a few mistakes tonight. He was, however, always working with a talent pool whose depth was measured in inches rather than feet. Donovan and Dempsey are solid players, better than a host of nations possess, but they alone couldn't conjure victory out of nothing. A suspect defense never evolved from nightmare-maker. No striker in the program has proven a damn thing at this level.

It ends with a whimper, "comeback" from one goal down nothing more than a mirage, casting us down from the heavens like so many Icaruses. Ghana wasn't supposed to be the sun in this story, shouldn't have been the ones to prove our wings nothing but wax and feathers. Nevertheless, we didn't really belong there anyway; this is cold justice for a team that simply wasn't good enough. Capable of the magical, they were never as good as we wanted them to be, but were just good enough to make us believe.

I hope all of those people that signed up for the U.S. National Team magical bus ride aren't already pulling the cord in a desperate attempt to get off at the next stop. I hope they understand that pulling for a team like this, made up of equal parts inspiration and disappointment, is a worthwhile commitment. We can't stop being fans because it's hard; the glories to come are never as sweet when your finger is hovering over the "opt out" button. Stick with it, you'll be glad you did.

Soccer fans that are also USA fans will now turn their eyes to the rest of the tournament. Some of them might have a second team to get behind, or will arbitrarily pick one from the group in the quarterfinal display case. For USA fans that are also soccer fans, or for whom supporting their country is part of their total passion for the game, the bits of our vision saved for international soccer (peripheral for now), will turn to the next four year process. Names like Diskerud, Lichaj, Gonzalez, etc. are already beeping brightly on the radar, and the younger members of this group will be hawkishly watched as they resume their club adventures. Four more years for Holden to get better. Michael Bradley seems to be on a rocket ship to European stardom. The saga of Charlie Davies will resume after its sad detour. There are others I'm forgetting.

As for who coaches them going forward, that will be the million dollar question. The fans need somewhere to direct their anger, and Bob Bradley will be marched up against the wall. For everything he got right, he got enough wrong for the issue to be salient; original expectations matter little when the evidence of 120 minutes stands in accusation. Bradley's future at the helm will need to be addressed. After backing down and buying in myself, I'm ready for a change. Provided it's the right one, of course. I'll pass on Klinsmann.

Today was bad. They saved their worst ninety minute performance for last, and were punished for it. I wish I could rail about it being "unacceptable." I wonder if the release of righteous anger would make me feel any better. I doubt it.

I'm not hunting for scapegoats today. It's over, and that's all.

Even my shirt says "The United States." I love America, see?

Friends, Roma fans, countrymen (Italians)! Lend me your ears. I come to bury Lippi, not to praise him. Cause what kind of joker deserves praise for dissing the best thing since Pizza Hut started doing lasagna? Yeah, now his career is all dried up and crustier than the bathroom at Sbarro, and my outlook is looking more golden than that thing I did with the register chick in the bathroom at Sbarro.

Not that I'm a hater. Gio's got enough love for everybody, even a washed up old hack who wouldn't know a world class player if it kicked him in his stupid ugly smelly old man face. And I can never be happy when my beloved Azzurri are out in the group stage. I was real messed up over it. One of the lowest points I've seen in all my years of watching ill couchio with the sound turned down and the curtains closed. My cousin Nicky tried to cheer me up by having me take him to my favorite Italian restaurant, Olive Garden, and I barely touched my Tour of Italy platter (still ate all the artichoke-spinach dip, though. Nothing like genuine Italian cuisine to ease the pain). I couldn't even get too excited when the waitress told me how sick my blowout looked. Still popped my Armani Exchange shirt off for her though. Once a player, amirite? Although I ruined it when it fell in my sauce. I swear, I lose more shirts this way...

And since we're on the topic of me, I watched the US-Algeria game at home the other day. I tried to go to a soccer bar with some American fans, but they threw things at me and yelled "traitor." I think they were mad about my choice of wardrobe, but your boy's gotta rep Algeria, they're next door to a former Italian colony. Some people just don't understand. One passport can't contain all this clutch. Speaking of clutch, you gotta hand it to my boy Landon Donovan. He's such a great player. Almost good enough to get left out of the Italy squad.

Now there's an ambition for all you young soccer players out there.

Your medicine in Edison,
GiOoOo RoSsI

Ok, break's over, people! Back to work! Major League Soccer returns tonight with a tasty San Jose - Salt Lake tilt. Indeed, this weekend is full of savory match-ups that will require shifting your paradigm away from the international game and back to good old domestic club soccer.

Real Salt Lake - 2
San Jose Earthquakes - 1

Columbus Crew - 2
DC United - 1

Toronto FC - 1
LA Galaxy - 1

Kansas City Wizards - 2
New York Red Bulls - 0

Houston Dynamo - 1
Colorado Rapids - 2

Chivas USA - 1
FC Dallas - 0

Philadelphia Union - 2
Seattle Sounders FC - 2

New England Revolution - 1
Chicago Fire - 1

June 23, 2010 - Tshwane/Pretoria, Guateng, South Africa - 23 JUN 2010: Landon Donovan (USA) (10) is surrounded by teammates and coaches including Jozy Altidore (USA) (2nd from left), Stuart Holden (USA) (11), Brad Guzan (USA) (center), assistant coach Jesse Marsch (USA), fitness coach Pierre Barrieu (FRA), Maurice Edu (USA), and Tim Howard (USA) (1) as they watch a replay of Donovan's winning goal. The United States National Team defeated the Algeria National Team 1-0 at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa in a 2010 FIFA World Cup Group C match.

