Summertime and The Blogging Ain’t Easy

Vacation is upon me and the urge to write (and think) any more than is required has fallen by the wayside.   However, I have stumbled upon a few must-read articles that are worth sharing.   Whether you are a die-hard soccer fan or are perplexed how anyone could be, the first two are worth a look.  (The third is more for the interested soccer fan, I must admit – but has some cool footage linked in it of fans that anyone can appreciate.)

The first two relate to the recent US vs. Mexico game that I touched on in “USA Dispossessed of Azteca Dream.”   Bill Simmons of ESPN wrote the first, which is called “Sporting emotions at the highest pitch.”  Simmons is not a soccer-mad writer by any stretch, and even described soccer as “a sport I have never totally liked and even actively hated at times.”   However, his descriptions of the experience in Mexico City, in Azteca and as a pseudo-US Soccer fan are astounding.  He also makes Soccer comparisons to US Sports that, well, I could never make since SportsCenter doesn’t usually bump Fox Soccer Report  off my TV.    Simmons describes a key moment in the game by writing: “It was one of those sports moments when you wish they could have stopped the proceedings right there for 20 minutes, just so we could soak in what happened and dream about all the possibilities.”   It’s a wonderful read.

The second that relates to the US v Mexico game (and is linked to from within the ESPN report) is a report by photo-journalist Douglas Zimmerman.   The pictures and descriptions of his time at Azteca Stadium add a depth of understanding of the magnitude, fervor and pure passion that exists in a game of this nature.

The last article worth mentioning is one that appears to be calling my mistress ugly.  (See Major League (Soccer) Mistress.)   Basically, this excellent blog posting looks at a local Seattle Sounders Portland Timbers comparison.    Portland looks to join MLS in 2011 along with the runaway success that is Seattle this year this blog focuses on the clubs’ shared histories, different success rates (Seattle on the field, Portland in the stands prior this the Sounders break out year) and home-grown (Portland) versus “club-sponsored” (Seattle) supporters.   A few interesting points to walk away from this article with . . . the passion that the Pacific North West seems to have for this sport, the rivalry that will hopefully bring added passion to MLS soon and some background on what has made Seattle’s entrance to MLS so impressive (great marketing.)  The question that one needs to ponder after reading this though: what is the value of home-grown support versus a club-sponsored (marketing?) approach when you are in the big leagues?

USA Dispossessed of Azteca Dream

I am a US Soccer fan.   I can be both biased and irrational and at game time I am often both.

Today, “my” US team lost to Mexico in the fabled Azteca stadium.  Again.   And that makes me pretty angry.

Now, a few hours later, as I step away from my biases and irrationality I can admit that this result is no surprise.   The US National Team is neither as good as casual fans thought we were after the Confederations Cup results, nor as bad as the 0-5 result in the Gold Cup Final that had the diehards worrying we were.

We could argue this (isn’t that what ‘we’ do?), but to me it is clear.   We’ve seen the “A” team do everything from get embarrassed in Costa Rica to shine for 135 minutes against Spain and Brazil.    We’ve watched the “B” team dispatch with local rivals with grit and guile and then crumble like a house of cards with 70,000 fans leaning on it against Mexico in the Gold Cup final.

So keeping World Cup qualifying against Mexico in perspective, we split the home/away series with Mexico just the way you’d expect.   Does that make me happy?  No.   Does it sound about representative of where we are?  More or less, yes.

The US was not embarrassed and they battled admirably.  Many will point to Mexico’s “luck” – a “wonder strike” from Israel Castro, a bounce that fell exactly right to Miguel Sabah – and maybe there was some of that.   But while the early US goal had emotions raised, we were again unable to possess the ball and would be chasing the game at altitude, in the smog and with that, the writing was on the wall.

So we may not be either as good or bad as we sometimes obsess about, but lacking a solid possession game that allows us to manage a match will always be a ceiling above which we’ll struggle to climb.  When is the last time – outside of beating up on the mighty soccer power of Grenada (who didn’t even have a fit Shalrie Joseph) – that the USA has held the ball, passed it with purpose for long stretches and imposed their will on a game?   I am having trouble naming too many recent examples.

I’m not invited into the US locker room for pre-game preparations, but I can imagine Bob Bradley said something like “stay compact, move as a team, don’t chase and get caught out of position” and MY PERSONAL FAVORITE “when you get the ball, keep possession as much as possible, pick your chances and be smart to conserve some energy.”   OK, I cannot guarantee those were his words, but I can guarantee the advice didn’t include “boot the ball frantically up-field, or to a Mexican, or wherever, just don’t keep it.”

So the question is: how is that where we ended up?  How is it that we end up there so frequently?    I wish I had an answer other than:  we simply aren’t capable of playing possession soccer against better teams.   Why?   History of our development has always favored athleticism over skills, a history whose imprint we are still trying to shake.   When the best teams hold the ball, your athleticism becomes pretty unimportant.  (“Wow, look how fast he is running around over there without the ball. He must have a great 40 time and an unreal vertical leap.”)

Transitioning to a more skillful game won’t be easy, but if we are to be a true contender in world soccer we best push for it sooner rather than later.    Tactics, players, development, mentality… it is all affected, and will provide reasons to blog, argue, bitch and moan about for the foreseeable future.