Country Last

13 10 2017

“I think there has been this rhetoric that has been spewed out over the last couple of years – players have to go to Europe. If you want to go to Europe that’s fine, but I would guess that come 2018, 80% of our roster will be made up of MLS players. It is not about where you play, it is about what you bring to the team and how much you care.” ~ USMNT Goalkeeper, Tim Howard – January 2017

The U.S. Men’s soccer team will not be participating in the 2018 World Cup Finals. That bad news was finally determined a few days ago, and it has taken me that long to gather my thoughts. While there are many reasons for this elimination and many more problems with U.S. Soccer, the statement above is at the core.

The sad trip ended on Tuesday night, but we started down this road in April 2013 when Clint Dempsey left Fulham FC in English Premier League to play in MLS. He left arguably the most competitive league in the world to come home and play in the U.S. Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard – the core of the USMNT – soon followed, leaving their teams in Europe. That was the beginning of the decline that eventually eliminated our country from participating in the 2018 World Cup,

US Soccer has exhibited a cockiness that is unfathomable to me. Soccer is the most popular sport in almost every civilized country in the world, and it is played the same way everywhere. The rules of the game are the same. Professional league rules are the same. Except in the United States. Player development differs, and one can certainly argue that passion for the sport is key. But for some inexplicable reason, our players and supporters ignore a belief shared around the world – Country First, Club Second.

One of the true principles of development in soccer – or any sport – is that if you play with and against better players, you become a better player. It works consistently at the youth and professional levels.  In a list of the Top 100 Footballers in the World published by The Guardian in 2016, only five of the top twenty-five played professionally in their own country. So Howard’s belief is false to me, but he was close to right about one thing: The roster for Tuesday night’s match against Trinidad and Tobago was 72% MLS players. So we may reach his 80%, but since we won’t be in the World Cup in 2018… who really cares?

The passion for the sport is much less here, but it is growing. MLS is trending up in popularity and succeeding financially, but it will be decades before it rivals top European leagues – if ever. It has been said that part of the success is due to its close relationship with US Soccer, and I agree. But while MLS continues to grow, expected growth in domestic talent and development has not happened. That makes the relationship very one-sided.

I’m keying on one issue, but there are others. Player development must be examined more closely than ever, and many have been crying out for the heads of manager Bruce Arena or Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation. While those steps may be necessary, the core issue will remain. If our players and fans want to compete on the international level, the national team must be the priority.

By the way… the ladies understand that.

The USMNT-less World Cup will go on, and I will watch all of it. But I’ll really miss screaming and yelling and singing for my country with my son and hundreds of others at a local drinking establishment. And that makes me sad.

Our country is experiencing unprecedented conversation about national pride. Our citizens question each other daily… Do you have pride in your country? Are you American? Or more accurately, are you American enough? But looking at the last two years of US Soccer, one can see that being the greatest country in the world must be earned… it isn’t a given.

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My World Cup – Recap

14 07 2014

GermanyLast month I wrote about my excitement for the pending World Cup, and I made some predictions. Now that it’s all over, here are some thoughts, observations and realizations about the big event.

Overall, the World Cup competition was fantastic. I’m glad that the matches were completed with minimal controversy, and that everyone in Brazil was safe and peaceful. I was especially pleased by the excellent coverage by ESPN. Their commentary, analysis and special features enhanced what was already a tremendous event.

I made what I thought were a few bold predictions, and some were realized. This World Cup was full of surprises in the group stage, then everything settled down and the best teams went through to the finals. Germany won, and they were the best team… without question. But let’s see how I did on those predictions:

For the USA…

jonesPREDICTION: Jermaine Jones will do something that will cost the team. A red card, or a bad foul resulting in a dangerous free kick. I couldn’t have been more wrong… Jones was consistently the best field player for the USA (Tim Howard was team MVP, no doubt). My worry about Jones was that he had a history of cheap fouls and his temper getting the better of him. But after playing every minute and performing fantastic in every game – he made me a believer. His goal against Portugal was one of the best of the tournament, for any team.

PREDICTION: The USA will score in each match. Almost happened, but because they scored against everyone except the eventual champion Germany… I’ll give myself half credit.

PREDICTION: Julian Green will get in the Ghana match, but not see the field for the rest of the tournament. I had that one backwards. Green didn’t get in until late in the last match, and scored a nice goal.

PREDICTION: Tim Howard will stop a penalty. That didn’t happen because we didn’t concede any. Nevertheless, Howard was incredible… best performance on the USA squad.