After Landon Donovan liberated us from World Cup purgatory (months of teeth gnashing reflection on a tournament gone wrong, with a special place in our bitter hearts for the referees) in the final minutes on Wednesday, the wave of good feelings reached Humunga Cowabunga from Down Unda proportions (if you understand that reference I'll be shocked). We're soaked with it.

It's time to refocus. Not for us, because it doesn't really matter what we say or do, but for the players. Emotional victories carry a bit of bad with all the good; tomorrow is a classic "letdown" scenario because it's always difficult to get bad the energy needed to play at your best when you've expending so much psychic energy only a few days before.

Which is one of the pitfalls of all of this. By winning the group, which is all they could do with England only scoring once against Slovenia, the U.S. actually finds themselves short a day of rest. Their Round of 16 match is tomorrow, giving them little time to sort their minds, renew their bodies, and plan to for Ghana. It's on Bob Bradley to take care of that last part, a task that probably includes juggling his lineup once again. Questions surround Onyewu, the strike partner for Jozy Altidore, and whether or not Jonathan Bornstein gets another chance to send U.S. supporters into terrified hysterics.

It's not correct to say that everything has gone right so far. The Americans seized the moment when it counted, and for that we should be ecstatic. But there are questions to be answered, tough ones that will determine if the U.S. goes as far as it ever has in a World Cup post-1930. Ghana is beatable, just as every team in the U.S. portion of the bracket, but that doesn't really mean anything when it's all about the next 90 minutes for team that is more than capable than beating themselves.

I'm betting on Bradley getting right because he's proven himself more than capable of doing so up to this point. From there, it's on the players to kick Wendesday's theatrics out of their minds and give all they have for the next bit of glory.

And let's not leave it to the end this time.

The semifinal talk started the moment we all realized that the U.S. won their group. As Paul Oberjuerge wrote, short of karmic concerns, it's perfectly reasonable to dream. Hell, even Cesc Fabergas thinks they have a shot.

A few links to get you ready, because I'm unlikely to produce a proper preview:

The Shin Guardian's preview and Martin Rogers of Yahoo!.

Some discussion of the "Rise of Soccer", from me (at and Neil over at Yanks Are Coming.

I'll probably update this post with links throughout the day, so be sure to check back.

The Importance of When

Thursday, June 24, 2010 | View Comments
3rd July 1950:  American goalkeeper Frank Borghi saves in front of Tom Finney during the England-USA match in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in which the American team won 1-0 much to the amazement of the football world.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Landon Donovan's added time winner set off a series of reactions around the American soccer whateversphere. Bars exploding everywhere, blogs waxing poetic, yours truly and a ginger-colored man babbling on about "what it all means."

It's all very natural. When something of note happens, we immediately scramble to slot it smoothly into the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time) ladder - as if we're at all capable of appreciating a moment properly so soon after it happens. Perspective comes with time, emotions removed and furor long dead.

More interesting to me than where the U.S. win over Algeria and that singular moment of Donovan slotting it home ranks is how our view of where it ranks is affected by when it happened. In the bigger picture of American soccer, there are clearly bigger goals; without Paul Caligiuri's "Shot Heard Round the World" for example, there's a chance the U.S. soccer timeline wouldn't be as far along as it is. John O'Brien's goal against Portugal in 2002 is undeniably massive, and we couldn't talk about great American goals without mentioning Joe Gaetjens and 1950. From a "most important victory" perspective, yesterday's win is already being mentioned as one of the biggest ever from people at the highest levels of the game in the U.S.

“The is the biggest win we’ve ever had for so many reasons. One is obviously the passion in which it happened. And the second is the overcoming of adversity not just today but the last game. And three, most of the country was tuned into the game." - Sunil Gulati

Is it the biggest? Maybe, maybe not. Rankings like these are arbitrary and rife with the biases of those doing the ranking. Is it more about history (1950 is tough to beat, then)? Is it about a return to the world stage (the aforementioned Caligiuri goal to beat T&T is the winner here)? Or is it about World Cup success (Dos a Cero, 2002)? Context matters too; the rankers may give more weight to the wider impact of the win, both on the fan base for soccer and the growth of game in this country, than to the pure glory of it all. In that case, even beating Colombia on an own goal in 1994 is a landmark victory because it gave World Cup '94 a greater impact than that of just a summertime curiosity.

