Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Gazelles Beat the Grounded

The better team won. That's the verdict from the pitch. The Americans were missing in action in the first half and the Ghanaians outclassed them so completely with their discipline and passing that it was painful to watch. True to form, the U.S. gave up an early goal in the fifth minute, only this time, it was once too many.

Why coach Bradley fiddled with the line that played so inspiringly against Algeria will be debated fiercely in the next few days. Ricardo Clark was responsible for giving up a goal to England two weeks ago; his glaring mistake this time led to Ghana's first goal, although Tim Howard, the goalkeeper, should have been in position to stop Kevin Boateng's shot.

But these are minor details. The U.S. lost possession of the ball too many times and played too many long stretches without purpose. The Ghanaians snatched the persistence that epitomized the Yanks and beat them in its own game. Although it dominated Ghana in the second half, tying on a penalty kick by Donovan, it ran out of gas in extra time and paid the price. It lost to a nation the size of Oregon, and with a population (24 million) that is less than one-tenth that of the U.S. (over 300 million). Only Dempsey, and to some extent, Brazilian-born Feilhaber, displayed the poise worthy of a world-cup match. Donovan was not at his best. In fact, he was lucky that his penalty shot went in after ricocheting off the right post. A inch or two to the right and it would have been a wasted effort. Americans must perfect their one-touch game if they want to be serious contenders.

The bigger question is: What now for U.S. soccer? A huge opportunity to take the game to the next level in America was lost. The euphoria around the World Cup will soon die down (it already has for many America fans) but how will soccer continue to fare in the America? Success in the first round is not a guarantee, and let's face it, the U.S. was lucky to tie against England in the first match. It was also in one of the easiest group in the tournament.

If the U.S. were to lose in the first round in Brazil in 2014 by, say, being in a tougher group, how will the average American react? Will it be: "No big deal since I have no cultural attachment to the sport, so I don't care," or, "We have to keep improving until we find the right mix of talent and technique to win the trophy"?

I believe it will be the latter. Americans want to see their boys win on the world's biggest sporting stage. If the nation can creatively assimilates its immigrants who care about soccer more than, say, baseball and basketball, there is no reason why the U.S. cannot claim soccer's ultimate glory.
The reality, however, is that America does a poor job of nurturing its soccer talent. A kid pursues soccer seriously here because it may get him or her a scholarship. In the rest of the world, a promising youngster is nurtured with first-rate coaching as well as financial incentives. Thus you see hungry and motivated stars from ghettos and inner cities dazzling the world with their skills. The U.S. has got to set up a similar infrastructure. If it does, then, only then, can we ever hope to reach the pinnacle of world soccer.

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