C’mon, you knew this post was coming eventually. I promise to limit them to once a week. On with it:
We have to start with the call yesterday, right? We do. So let’s get it over with. I’d rant about it, but this rant is better than I’d ever do:
Incompetent Lunatic Pours Gasoline on Justice, Lights Match
Then, watching justice burn, he scrunches up his brow, puts his whistle to his lips, and calls a foul on justice. You know. For obstructing the fire.
Obviously, minutes after the match, tempers are high, and we should all probably take a minute to calm down before we say anything we might regret. Nevertheless, with all caution and restraint, I think it’s safe to say that THIS IS THE WORST THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED AND GIANT SHEETS OF FIRE RAINING DOWN FROM THE SKY ON THE HEAD OF KOMAN COULIBALY COULD NOT PUT TO RIGHTS THE STAIN HE HAS INFLICTED ON THE FABRIC OF ALL THAT IS GOOD IN THE UNIVERSE AND THOUSAND-MILE-HIGH BOLTS OF LIGHTNING SMASHING THE ENTIRE CITY OF ZURICH TO THE GROUND CANNOT MAKE UP FOR THE CRIME FIFA HAS COMMITTED IN ASSIGNING HIM TO THE WORLD CUP AND IF YOU ARE BEING SWALLOWED BY A FANGED BEAST RISING UP FROM THE BOWELS OF THE SEA THEN YOU HAD BETTER BE CAREFUL NOT TO BE SPEARED BY HIS FANGS OR THIS REFEREE WILL SAY YOU FOULED HIM AND DISALLOW YOUR GOAL AND…
Well, you get the idea. That’s not going too far, right?
Not if you ask me. Though I think it’s very worth much pointing out that what hurt (and hurts) so much about Coulibaly’s robbery isn’t the lost points; the U.S. will still go through as long as they beat Algeria, and I have no problem saying that if the Yanks can’t earn three points against Slovenia or Algeria, regardless of any officiating shenanigans, they really don’t belong in the Round of 16. I’m not going to say I don’t care about the U.S. sitting on two points instead of four and needing a win instead of a draw against the Desert Foxes–I care, a lot*–but honestly, that’s not what ultimately matters about the call.
What hurts is the lost moment. What ultimately matters is how much joy was stolen from us. This Joe Posnanski column is well over-the-top–this being Slovenia and only the second game of the group, there’s no comparison between any result yesterday and the 1950 upset, no way anything that could have happened could be as iconic as Montana-to-Clark–but it gets at the real injustice of Coulibaly’s decision. It’s worth repeating that a team coming back from a 2-0 halftime to win 3-2 has never happened at the World Cup. Not once. That’s the kind of history the U.S. would have made.
But more importantly, that’s what we U.S. fans would have been celebrating. Michael Bradley’s equalizer was already a delirium. To get the third, to win that match outright, to have done something that no other World Cup side had ever done … we would have collapsed from happiness. It might not have been the seismic event on theborader U.S. sports horizon Posnanski makes it out to be, but it would have been, quite literally, a once-in-a-lifetime match for a U.S. fan. A once-in-a-lifetime explosion of the sort of spontaneous joy only soccer can provide. That sounds overly dramatic, I know, but that’s the best I can do–I can’t even really describe what that goal would have meant**.
That’s what we lost. Maybe we’ll still get something just as good this World Cup. But I doubt it.
One other thing about the ref. Before the opening match, when they announced that the officiating crew was from Uzbekistan, I thought “Uh-oh; here’s betting a dollar we get some horrible decision. Refs from places like Uzbekistan always suck.” So I felt bad when it turned out the ref was excellent. But it didn’t stop me from turning to the Mrs. WBE before the match called by a Japanese ref and saying “Watch out; refs from weaker soccer countries like Japan make some bad decisions a lot of times.” And then I felt bad again when he was fine, too. And then they gave Carlos Batres, CONCACAF’s best referee, a match and I felt bad again since I know a lot of fans around the world were thinking “This guy won’t be any good; he’s from Guatemala.” He was great, as I think nearly every North American fan knew he would be. And then finally, as if to confirm I was just being uselessly soccer-xenophobic, a Spanish referee–a veteran of La Liga, arguably the best league in the world–called far-and-away the worst game of the tournament to-date in the Serbia-Germany match.
So when Coulibaly walked out of the tunnel, I finally, finally got myself to think “it doesn’t matter that he’s from Mali. It doesn’t matter that he’s from Mali. Everyone else has been fine. He’ll be fine, too.”
A few minutes later he yellow-carded Robbie Findley for a completely nonexistent handball–the U.S. could have easily had a goal disallowed on that play for even stupider reasons than the one that was eventually disallowed–and I remembered, no, it does matter that he’s from Mali. It’s true: refs from places like Mali just can’t be trusted. I know there’s good ones out there, but screw it–I hope the U.S. never has a World Cup match called by a non-European, non-Brazilian/Argentinean ever again***.