This win, the one that led to the bar roofs lifting off and the hyperbole we're all wading in at the moment, becomes "the greatest" for some because it's the most recent of the "the greatest." It's that simple; now almost always means more than then, especially for a sport like soccer in a country like the United States. The confluence of factors, including television, Internet, fifteen years of professional domestic play behind us, and the money available to spread the word make beating Algeria in dramatic fashion to go through to the knockout rounds, and win the group to boot, a historic win of epic proportions. More people are watching, or might run into a bit of coverage, than even in 2002; if the Americans lose to Ghana on Saturday and fail to match their best World Cup performance in the modern age, it could have a detrimental effect on the win over Algeria in retrospect. But part of the importance of winning that game and going through to Stage 2 is who saw it, who is talking about it today, and how those people will move forward with a different appreciation for the sport.

It also matters when Donovan scored. Most of us were counting on disappointment by the time injury time rolled around; after ninety minutes of wasted chances and dented crossbars, what other result made sense? The Americans couldn't find the net; it just wasn't their day. If you were anything like me, you were dreading the coming autopsies, and already a bit angry that this was how it was going to end, that the words would be harsh, that the trip home would be an injustice. That the goal came so near the final whistle, snatching victory from the jaws of despair in the most clichéd movie-ending manner possible, is a sports universal; the new and the uninformed didn't need help from soccer fans to understand what just happened. If soccer is a foreign language to many Americans, then Donovan's goal is the bit of the language that needs no translation.

American soccer will now move forward with this win and Donovan's goal in its proverbial trophy case. Moments like yesterday are special because they're rare, but also because they become common experience when performed on the biggest stage. There's no stage bigger than the World Cup and the times we live in aided in making this win common experience. How that common experience affects the great popularity of the game is uncertain, but it's the possibilities that have us ranking USA 1, Algeria 0 so highly.

Yesterday may not have been the biggest win in American soccer history , but the when it happened certainly gets it on the list.

The live show was a blast, but if you missed it, don't fret.

You can download it, get in iTunes or head over to the American Soccer Show website to listen there.

The American Soccer Show for download
The American Soccer Show on iTunes
The American Soccer Show website.

Oh, and make sure you check out the other CSRN shows, with plenty of English perspective available as well, by going to the CSRN website.

The next scheduled show is set for Saturday at 8 PM Eastern, covering the USA-Ghana match in the Round of 16.

Zach and I are hitting the UStream airwaves to bask in the glory of the last minute USA win and a place in the Round of 16. Join us, won't you?


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June 23, 2010 - Tshwane/Pretoria, Guateng, South Africa - 23 JUN 2010: USA starting eleven. Front row (l to r): Herculez Gomez (USA), Jozy Altidore (USA), Steve Cherundolo (USA), Landon Donovan (USA), Jonathan Bornstein (USA). Back row (l to r): Clint Dempsey (USA), Maurice Edu (USA), Tim Howard (USA), Carlos Bocanegra (USA), Jay DeMerit (USA), Michael Bradley (USA). The United States National Team played the Algeria National Team at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa in a 2010 FIFA World Cup Group C match.

I'm still basking. Because I don't have time to spit out another 800 words on how this was such an amazing win, I'm going to share pictures instead. Let's revel.

June 23, 2010 - Tshwane/Pretoria, Guateng, South Africa - 23 JUN 2010: Clint Dempsey (USA) (8) has his shot blocked by Rais M Bolhi (ALG) (23), immediately preceding the USA goal. The United States National Team defeated the Algeria National Team 1-0 to win group C at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa in a 2010 FIFA World Cup Group C match.
Dempsey's shot is saved...

June 23, 2010 - Johannesburg, South Africa - 23 JUN 2010: United States Forward Landon Donovan (10) scores the winning goal in the 91st minute as the United States National Team defeated the Algeria National Team 1-0 at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa in a 2010 FIFA World Cup Group C match. The victory secured the USA as winners of Group C and advanced them to the Round of 16.
Donovan hits in the rebound

June 23, 2010 - Tshwane/Pretoria, Guateng, South Africa - 23 JUN 2010: Landon Donovan (USA) (10) celebrates his goal as Rais M Bolhi (ALG) (23) rises. The United States National Team defeated the Algeria National Team 1-0 to win group C at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa in a 2010 FIFA World Cup Group C match.
Shall we go for a run?

June 23, 2010 - Johannesburg, South Africa - 23 JUN 2010: United States Forward Landon Donovan (10) celebrates with forward Edson Buddle (14) after Donocan scored the winning goal in the 91st minute as the United States National Team defeated the Algeria National Team 1-0 at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa in a 2010 FIFA World Cup Group C match. The victory secured the USA as winners of Group C and advanced them to the Round of 16.
Buddle can't stop him

June 23, 2010 - Tshwane/Pretoria, Guateng, South Africa - 23 JUN 2010: Landon Donovan (USA) (10) celebrates his goal. The United States National Team defeated the Algeria National Team 1-0 to win group C at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa in a 2010 FIFA World Cup Group C match.
This is the good kind of dive

June 23, 2010 - Tshwane/Pretoria, Guateng, South Africa - 23 JUN 2010: Landon Donovan (USA) (10) celebrates his goal. Also shown (l to r), Stuart Holden (USA), Clarence Goodson (USA) (upper right). The United States National Team defeated the Algeria National Team 1-0 to win group C at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa in a 2010 FIFA World Cup Group C match.

