Returning from a fantastic trip to Germany with a group of soccer fanatics from Minnesota, I had my own "Almost Famous" plane moment that I couldn't help think fit well with the performance of Bruce's Army at this World Cup.
After spending about five hours in the Newark airport (which did, at least, allow me to watch the Argentina-Mexico game in its entirety and see Maxi Rodriguez's simply beautiful goal in overtime), I boarded for a truly rocky ride back to Atlanta.
With it storming throughout, I thought it was over when the pilot delivered the always-welcome "flight attendants, prepare for landing." Between that point and touchdown, however, came two dips of what felt like 100 feet each and enough twists and turns to put a great roller coaster to shame. As someone who already doesn't particularly enjoy flying, I didn't find a single minute of it amusing.
But roller coaster is the only way to describe the U.S. performance at the 2006 World Cup. After witnessing what, for me, was the most spirited show by a U.S. squad ever to achieve an undermanned tie against the perpetually diving Azzurri, watching the Ghana game was just an exercise in frustration.
After the Italy game there were calls for the referee's head, and overly aggressive officiating would reappear at the end of the first half in a penalty kick for Ghana following a "foul" by the great Oguchi Onyewu. It was, at best, two aggressive players going after the ball, and should have resulted in no whistle at all.
As we all know now, the U.S. would never recover, and instead go on to lose 2-1 for an early exit from the Cup. However, I place much less blame on the referee than on the U.S. team itself which, after going down, showed no fire at all and never mounted any kind of attack to regain the advantage. When that many talented players deliver such a listless performance with so much on the line, the blame lies squarely with them and their coach, Bruce Arena. But more on that later.
In spite of the U.S.'s depressing demise, I have to say I simply had a blast in Germany. The populace was under strict orders to be welcoming to the world, and everyone apparently got the memo. Even on our first night in Frankfurt, when the streets in front of our hostel were filled with about 40,000 English fans without tickets, I witnessed nothing but the world having a hell of a lot of fun.
And it was refreshing to see the Germans, with understandable tentativeness, start to show some national pride as their squad kept winning. I would be happy to see them prevail but, with the U.S. out, my support goes to Les Bleus.
Though I concede Ronaldinho is the best football player in the world, my favorite is Thierry Henry, and I would love to see him help bring home another Cup title for the great Zidane and Vieira. My upset pick is Guus Hiddink's spirited Socceroos taking out the Italians in the second round.
No matter who pulls it out, however, I know I'll be watching every game.
As my nightmarish return home was coming to a close, I encountered a fellow football fanatic on the Groome shuttle from Atlanta to Macon. I was intent on sleeping for that last 75 minutes or so, but gladly took this chance to chew the fat on the future of U.S. soccer.
My fellow traveller was an American who grew up in Northern Ireland and had now somehow ended up in Warner Robins. As we discussed how the U.S. could possibly recover for the next World Cup in South Africa (see you there!), the conversation quickly turned to a much bigger picture.
He asked me how it is that, with tons of Hispanic-Americans playing soccer, so few of them make it through the pipeline to the national team? I didn't have an immediate answer, but we eventually turned to the English Premier League as a possible model for the future.
We lamented the lack of a network of junior squads you see with Arsenal, Man United and others, which allow these teams to nurture talented kids for the benefit of the whole country. Why, we both wondered, can't we do that here?
Well, I say we can. I got the chance to see the last MLS Cup in the new Dallas stadium, which I believe bears the rather unfortunate name of Pizza Hut Park. Surrounding it is a network of at least 20 soccer fields, the perfect setting to launch a junior program. With similar facilities being built around the MLS, it's now time to look at how they can be used to discover the hidden stars of the future.
In the shorter term, however, I fear this is the end of the road for Bruce Arena. I proudly wore my Viva Bruce! T-shirt in Italy (get yours here.), but he had clearly lost control of his squad by the end of the match against Ghana.
A meeting with U.S. Soccer officials is surely in his near future, but if he steps down, where do we go? Two names were most often bandied about among the Minnesota Volunteers in my travelling party.
The first was Philao Scolari, whose Portugal squad is in action on my TV against Holland as I write this. Big Phil, however, has apparently signed a lucrative deal to lead Portugal through at least the next World Cup, so he's out.
The second name, and the one that intrigues me most, is the aforementioned Guus Hiddink. Before leading Australia into battle this year, he led South Korea to great success in the 2002 Cup.
From Viva Bruce! to Viva Guus! It may be a long shot, but until the next world party kicks off in South Africa four years from now, all I can do is dream.
Sunday, June 25, 2006
Posted by Reel Fanatic at 2:32 PM