PREDICTION: Klinsmann will park the bus against Germany, but try to run with Portugal. I think I got this one right. The situation of the group standings was that the U.S. only needed a tie versus Germany, and they played conservatively for that result. The 1-0 loss got them through. But they outplayed Portugal, and should have won.  

PREDICTION: The United States WILL get out of the group, then upset Belgium in the first knockout round. Argentina will knock us out, but that will be deemed a successful showing for Team Klinsmann. Spot on again, well… mostly. The group stage went exactly how I thought … Beat Ghana, a result against Portugal, and close match against Germany. I had counted on Belgium not being as good a TEAM as the U.S. even though they had so many stars. Still, we fought until the end and almost pulled it out.

The rest of the world…

PREDICTION: Lionel Messi will win the Golden Boot. Correct!! But I do think James Rodriguez of Columbia would have been the better choice.

PREDICTION: Some not so big names that will have a big impact: André Schürrle (Germany) and Hulk (Brazil)… “Puny humans!” Schürrle was fantastic, consistently bringing energy and pace off the bench… plus he scored three goals. Don’t forget the fantastic cross on the final winning goal. Hulk was probably one of the better players for Brazil, but they were such a disappointment that it’s hard to give any of them credit.

PREDICTION: England will not win a game. Spot on with this one too. The Three Lions have no bite (pun), and need to completely retool how they plan to compete internationally. The Premier League is the best in the world, and produced more World Cup players than any other. But there are too many foreign star players there restricting the development of English players. The FA has a problem, and no solution.

PREDICTION: Bosnia-Herzegovina will beat France in the first knockout round. Ouch! Lost the first two group matches, and were never a factor.

PREDICTION: Brazil will be a big disappointment, losing in the semifinals to Germany. Holy shit, I’ll never be so right about something again!! Truthfully, at the time of the prediction I thought that the pressure of winning at home would be too much for them. But I never thought it possible they would be humiliated like that. That match got its own post.

PREDICTION: Germany and Spain in the final. So I was half right!

PREDICTION: Spain will win the World Cup. If it wasn’t for Brazil’s epic collapse, this would have been one of the biggest stories of the World Cup. No one thought that some of the top teams in the world (Spain, Portugal, England, Italy) would be heading home after three matches. Wild results… great World Cup.

*At this point it should be noted that I tied for first place in my World Cup pool… no small feat! Yes, there were only four of us in the pool, and I didn’t predict everything right – but I was better than most. I guess I know some stuff…

photoLast thoughts… I observed a lot of soccer in the past 39 days. I watched at least one full match in the group stage each day, and fast forwarded through each goal in the others (love my DVR!). I saw almost every minute of the knockout stage matches. And I reveled in sharing the USA matches with hundreds of new friends and fellow American Outlaws at a few local watering holes. The crowds who gathered across the nation for these matches were incredible, and I hope that US Soccer keeps the momentum going. I know it’s only sports… but in those communal situations you realize that there is nothing more gleeful than a shared joy, and there is also nothing more soothing than commiseration.

But I think my favorite memory was yesterday. I went to my local bar to watch the final with family and friends. Not a traditional soccer bar, but a great place to watch sports. It was a good crowd, but not as many people for a USA match. I got a prime seat directly in front of the 15 foot screen, and seated to my left was a regular who knew nothing about soccer. Most soccer fans would shudder, but I spent the next two plus hours explaining some of the finer points of my beautiful game to an admitted non-fan.

I’m not sure if I turned him from the dark side, but answering his questions reminded me why I love this game so much. The past six weeks have shown how exciting, raw, unexpected, excruciating, and inspiring the game truly is.

And it’s beautiful.

Thanks for reading so many of my soccer posts. We now resume our regular programming…





Waxing Brazil

9 07 2014

87974_dd88989776b9a29af4f36e15f8582658_b7074e5727d16f90dc8ef2d33f893536This post originally began as a Facebook status. But as I thought about it there was more to say. It’s been close to 24 hours since the Germany/Brazil semifinal “mis”match in the World Cup, and certainly one of the big sports stories of the year.

The result was not a surprise but the margin of victory was a shock. Brazil did not impress in any of their previous games, but no one expected a slaughter. They finished atop what was arguably the weakest group in the tournament, and if it wasn’t for a phantom penalty call late in the first match versus Croatia they would have been on the couch a lot earlier. 