June 23, 2010 - Pretoria, South Africa - epa02218130 US national soccer team players celebrate the 1-0 goal during the FIFA World Cup 2010 group C preliminary round match between USA and Algeria at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 23 June 2010. US won 1-0 and is qualified for the round of 16.
The Americans are a very dog pile-y kind of team

June 23, 2010 - Pretoria, South Africa - epa02218101 US players celebrate their game-winning extra-time goal during the FIFA World Cup 2010 group C preliminary round match between the USA and Algeria at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 23 June 2010. The USA defeated Algeria 1-0 and advances to the round of 16.
Check out the hops

June 23, 2010 - Pretoria, South Africa - epa02218127 US national soccer team players Steve Cherundolo (L) and Jay DeMerit celebrate after the FIFA World Cup 2010 group C preliminary round match between USA and Algeria at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 23 June 2010. US won 1-0 and is qualified for the round of 16.
DeMerit is too excited to stand

June 23, 2010 - Pretoria, South Africa - epa02218074 US player Jozy Altidore celebrates after the FIFA World Cup 2010 group C preliminary round match between the USA and Algeria at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 23 June 2010. The USA defeated Algeria 1-0 and advanced to the round of 16.
Jozy, thankful

June 23, 2010 - Pretoria, South Africa - epa02218070 US fans celebrate after the FIFA World Cup 2010 group C preliminary round match between USA and Algeria at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 23 June 2010. USA won 1-0.
Yeah, just a bit jealous of these people

Landon Donovan is a God

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 | View Comments
United States' Landon Donovan (L) celebrates after scoring against Algeria during a 2010 World Cup Group C soccer match at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria June 23, 2010.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP IMAGE OF THE DAY TOP PICTURE)

Right at this very moment, the American soccer world is ready to canonize Landon Donovan. He scored the goal that put the United States in the knockout rounds, ending ninety-one minutes of protracted agony. Given the chance off a rebound, he didn't miss.

It doesn't matter if Donovan did his best Casper impression for some of the match. It doesn't matter that he missed earlier chances or failed to impose himself on a game that needed him at his best. It doesn't matter what he did for ninety-plus minutes, because what he did in the ninety-first was the most important thing he did all day.

This is soccer; funny to a fault, eliciting manic laughter in fans when thing just simply won't go right. Crossbars, referees, hell, the ball itself maybe - all against us, all seemingly intent on breaking our hearts just for fun. Forget man-made conspiracy, this was beginning to feel like something supernatural.

So Donovan's rebound goal, a simple shot that took nothing more than making sure it didn't go wide, is just about as sweet as it could possibly be. For the whole of the match the Americans squeezed and squeezed with nothing to show for it; just a small collection of seconds away from the end, the bloody thing finally decided to yield a drop of joy. Donovan did it, Donovan is a god.

For now, naturally. If Donovan doesn't show up on Saturday or makes some horrendous mistake, he'll be quickly demoted to mere mortal once again. Perhaps even much-criticized mere mortal. Perspective could come later, and the glory of Donovan's moment might rise again in our minds; if he plays well and the U.S. still lose, at least we have this to cherish. This sporting god-status is ephemeral in the recent but can become forever-lasting in the months and years to come; there aren't too many like this in the American soccer story, so no matter how the rest of the tournament plays out it should remain special.

As a fan, these are the moments we live for. Nothing that came before Donovan's goal is material anymore. The fact that they seemed unable to grab the game and take over means nothing. All that matters is that they won, that they found a way, and that they live to fight on. Today is perfect.

Today, Landon Donovan is a god. Rightly so.

June 23, 2010 - Pretoria, South Africa - epa02217702 Fans in the stands prior to the FIFA World Cup 2010 group C preliminary round match between USA and Algeria at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 23 June 2010.

Stuck at work trying to watch (surreptitiously) the most crucial match of your beloved national team's World Cup is a difficult experience. When they almost go down in the first few minutes, then conspire to miss chance after chance while you attempt to sneak a glance here and there, it's nearly enough to make you crazy.

When they score the winner at the death, with their, and your, World Cup a literal minute from being over, it's maddening. I couldn't scream, yell, jump up and down, or do any of the things I would normally do in this situation. I'm stuck with a muted guttural reaction, a beaming smile that makes me look like the office creep, and a need to walk off two hours of built-up nervous energy.

But damn is it sweet.

I have no other reaction than to say that I'm ecstatic they found a way. I'm happy Donovan scored the goal, I'm elated the postmortem can wait, and I'm looking forward to do a celebratory live edition of the American Soccer Show this evening.

Are they good enough to go enough further? I don't know, and frankly, right now I don't care. Ask me tomorrow.

Video. Because I could watch it 6000 times.

U.S. v. Algeria Nerves in Text

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 | View Comments
U.S. national soccer team midfielder Clint Dempsey listens to a question from a reporter during a news conference in Irene June 20, 2010. The United States will play Algeria in their World Cup Group C match on June 23.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder  (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP)

Does this U.S. team suffer from lack of confidence? After two matches and two points, they're at this very moment preparing themselves to take the field against Algeria with their World Cup lives on the line. If they're not ready now, when will they ever be?