U-S-A! U-S-A! A victory over England or the completion of the Slovenia comeback might have been the most thrilling or memorable induction into U.S. soccer fanhood for the casuals out there. But I think the pair of draws is certainly the most accurate induction. This is what it’s like folks: encouraging, enraging, inspiring, exhilarating, frustrating, delirious, dejected, all in the space of two games. Just business as usual for a team that in the summer of 2009 went from their worst performance of the past decade to beating Spain by two goals in the space of two games.
Yeah, I wish the U.S. could find a way to start defending like the game hinged on every clearance before the game actually did start hinging on every clearance. Yeah, I wish Dempsey wasn’t so invisible for so long, I wish we could find a defensive midfield partner for M. Bradley who could make an actual impact (Torres was seriously disappointing in his 45 minutes yesterday, for me, and Edu was worringly shaky despite the inexplicable mainstream praise he’s received), I wish Robbie Findley didn’t have gourds for feet. But I’m not disappointed. No one who’s followed this team for any length of time should have expected anything different from these two games: a spirited battle against the heavy favorite, a terrible initial letdown against the heavy underdog, when all is said and done a point against each. (Not to go about horn-tooting, but there’s a reason that’s precisely what I predicted coming in.) Considering how achingly close the U.S. came to wins in both–a post hit in the first, the obvious in the second–I can’t bring myself to get upset they’re in good position to advance rather than excellent position.
Coaching? I’m not all that bothered with Bob Bradley, either. Starting Findley is a mistake. I still think Edu should have been the choice over Clark against England (and maybe, given Torres’s performance, against the Slovenians). It’s aggravating that after years of development the Yanks still can’t get the ball from a central defender to a forward by any method other than a 60-yard blast up the field.
But man, a lot of the things that are going wrong are just not Bradley’s fault. It’s not on him that Onyewu hurt himself and is so appallingly rusty and labored. (You ask me, both Slovenian goals are his fault first and foremost.) It’s not on him that Clark is in the same out-of-form boat and that his backups looked overwhelmed against Slovenia. It’s not (entirely****) on him the U.S. forward pool is still so shallow that even if he decides not to start Findley, he’s having to go with guys who haven’t really shown anything more than Findley in a U.S. shirt. It’s not on him that Bocanegra is slow, that Demerit can’t pass, that Dempsey’s work rate still isn’t where we’d like it to be.
Braldey’s still not getting the most out of his team, I don’t think, and I’m still looking forward to bringing in someone else after the Cup. But I look at the way teams like France, England, and Portugal squander talent the Yanks can only dream of, and I still have to think the U.S. could do a lot worse.
Fixing the snooze button. After a brief ray of hope from the Argentina-South Korea and U.S.-Slovenia matches, the last three matches (as I type this) have mostly gone back to the yawn-worthy chess matches we saw from the first round of fixtures: England 0 Algeria 0 (the worst match of the tournament), Netherlands 1 Japan 0, Ghana 1 Australia 1. We currently stand at 1.84 goals-per-game, which would be the worst mark in World Cup history by nearly half a goal. I’m with this post: I’d like to say all these 1-1’s, 1-0’s, and 0-0’s were secret masterpieces (and some of them, like U.S.-England, South Africa-Mexico, Serbia-Germany, have been), but even for someone obsessed with the tournament, there’s been a lot of less-than-thrilling stuff.
Why? Some of it’s an increase in cynical, defensive play; why Uruguay felt the need to strand weapons like Forlan and Suarez in favor of playing five at the back, or both Denmark and Japan the need to put the aging, questionable Dutch defense under as little strain as possible in favor of yielding up 70 percent possession, I’ll never know. (Thanks to France’s toothlessness it worked out for the Uruguayans, but the Danes and Japanese earned every bit of their defeats at the Dutch’s hands.) But I don’t think that’s the main cause. Lots of teams–England, Spain, Chile, virtually all of the African squads–have been perfectly willing to attack. They’ve just been terrible at it, or undone (as in Spain’s or Brazil’s cases) by resolute, smart defending.
I also think a lot of that terribleness really can be laid at the feet of the Jabulani. Or its aura of difficulty, anyway. Griping about the ball is a time-honored World Cup tradition, and despite the unusual intensity of that griping in the run-up this year, I figured that, as usual, it wouldn’t have any actual impact. But I agree with this post: the long-range shooting and crossing have been so uniformly awful, one of two things are true: 1. the ball behaves so differently it really has had a negative impact on attackers’ ability to play it 2. maybe it doesn’t behave differently, but it feels so different and has such a reputation for being different the players are overadjusting. Or hell, maybe both.
Add the two factors together, and voila, a whole bunch of horrid matches. I think it’s time for FIFA to act, as they did after the 1990 debacle*****. (“Time,” here, meaning any point between now and 2014.) Official WBE solutions:
1. Make the goals bigger. It just seems so simple. It doesn’t affect play at all; it should automatically lead to an increase in scoring; the officials don’t have to change a thing. We’re still using the same size goals FIFA introduced back in Nineteen Dickety-Two, despite the fact that monsters like Tim Howard and Julio Cesar were still decades away from being invented. The goalkeepers have gotten bigger and bigger and covered more and more space as the years have gone by; why haven’t the goals gotten bigger and bigger and created more and more space to compensate?