Brazil was the odds on favorite to win the World Cup, with more talent than any other team in the field. Their players are the best in the world, commanding the highest salaries at the top clubs. One would think that they could just show up and win.

That’s exactly what they didn’t do. The reason soccer is called the “beautiful game” is because of how the Brazilians always played it. A World Cup being contested in their own country… should be an easy win. (Ironically, the Croatia players and coaches asserted the same thoughts after their controversial loss… “Just give them the trophy now!”)

So what happened? Not to take anything away from a fantastic German side, it’s clear that Brazil was not ready to play against the best competition. As the host country, they do not have to go through qualifying like everyone else. With that edge lost, complacency took over with a predictable result. What we saw is a precise interpretation of an old axiom, that talent isn’t enough… you have to work hard to succeed.

I’m very interested to see how Brazil plays in the third place match. My thought… if they play neighborhood rival Argentina it will be a hotly contested match. If the play Holland, the Brazilians will roll over and die. Again…

After the match I saw a lot of comments about how the U.S. only lost to Germany by a 1-0 score, so accordingly we are better than Brazil. Sports doesn’t work that way. It’s a ridiculous notion, but can you imagine what a team with Brazil’s talent and America’s heart and determination would look like? Wow…

AR-140709193One last thought… ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup has been tremendous so far, with great pre and post game analysis and first-rate commentary during the match. Ian Darke and Steve McManama were terrific in, what had to be, a tough match to call. So I was disappointed that they spent so much time monitoring the streets of Rio de Janeiro waiting for a riot to start. I know that would be a ratings bonanza, but get a grip! I guess the Brazilians were too shocked to muster up the energy to flip over a car or two.

I’d like to give the fans credit. They stayed and cheered their team until the end, and showed appreciation for the German side that had just humiliated them. Well done… Brazilians!

So hoping the other semifinal is a better game.





Colors

4 07 2014

The colors of the flag of our nation are on my mind today, maybe because of all the World Cup/USA soccer fever over the past three weeks. Here are a few red, white and blue thoughts on the anniversary of our nation’s birth…

photo (2)Speaking of the World Cup – Although it’s still going on, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a sporting event more than this World Cup – and I have no idea who these people are in the photo! With very few exceptions, the games have been edge-of-your-seat fantastic. Even if you are a soccer novice, it’s been the sports story of the year. Our U.S. team performed admirably, and I think soccer has finally reached the level of acceptance it deserves. Who could have pictured hundreds, and in some cities, thousands of people getting together to watch the World Cup? I can’t wait until 2018! There is a lot of work to be done, and many matches to be played before the next World Cup. But it’s a great time to be an American soccer fan!

If I Had A Time Machine – I often wonder what our Founding Fathers would think of our United States today. These brave, brilliant men could never have foreseen this future, as I’m sure none of us could accurately paint a picture of our world 238 years from now.

6a014e8c33f773970d017ee7f226ce970dImagine if we could pluck Thomas Jefferson from the past… I think he would revel in flying back and forth to his beloved Paris in a jet, and look in wonder at the massive cities that have sprung up across the wilderness he knew. (He might wonder how we got all of this done without slaves.) And, I think that he would be in shock to learn that his two century old parchment writings are considered by some to be the letter of the law.

By definition, a patriot is “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors”. Today, many describe themselves as “patriots” because they are convinced that their beliefs are the only solution to the ills of our nation… and all non-believers are to be treated as enemies of the state. They cloak themselves in the Constitution or the Bible, and spit upon those who dare to question their ideas. But they forget those very writings were made to be a beautiful framework for a vision of a free state, or a guide for all of us to be a better, kinder people.

We should continually inspire to be just that.

tumblr_l5aly0HcB01qa944oo1_1280Family and Friends – I’m looking forward to a great weekend. It looks like rain today for the actual 4th of July in Philadelphia, with remnants of Hurricane Arthur that making his way up the east coast. But it should be clear, blue skies on Saturday, and I’m heading to my sister’s place for a fun-filled afternoon by the pool with a bunch of family and friends. Sunshine, good conversation and cocktails are the only things on the menu… maybe a burger or two. Be warned, sis… watch out for a great big cannonball, and – to my chagrin – much water displacement.

As a wise man once said, “Family… what it’s all about!”

Quoting Myself – This time last year I wrote this tidbit, and then stole something from a “so-so” author:

Here’s something you’re not used to seeing on my page… great, great writing:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Happy 4th of July, my friends.