But we've been here before. The Americans have headed into their final group stage match with everything there for them and come up small. Just last week they had a chance to seize their tournament destiny by the scruff of the neck and waited until they were 0-2 before the responded. The comeback was great, and there's an argument to be made that they should have won the game, but their disastrous first half is surely an indication of a problem. They simply can't afford a flat start today.

Bettors love trends. Today's applicable trend, at least from the American side of thing, is that the U.S. falls short in must win World Cup games (historically) and falls behind early (this tournament). Neither is a harbinger of good things; managing to earn a draw after being in the losing position most of the match is a positive, but it's hardly a forceful one. Silver linings exist, but it's depressing that we even need to look for them. Mental focus is the only explanation for the historical trend of failing in their third group game, and we've already seen evidence of early lack of focus in South Africa. Without overt reasons to believe they've fixed this little problem, I'm going to have to go on faith.

I'm hopeful today. I think they'll be ready, and I have no reason to believe that the second half of the Slovenia match won't carry over to today. But I'm far from confident. They've simply burned me too many times for that to be the case; if I sat here this morning and wrote that I was sure of a victory, that we'll be talking about the Round of 16 tomorrow, and that a letdown after Friday is impossible, I'd be lying. To both of us.

Today is must win. Not just for this tournament, but for the profile of the U.S. program and the psyches of the fans. Over the course of the American return to the World Cup, we've alternated between abject failure and first round success; by all rights, this go 'round should be the latter. It's the trend of the Americans going down in the third group match versus alternating knockout round appearances. While I don't think either means much of anything (both are just coincidence), I recognize that sometimes these things can work their way into the players' minds.

They should win. They need to win. We're all desperate for them to win. They got this. I think.

It's going to be a nervy day. Excuse me while I look for a distraction until kickoff.

The Philadelphia Union are set to open their new soccer-specific stadium on Sunday. After the years of working towards a team and the exhilaration of the inaugural season of the Union, the Sons of Ben and the soccer fans of Philadelphia will finally have their day out at the park.

The downside of the PPL Park is its location; the stadium sits in economically-depressed Chester, an area known for high crime and unemployment rates. Chester's population has decreased by half since the 1960's, and the State of Pennsylvania has taken extreme steps to revitalize the area. It will be interesting to see if PPL Park, which is part of a larger project that will include town houses, apartments, office space, and a convention center, affects the greater prosperity of the community. Will it benefit the current residents or is a simple case of gentrification?

I'm not informed enough to make a judgment. But after coming across the news that the City of Chester has declared a state of emergency due to a recent rash of homicides, I'm keenly interested in how the the now-operational stadium changes the community in which it exists.

The simple fact that Union president Tom Veit is forced to comment on security for Sunday should be a jarring reminder that the soccer celebration in Chester stands in stark contrast to the condition of the community.

Beyond soccer, Chester is also of interest to me because it's the hometown of my paternal grandfather. I don't know the last time he was there (quick guess: 50 years at least), and I don't know that any visit I would make would mean anything beyond soccer; it may actually take the trip for me to find out.

If nothing else, Chester is a troubled community that at the very least could benefit from the spotlight provided by the Union and PPL Park.

photo caricature of a young caucasian man in all blacka and wearing glasses looking snobbishly over his book

Perhaps a bit of dimestore psychology to pass the time? Sure, why not.

Meet George. He writes for a blog called "Chicago Pain", which is part of a site called Chicago Now. I'd never heard of either before today, but then again I don't live in Chicago.

George has a problem with soccer fans. He thinks they're smarmy, arrogant elitists with fancy foreign cigarettes and holier-than-thou attitudes.

You know the type. He's the guy who had the little patch of hair under his lip in college, who later was the first to shave his head as an expression of style. He's the guy who drove a Volkswagen Jetta because of it's efficiency. He's the guy who always had some obscure answer to the "What's your favorite song?" question, and he's the guy who smoked Dunhill cigarettes, but only when he didn't have the time to roll his own.

And now, with the World Cup in full swing, he is -- for once -- an authority on sports.

Ouch, George, ouch.

First, George is generalizing, something I usually take offense to. I've never had a soul patch (well, not just a soul patch anyway), I've never smoked Dunhills, and I've never driven a Jetta. I've also never corrected someone for saying "Two-Nothing", as George describes a soccer-loving friend of his as doing.

But George has a point. Too many soccer fans are elitist jerks, always ready to correct a neophyte's lingo or scoff at someone's lack of in-depth knowledge. As the game becomes more popular here, which unfortunately for George it will continue to do, there is an onus on these know-it-all fans to tone down their act. You're not special because you're an American who happens to know a little soccer. You're not special because you know the clever nicknames they use for players on Merseyside, or that Juventus modeled their kits after Notts County. You're certainly not special if you call it "football", and if you take offense at the use of the word "soccer", you're nothing but a pedantic ass.

If you know your soccer, that just makes you a little more informed; if you take the tack of teaching rather than telling, you'll be doing the game a lot more good than if you choose to play the snob.