2. Don’t change the damn ball right before the tournament starts. Duh. I’m not the first person to make this argument by any stretch, but still, it has to be repeated. Adidas’s defense is that they put the ball on the market in December or thereabouts, but no league in the world (save the Adidas-influenced Bundesliga) is going to switch balls in the middle of the club season and no club team is going to practice with a ball they don’t play with in their matches. Result: no one save the Germans touched the thing until May. Release the thing a year in advance, please (or even better, two).
3. Award no points for a 0-0 tie. The first two suggestions have an outside prayer of being followed, but this’ll never happen. Too bad; the sight of two teams simultaneously throwing themselves forward furiously in the dying minutes should be electric. Frankly, I’m not interested in teams being rewarded for playing only one end of the field. Every other sport I can think of has some method of forcing even the most defensive-minded teams to play offense occasionally; why not soccer?
The revolution will have to wait. For some time, the conventional wisdom in international soccer (outside of certain European bastions) has been that the traditionally meek would inherit a large chunk of the game’s earth. Fueled by better youth programs, explosive growth in fan interest, new and thriving professional leagues, and previously untapped reservoirs of talent, nations like the U.S., Japan and Korea, Australia, and especially Africa would challenge the game’s great powers in Europe and South America.
And back in 2002, that certainly seemed to be the case. South Korea made the semifinals and Japan (comfortably) the second round; Senegal became the second African nation to make the quarterfinals, eliminating France, Uruguay, and Sweden along the way; the U.S., of course, beat Portugal on their way to their own quarterfinal berth.
But in terms of the World Cup, that apparent progress has ground to a halt. In 2006 only three teams outside of Europe or South America–Ghana, Mexico, and Australia–made the Round of 16, and none of them advanced to the quarters. With this year’s Cup held (like 2002’s) on neither of the two traditional power continents, you’d expect a step forward, but we haven’t really seen it yet: Korea and Japan knocked off fellow outsiders Greece and Cameroon but looked far less impressive against Argentina and the Dutch; the Aussies have gone back to being also-rans; and sweet merciful heavens have the African sides been bad. Going back to 2006 and entering this afternoon’s Cameroon-Denmark match, they’ve won just four of their last 26 with 15 losses and seven draws. In that same stretch, North American teams besides Mexico have gone winless in nine matches and the other Asian sides … well, that they collectively allowed freaking New Zealand to qualify should tell you where they stand.
The U.S. is almost this stall in microcosm. Certainly, the Yanks are far better on paper than they were in 1998 or even 2002; we’re not starting the likes of Mike Burns or Jeff Agoos anymore. (OK, we’re starting Findley, but at least in his case we don’t have to.) Far fewer minutes are going to players who don’t have quality European experience; MLS has been a boon as a career launching pad (and deserves some measure of respect as such) but it’s a positive, without question, that its longtime veterans have been phased out. Still, for all of that, we just haven’t seen the kind of developed depth we would have expected back in the late-’90s and early Aughts. Our backup centerback plays in Norway; not one of our forwards start regularly for a non-MLS side, even if you include Dempsey; our backup left back isn’t even an above-average MLS player; down 2-0 at halftime of a critical World Cup match, we brought on a midfielder who plays at a run-of-the-mill Danish side. We’re better, but in terms of true club-level quality, we’re not there yet.
Not that against Algeria, or hopefully in a Round of 16 match, that will matter all that much.
*I’d care even more if Germany still looked like the lock to win their group they were after the Australia demolition, and it was imperative for the U.S. to win their group to avoid them. But after the Germans’ loss to Serbia, they could finish anywhere from first to third.
**I got lucky–I was watching this match at home, with the sound turned way up, and heard the whistle before Edu had even made contact with the ball. I didn’t have the heartbeat or two of ecstasy cruelly yanked away I know a lot of Nats fans watching in bars did.
***I wanted this as a footnote since there’s a limit to how much officiating whining I ought to be indulging in, but still, it seems like ever since the remarkable strokes of fortune that got the U.S. through to the quarters in 2002–the Portuguese own goal, the saved Korean PK, the Koreans beating Portugal when all they needed was a draw, the uncalled handball against O’Brien vs. Mexico–the refs have been doing their best to make up for it. The handball on the line against Germany in ’02; the garbage red cards against Italy in ’06; the tissue-soft penalty the next game against Ghana; the harsh and then beyond harsh reds against Italy and then Spain at the ’09 Confed Cup; and now this. I know a handful of calls have gone in the U.S.’s favor in that time (like the goal Brazil scored in the Confed Cup final that wasn’t given), but I still think we’re past due for a big one to go our way.
****He could have brought Brian Ching, of course. Still not sure why he didn’t; I’d take him over Findley in a heartbeat. But I’m not of the opinion it would have made a dramatic difference at this level.
*****Still a far worse World Cup for my money; those teams generally scored whenever they went forward. They just almost never did. Then again, I don’t have the best memory of it; I was 11. And we haven’t yet gotten to the knockout matches yet this year, which are typically the most defensively-played of the tournament.