James Stevens at MLS Talk has a post up today called “Why Beating England Might Not Be Good For Soccer In The US“.
Before even reading the post, the title made me shake my head, because whatever was to follow it would never convince me that the USMNT beating a more well-renowned team that is above them in the rankings would be in any way bad for soccer in the States, from the right perspective. By that I mean – those of us who follow the game, who care about it, who understand it (and I don’t just mean “know the rules”, I mean understand it intuitively and emotionally, i.e. people who don’t say it’s boring because there aren’t enough goals or whatever) would see any victory like that as amazing and a great thing for US soccer. Every time we best an opponent generally considered to be better than us, it infuses a bit more confidence, a bit more assurance, and maybe a bit more respect from other countries.
Sure, to people who know little and care even less about soccer and are only tuning in to the World Cup because their coworker won’t shut up about it or they heard that kid Messi is pretty cool, the win won’t mean as much and it may very well lead to unrealistic expectations. Stevens says that the “commentary following a US win over England would be grossly out of proportion compared to what the result means and will combine with the win against Spain in 2009 to create a line of drivel from know-nothing American sports commentators claiming the US have the potential to lift the Cup this year.” If some newcomer thinks that beating England means we’ve got a likely shot to win the whole thing, well…yeah, that’s dumb and uninformed. But it in no way means we should be worried about it as a potential outcome of a US win. We should be thrilled without reserve about a win, and then patiently explain to our non-footie friends the concepts of managed expectations and non-U.S. supremacy. (This will be fun, I promise, especially if they are Tea Party folks.)
Stevens begins the post by talking about the fact that the two other group games also matter a great deal to our chances of advancing to the Round of 16. Is anyone denying that? I don’t think the focus on the England match has implied that the matches against Algeria and Slovenia don’t mean shit and hey, when they walk out with the little kiddies they should just take off and let the toddlers play the games, because what the hell right? No. We know that all three games matter hugely. The difference is that we see wins against Algeria and Slovenia as less improbable than a win against England, so the chatter and the nervousness and the panic attacks (that’s not just me, right?) focus on England. He mentions that after the upset of England in the 1950 World Cup, the USMNT then went on to crap out in their other two group matches, and then did not even qualify for the next forty years. Okay. Yes, that happened. Then in 2006, this happened:
In 2006, the USMNT was handed a very tough draw, with a group that included Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana. Riding the wave of hype created by the US’s unexpected Quarterfinals finish in the 2002 World Cup and a 2005 Gold Cup win, the US were expected to draw, if not narrowly beat a solid Czech side. Instead, the Czech team took control a mere five minutes into the match with an easy goal off a header and finished the US side with two more goals despite having less possession.
The US managed to draw with Italy, and could have advanced with a win over Ghana, but ended with a loss and a trip back home. Now, I was admittedly a soccer newbie during the 2006 WC, having only gotten into the sport at most two years prior, but I don’t recall that the US was “expected” to draw or beat the Czech Republic. What I recall is everyone bemoaning our Group of Death and seeming fairly pessimistic about our chances (and if I’m wrong and he’s right, or if we’re both understating the case and there was a big ol’ wave of certainty that the US was going to dominate the Czechs like a squad of Marquis de Sades, please enlighten me). What also throws me a bit is that, just before this passage, Stevens talks about that 2002 quarterfinal run and says that, as with that 1950 game, “an early good result against a favored opponent has been accompanied by lackluster results in other group stage games”. But…then we have 2006 where an early bad result was accompanied by further poor performances. And then we have the Confederations Cup in 2009, where early awful results gave way to 2.5 kick ass amazing performances that left the team just heartbreakingly shy of winning the tournament.
Later, of the Confederations Cup, he says that the achievement there “follow[ed] the US’s familiar pattern of a great performance on the heels of some serious underachievement”. You can’t really call something a “pattern” when it’s only happened a couple of times and been interspersed with completely different scenarios. We have no strictly quantifiable patterns; we have good performances following bad, and bad performances following good, and worse performances following bad, and so on and so forth. Why gee, it’s almost as though one game is not necessarily a predictor of others. Imagine that!
Furthermore, this is a vastly different squad than the one that traveled to Germany four years ago. There are only seven names carrying over, not to mention a different coach in charge. I know it’s tempting and it’s certainly a common practice, but it’s just not logical to draw preemptive conclusions about hypothetical results based on games that occurred four years ago with a team that’s 2/3 changed – or sixty years, for that matter, and I don’t think even Cherundolo played in that game.
I have no problem with musing about the World Cup and tossing out ideas on how the tournament will go. Shit, that’s what the whole bracket thing is all about, and it’s absolutely part of the fun of it all. What I grow weary of is the dressing up of random comparisons as sound logic and the declaration of predictions that are either nothing new or are somewhat silly. (The Gaffer’s “prediction” that soccer will become a mainstream sport in the States this summer fell rather amusingly under that last category.) If we don’t want the hype and the superficial stuff to be the big story, we shouldn’t feed into it ourselves. And FFS, we should be 100% hoping for our team to win their games, rather than positing that a loss might be better because, hey a couple times we won after losing. With the complete understanding that losses may happen, we should hope for absolutely nothing other than wins.