The sport isn't supposed to a secret club meant only for people too good to slum with the general sports masses. Anglophilia need not be a prerequisite. It's okay for other people to like it, for ill-informed fans to yell about it, and it's okay that they say things like "field" instead of "pitch", "nothing" instead of "nil", and "soccer" instead of "football."

But, again unfortunately for him, George is not innocent in this little dilemma. He clearly brings biases to the table, and as I said before, generalizes to a fault. If he doesn't like soccer that's fine; but George is making a mistake if he's rejecting an entire sport because of a few individual fans. It makes me wonder if he's already a fan of MMA or if he's inclined to become one - holding that sport to the same standard as soccer should result in a similar rant. I know it would from me, if I was at all like George and judged mixed-martial arts by a few annoying "experts."

Here's the rub, though: George's issue isn't really snooty-soul-patch guy. George's issue is the "force-feeding" of soccer to the American people, as if the media companies are attempting to create a market where one doesn't exist. To wit:

For the millions of casual sports fans across the country, the World Cup can be an exciting event. Enjoy the competition, the traditions, and the sound of bees. It makes for some great entertainment.

For the thousands of American soccer "diehards" -- enjoy your time as an expert. Smoke your Dunhills, wear your colorful jerseys with the royal embroideries, and listen to The Smiths.

But, please -- for the love of the Queen -- stop trying to force-feed it to the rest of us. Once the World Cup is a memory, obscurity will once again reign over the soccer world.

The chances of it becoming what you have forever envisioned it being are, well, "nil".

George puts the onus on the "soccer die-hards", claiming they're the ones doing the force-feeding. But unless George is being dragged to soccer bars by packs of Jetta-driving, Guardian-reading, scarf-wearing super-snobs, held at gunpoint and told it's watch a soccer game or be shot, he's not being "force-fed" by the die-hards. It likely that George's problem is really with ESPN, the traditional mainstream media that has embraced soccer for the summer, or other outlets that previously showed little interest in soccer. If that's the case, I have a message for George.

It's not "force-feeding" if there's a market. There are millions of people inclined to the game, George, and it's in the best business interest of sports and news outlets to cover it. It's also not "force-feeding" if people can opt out, which unless ESPN et al are doing the gunpoint scenario mentioned above, everyone can. George seems to be unwilling to accept a changing sports environment, and is lashing out at soccer. It all comes off a bit sad.

As for the generalizations George makes, let me just hip him to a few facts. There are millions of soccer fans who reject the elitism. There are millions that don't care what you call the sport or whether you say "nothing" or "nil". There are millions that would love to take you to a game and buy you a beer, letting you fall in love with the sport on your own and without pressure. There are also millions that don't care if you ever learn the game, care about the game, or even watch a game. Amazingly, it's almost like it's just any other sport. For a lot of us, it's really just one of our passions. We like other sports, too.

Drop the "force-fed" canard, George. Oh, and get some new soccer-loving friends. Yours are obviously jackasses.

USA's team celebrates Michael Bradley's goal during the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer match, Group C, Slonenia vs USA at Ellis Park Stadium, in Johannesburg, South Africa on June 18, 2010. The match ended in a 2-2 draw. Photo by Christophe Guibbaud/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM Photo via Newscom

Steve Davis broke up with England today. Although I must say it came as a mild surprise since I didn't know Steve and England were together, it's hard to blame him the way things are going for the Three Lions. England is a mess at the moment, a team of primadonnas and narcissists seemingly unable to play together under St. George's Cross as their fans so desperately want them to. Talented at every position on the field, there's no reason they shouldn't be cruising into the second round rather than hastily holding team meetings and projecting an image of impending self-destruction.

Without accounting for the individual character of all twenty-three men in England's team, and with apologies to those decent people among them, it looks from here that most of their problems boil down to the effects of superstardom. Money and fame have spoiled England's footballers to the point of petulance; playing for the England shirt just doesn't seem to be enough to motivate players who experience the massive stage of the UEFA Champions League on a regular basis. Even stars of slightly lesser than CL-quality teams like James Milner and Emile Heskey of Aston Villa might find it difficult to give as much to England as they do to Villa; the shadow cast by players from the Big Four looms that large.

On the surface, it looks like England has a collection of individuals unable play as a team. This is the exact opposite of the U.S., who, consistency aside, have shown a propensity for being greater than the sum of their parts. Forget any trite notions of the "American will to win" or culturally imbued characteristics that might lend them to such a state; this is mostly about the individual place in the soccer world of the players that make up the American squad. Playing for their national side, particularly in the World Cup with everyone watching, is as big as it will get for almost all of them. The Champions League is something only a select few of them can even hope to play in, while the giving of their all for the U.S. of A. is the pinnacle of their careers. Quite simply, they play hard for their country because it means something.