Red-White-Blue-Stars-Stripes-Flag





Thrice Bitten

25 06 2014

imageI’d love to like Luis Suarez… he is one of the most talented players in the world and I am in awe of the great things he can do on a soccer field. I’ve also never hidden my disdain for him because of his behavior on that same field.

After this past season at Liverpool, he was poised to be one of the biggest stars at the World Cup in Brazil. He missed the first match because of injury and then showed incredible resiliency in the next match, scoring two goals and breaking the heart of England.

Now, Luis Suarez is in trouble. Again. During a fantastic match yesterday, the dark side of Suarez emerged when he attempted to bite off a chunk of the Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder late into Uruguay’s final group game. The referee made no call on the play, and Suarez continued in the match. One could speculate that the Italy defense was in shock after the incident and it led to the winning goal being scored for Uruguay. But it isn’t speculation to say that Suarez not being ejected had an effect on the result, and led to the elimination of Italy from the World Cup.

Suarez has a long history of on-field issues, including a racial slur during a match and TWO previous biting incidents – if he was a dog he would have been put down by now! His resume also includes frequent diving and a notorious intentional handball in the 2010 World Cup. Not to mince words… he is a cheater. He has no respect for the game or his fellow players.

What galls me the most about this latest incident is that Suarez was rolling on the ground as if he was the victim… fully aware of what he had just done. And he completely denied any wrong doing in his post game comments, saying “these things happen on the pitch”.

Now all of the doctored photos are showing up on the internet – Suarez with fangs, or his head photoshopped into the children’s game, Hungry, Hungry Hippos. It’s funny, but I’m not in the mood. Because today I’ll be defending my beautiful game to some of my friends and coworkers. And I’m not sure how to do it.

Now, all eyes are on FIFA and we wait to see how soccer’s governing body will respond. It will be argued that this is a single incident, but Luis Suarez has a checkered past that must be examined and considered in any disciplinary proceeding.

Even the staunchest Liverpool or Uruguay supporter should be outraged and must admit that Luis Suarez is a serious problem. I would definitely question the character of anyone who would try to defend him. The powers that be at FIFA must come down hard on him for the good of the game, and before this maniac seriously injures someone.

So I’ll say it… ban him. For life. He’s a stain and a disgrace to his team, his country, and to the game I love. Good riddance to bad rubbish.





My World Cup

9 06 2014

World-Cup-20143

This is a huge week for me, my friends. The 2014 World Cup kicks off in just three days and I couldn’t be more excited!

Besides my family and friends, nothing is more satisfying and enjoying to me than the beautiful game. Soccer is my religion. I’ve been combing through my employee handbook to see if the USA matches qualify as religious holidays, but I don’t think I’m that good a salesman. But that’s what vacation days are for…

I’ve waxed many times about my love of the sport, so this isn’t new territory. After two years of qualifying and months of anticipation and hype, the opening games are at hand. My bracket pools are filled out. My DVR is prepared to work overtime starting Thursday. And my red, white and blue scarves, t-shirts and hats are out. Waiting…

I can’t wait to see some of the best players in the world, on the best teams in the world battling for the ultimate dream (and possibly the ugliest trophy ever created). My hope is that the matches are all competitive, free of controversy and full of sportsmanship… PLAY FAIR! I’m looking forward to the personality, insights and technology that ESPN will bring to the coverage. Most of all, I sincerely hope that the entire tournament is safe for all of the players, fans and the Brazilian people. Now… some predictions, if you please.

For the USA…

  1. Jermaine Jones will do something that will cost the team. A red card, or a bad foul resulting in a dangerous free kick.
  2. The USA will score in each match.
  3. Julian Green will get in the Ghana match, but not see the field for the rest of the tournament.
  4. Tim Howard will stop a penalty.
  5. Klinsmann will park the bus against Germany, but try to run with Portugal.
  6. The United States WILL get out of the group, then upset Belgium in the first knockout round. Argentina will knock us out, but that will be deemed a successful showing for Team Klinsmann.

The rest of the world…

  1. Lionel Messi will win the Golden Boot.
  2. Some not so big names that will have a big impact: André Schürrle (Germany) and Hulk (Brazil)… “Puny humans!”
  3. England will not win a game.
  4. Bosnia-Herzegovina will beat France in the first knockout round.
  5. Brazil will be a big disappointment, losing in the semifinals to Germany.
  6. Germany and Spain in the final.
  7. Spain will win the World Cup.

So, again I exercise my blog post powers and put it out there! Call me out on any of these somewhat bold predictions… what do you think?

Scarf