Fans of the U.S. National Team should enjoy it while it lasts. It's not a given that one day the American squad will appear to care as little as England's stars do today, but the situation will certainly change. At some point in the future, be it in fifteen years or fifty, the U.S. World Cup team will be made up of at least a few true superstars. The players will live in the same world England's do today; their fame and money so great it boggles the mind, playing for the Stars and Stripes just won't mean as much as it used to. They'll play in Champions League games, or win Premier League titles with whomever the biggest clubs of the day are. Returning to play for the U.S. will be more obligation than honor, something they have to do rather than something they want to do. One has to wonder if the "American will to win" and "fighting spirit" so often credited to the U.S. now will still be around then.

Yeah, they drive us nuts with the up and down results. Sure, we're not happy when they fall behind early, and there's always concerns about the level of talent the U.S. actually possesses. But we can never say that they don't give their all for their country. Let's hope that never changes no matter how much American soccer progresses. Let's hope they don't end up like England.

On Friday, while still attempting to come to grips what happened on the field in Johannesburg, I made the statement (on Twitter) that the sport of soccer might pick up a few converts because of the controversy. "Americans do indignation well" was the basic point of the comment.

The supposition isn't particularly clever, but it appears I was right; casual fans picked up the "we were screwed" in a big way over the weekend. That doesn't mean they'll all stick around, but if their curiosity is piqued, that's step one in growing the game's fan base. If the U.S. can win on Wednesday and roll into the knockout round of the tournament, most of those people will be along for the ride.

But Friday's events are a double-edged sword when it comes to attracting fans. Righteous indignation pushed them into the figurative stadium, but the murky nature of soccer officiating could very well pull them out. Discussion about the controversy on sportstalk radio this morning (a positive sign) turned quickly into a loud lament on officiating standards and accountability. ESPN's morning team simply could not get over the fact that the referee can call a foul without ever having to explain what the foul was or who committed it. Instead of reveling in the U.S. comeback or talking about the potential for making the second round by winning on Wednesday, uninformed soccer neophytes chose to rail against FIFA's nonsensical rules.

I don't blame them, and I wonder how many potential fans might be turned off by the same issues. American sports require that officials clearly explain their calls and identify the perpetrators; even if they get something wrong, we at least have the ability to hold the call up to scrutiny. Not so in soccer, where even a post-match report is likely to omit a call like the one in the Slovenian box on Friday. Invested soccer fans might be able to swallow hard and deal with this problem, but how many new/potential fans might decide it's not worth it?

I've reached the point where I've stopped worrying about what the casual/non-soccer fan will make of the sport. The game speaks for itself, and if most American choose not to listen, it's truly their loss; for me, none of the negatives are so great as to make the game unpalatable, and I chalk up intransigence to pre-conceived and flat out incorrect notions about the game. But this little problem, where referees have total control and are rarely accountable for their decisions, and never within the match, is tough to explain away as just a quirk of the game.

Fair Results

Monday, June 21, 2010 | View Comments
Falcon-headed god Horus weighing the heart of the dead in a balance. Tomb of Menna, 28th Dynasty. Tombs of the Nobles, west bank at Luxor, Thebes.

A soccer match as theater is maddening when its outcome leaves us aghast with disbelief, and particularly when our tightly-held concept of fairness isn't reflected in the final result. Give us justice, give us right, give us reason to believe some cosmic force holds sway over a game played by twenty-two men on a patch of grass; why should ninety minutes of battle be decided by a single moment when we we know - KNOW - in our hearts that the outcome is rightly determined by the play of the teams on balance. If Team A "has the better of play" yet still loses to Team B because a single mistake leads to a goal, Team A fails to put the ball in the net when presented with chances, or because the referee intercedes and calls a decisive foul or penalty, then the validity of the outcome is roundly questioned.

Goals, or perhaps more specifically scorelines at the final whistle, are not always to be trusted. They don't tell the whole story, they cannot accurately reflect the totality of the game, and they too often lead to descriptions that attempt to contextualize the outcome (i.e. "The scoreline flatters them"). So much of the game takes place away from the goal, in the vast expanses of the middle of the field and along the wings, that thrusts and parries, controlling the ball, and the visible supremacy of one side over another comes to count for almost as much as the tallies themselves. Fouls, called or uncalled, are items to be weighed; game-changing moments we deem to be mistakes on the part of referee color our perceptions.

So of course there was backlash when Americans (and a few others) moaned loudly over Koman Coulibaly's call of a phantom foul on Mo Edu's apparent winner. The injustice of an American victory would have been obvious; not only did the Yanks play terribly in the first half and fall behind by two goals, but Clint Dempsey's early elbow was judged to be egregious and worthy of a red card. He should have been sent off, which would have certainly changed the complexion of the match. With that the case, Coulibaly's call was cosmic balance restored; the U.S. simply didn't deserve to win the game.

Yet, the point of the game is to score; it doesn't matter when you play well enough to win, just that you do. The U.S. played a terrible first half and allowed two Slovenian goals; with their tournament coming down to the second forty-five minutes, they rose up and put the ball into their opponents' net three times. The grayness of officiating allows for some question on the disallowed goal, but few have stepped up to defend Coulibaly's decision. How then, no matter Dempsey's early elbow, can the result be termed "fair"? Goal scoring plays carry more weight, and rightly so, than more subjective fouls far away from the net. Dempsey not being given a red doesn't make it acceptable that Coulibaly got it wrong later in the match, and one cannot simply sweep away the problem of a fair goal disallowed by pointing to something else early in the match that is more debatable.

None of it matters now, with the result carved into FIFA-issued World Cup stone; let's hope the team itself has forgotten it the best they can and is at this moment working towards eliminating the early letdown that plagued them Friday. Coulibaly's call changed the dynamics of their tournament but didn't preclude them from advancing. Algeria lays in front of them, and if they cannot seize the opportunity to win their way into the knockout rounds, they have no one to blame but themselves.

The fans, on the other hand, have every right to grouse and do so loudly. Of course, everything becomes tiresome after a point, and the suggestion that American fans should put Slovenia and Coulibaly behind them is valid; what is not valid is the idea that fans are wrong to complain because the Americans didn't "deserve" to win, that Dempsey's elbow negates their right to indignation, or that soccer is somehow not about putting the ball in the net more times than your opposition.

There must be room for pragmatism.

Ireland's (Adopted) Own

Monday, June 21, 2010 | View Comments
Message from Irish fans in the Stadium..FIFA World Cup 2010 Group A..France v Mexico..17th June, 2010.

If you had wandered into an Irish pub on Thursday you may have had something of a surprise. It would have been packed - admittedly not much of a shock in these parts - with local football fans, screaming support for the team in green on the television. When they scored the pub would have erupted with noise and celebration, a scene reminiscent of the summers of 1990, 1994 and 2002, the glory years of Irish international football. On Thursday, when our boys in greens got a second goal, the celebrations increased in volume, helped partly due to the shouted orders of many celebratory pints. A typical World Cup scene.

Or maybe not.

The Republic of Ireland, of course, did not qualify for this summer’s World Cup. The team we were cheering for was not our national side, despite their familiar shade of emerald. Indeed, most of those watching the game would have been unable to name a single player on the squad we furiously backed for the previous 90 minutes. That’s because, for one night only, the Irish had become Mexican.

This unusual metamorphism wasn’t a once-off. Twice already this tournament we had collectively, as a nation, adopted other sides to support (Uruguay on the 11th, the USA on the 12th), and the day following the Mexico game we would all cheer Algeria on with the same passion as if the players hailed from Dublin, Cork and Galway. Why? Because this summer, while we don’t have our own national teams to support, we have two – England and France – that we really, really hate. Welcome to the absurd world of the Irish football fan.

I should start off by saying that we’re not a very good footballing nation. Sure, we’ve had our moments – beating England in Euro ’88, victory over Italy at USA ’94 – but, for the large part, the good times have been sparse. Since 1930 we’ve failed to qualify for 29 major tournaments. We’ve therefore taken to adopting teams as our own – not for the whole tournament, but solely for the games that they play against our fiercest rivals – immature, perhaps, but always entertaining – especially this summer.

England is, of course, the ‘auld enemy’, and Irish disdain for their sporting teams is nothing new. Whether it be due to the way the EPL scoops up all our best players, strangling and limiting the potential of our national league, the arrogant manner in which the English media have approached games with our boys in the past, or the simple matter of 800 years of British oppression, the Three Lions’ repeated underachievements have always been a source of joy for us. Rob Green’s howler was watched with ecstasy in the States, understandably, but also in our tiny island across the Atlantic. Ireland is, possibly, the only nation in the world to have enjoyed their dour 0-0 draw with Algeria.

While our anti-English bias is a powerful, if stationary constant, France is the new enemy, the boo-boys of the moment, for which our feelings are red raw. The freshness of the hand-shaped wound means that emotions are still as high as they were in November. Mexico’s defeat of France on Thursday provoked an outburst of taunting in the Irish media. IrelandAM, a morning television show, took great delight in collecting a list of that morning’s French newspaper headlines (my favourite: “Sombres heroes” - sombreros), while the footage of the Mexican goals was played at the start of every news broadcast for the next 24 hours.

What really sums up the nation’s feelings, I believe, is the following reworking of an Irish anti-Britain rebel tune (giving you some idea of the severity of Henry’s ‘crime’) which I stumbled upon on Ireland’s largest football messageboard,

And did they believe when they robbed us so blind
Did they really believe the football Gods would be kind?
Oh the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain
The cheating, the lying wasn't all done in vain
For the Mexican Boys in Green won, and we cheered once again
And again and again and again and again....

Towards the end of France’s game on Thursday the television cut to a figure sitting on the French bench, wrapped in a comfort blanket. He had played in total just over 20 minutes of football over a two game span, and his team were looking down the abyss. Over the following few days Nicholas Anelka would be sent home for verbally abusing manager Raymond Domenech, and the players would refuse to train, with rumours claiming that some members of the squad were going to boycott their final game. I hope it was worth it, Thierry.

Yes, I would rather Ireland were playing in the World Cup and, yes, I would rather that our nation’s main emotions during these games wasn’t hatred and gloating - but I can think of no better way to end this article than by wishing South Africa (and Slovenia, for old times’ sake) the best of luck in their matches next week.

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