Keep Your Numbers, I’ll Keep The Beautiful Game

A good friend kept pointing me at fivethirtyeight.com for statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver’s (and team’s) views on the World Cup. In particular, he really thought I should read the following article (Why Isn’t the U.S. Men’s National Team Better at Soccer?) and that it would be interesting on an analytical level. So I did.

The problem was, I came in biased.  And that’s how I left.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Of course, it didn’t help that the silly title was followed by an opening paragraph that concluded with the idea that despite America’s riches and focus on sport it “can’t field a world-class men’s soccer team.”

I knew from there on I was going to struggle to maintain an open mind because I immediately formed a couple serious concerns.

First, this presumptions, misplaced opening premise starts the reader on the easy, but not particularly well-informed path that the USA isn’t good at this “foreign” sport.

Second, the desire to turn soccer into another statisticians dream the way Money Ball changed baseball frightens and dismays me.

Mr. Silver’s website has lots of new World Cup coverage, and I’m sure it’s all quite thorough. There are percentages on what teams will advance, what games will be ties and other statistical discussions that can make newbies to the game sound smart at a cocktail party or at the office water cooler.

I don’t find such soccer statistics a thing of beauty.  And I don’t really want them coloring my view of the beautiful game.

Fivethirtyeight.com knows that there are people who feel like I do, they even address it head-on.  The site even makes the very specific claim that “In soccer, data and aesthetics are not mutually exclusive, just as they aren’t in any other sport.”

I hope they are wrong.

And I love when it the numbers don’t tell the story.  Like today.

The site predicted only 19% change of a Germany/Ghana tie and thought Argentina vs. Iran would turn into a blowout victory for the South Americans.  Very logical.

What happened? A Germany/Ghana tie. And a last second goal by Lionel Messi to save Argentina from an unexpected scoreless tie.

The unpredictability of those results made the day much more fun.

The beauty of the game comes from the decisions that need to be made on the field, by players, in real-time. It’s a game of emotion.  Of momentum. And yes, of luck.

There are few plays to be run from a playbook. Limiting the number of plays where success or failure can be tracked.

Can you predict pulled hamstrings, goals that happen within the first 30 seconds, the humidity or field conditions?

Can you predict players getting broken noses or head-butting one another?

Can you predict a poor decision by a referee?

Maybe in aggregate all of these things can be calculated, predicted and analyzed.

I hope not, because there’s more to a fluid team sport than any of that.  Especially a team sport that leaves so much responsibility on the hands of the players.  Not play calling.

What variable/value is assigned to team spirit, exactly?  Not so easy.

Did the USA outplay Ghana in its first game of this World Cup? No. But did it display an unbelievable commitment to each other on the field?  Absolutely.

And that proved to be enough. On that day. On that field. In this competition.

I don’t think that this game is predictable. And I hope it never is.

Despite all of my internal rejection of the ‘numberization’ of my chosen sport, the article’s premise was just as troubling as the fact that it was searching for something to analyze.

The overly-Americanized and ridiculously presumptive title started me down a path that’s hard to recover from.

It asked: “Why Isn’t the U.S. Men’s National Team Better at Soccer?”

Wow.  What a question. How much better should the USA be exactly?

The game against Ghana was clearly more grit than beauty… and I do not think the USA is the World’s best team, but how much better are we talking about, specifically?

Germany, I presume, is considered way better that the USA. And today, they tied the team we beat a few days back.

One measure of being “better” means getting results in the World Cup, right?

The USA has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. (Yes, in 1994 we did not need to, as hosts.)  This success is disregarded, since people think that our region is easy to qualify from.

Really?

Mexico, of our region, just tied Brazil.  How good are they?  Yeah, we qualified ahead of them.

Costa Rica, of our region, has already qualified for the second round beating both South American and European foes.  Yeah, we qualified ahead of them too.

And for Euro-soccer Snobs that think our region is easy  to qualify from, I suggest they play some competitive matches in San Jose, Costa Rica, Tegucigalpa, Honduras or in Azteca Stadium in Mexico, and see what they think afterward.

Think it’s easy?  Read this.

But the article asks, why aren’t we “better.”  Perhaps that means we need to beat the best teams in competition.

However, in REAL competitions, we’ve beaten Argentina by 3 goals (Copa America), stopped Spain’s ridiculously long winning streak (Confederations Cup), beaten Mexico and Portugal in World Cup play. Is that not enough?

When, exactly, will we qualify as being good enough for the statisticians to go back to baseball.

I get that in some way statistics may help explain soccer.  But having some foundational knowledge and understanding of the game – and its frustrating intricacies – might help form some better hypotheses to begin with.

During World Cup coverage, when players leaving the field, ESPN (who’s coverage has been quite good, actually) shows me how much the player has run.  As if that’s a metric of success.

It’s not.

We now see team possession statistics that aren’t particularly useful either, in my view, since for some teams it is a strategy and for others it is a necessity that happens without any meaningful offensive moves.

We now see percentages of passes completed.  Interesting, but flawed. One beautiful pass can be worth ten simple ones.

And please, don’t ask why the USA “aren’t better” unless you are willing to describe what better looks like.  Because the USA can and should get better, but I don’t think our improvement will be driven by a calculator and an algorithm.

So please, keep your statistics off in a fantasy league corner.  If you haven’t noticed, the USA is developing a passion for the beautiful game.

Let’s not bury it in, largely meaningless, numbers.

I plan to remain with my head firmly in the sand.  Preferring emotion to calculation. And beauty to analysis.

Yes, in my soccer book collection I have (and enjoyed) Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.

But my favorite will always be “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” by Eduardo Galeano.

Toward the end of this glorious text, he writes “The more the technocrats program it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it, soccer continues to be the art of the unforseeable.”

That’s what computes for me.

 

 

 

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USA Men’s National Team vs. Brazil: The Glass is Half…

I haven’t visited the half-full vs. half-empty review style in a while, so before I hit the web, Twitter, and fifteen different views of player ratings which will inevitably color my perspective, let’s dust it off.

To level set though, let’s remind ourselves that for all intents and purposes, the USA vs. Brazil game was a meaningless friendly.  It was clear that we’d hear lots of Bob Bradley rumor mongering, see many substitutions and get a glimpse of some new faces on either side.

My only hope all day was for it to be a good game.  For it to be fun.  For us to see something a bit new.   And before the we fill or empty our glass here in our traditional style, let’s examine why I left this comprehensive loss a little more at ease than I should have.

The primary reason: Brazil is back.  While it is hard to imagine it being so clear after only one game, it does seem like the positive, exciting, energetic and yes, happy, Brazilian team might be making a comeback.  Mr. Dunga, thanks for nothing.

The USA will always be my team, but  Brazil at their best should be everyone’s team (unless maybe you’re Argentine).  I hate for the USA to lose, but I’d rather see a fast moving, positive playing Brazilian team beat us three times over than re-watch a 0-5 result against Mexico in the Gold Cup Final.  And I don’t care if it was a “B Team” or an “F Team.”  Sorry.

Brazilian skill on the ball is always superb, but what kept my attention all game was the unbelievable off the ball movement.   Between brazen one-touch keep away games, instantaneous changes of pace and sly off the ball runs, I can almost understand the ball watching the USA displayed far too frequently.  Almost.

With that, let’s get back to reality…

Glass Half Full View

  • The USA didn’t give up an early goal.  Yes, this half-full sentiment is really the absence of a negative.  However, USA fans have grown so accustomed to being behind after fifteen minutes, it was a noteworthy and welcome change.  In fact, for about the first 20 minutes, the USA played very well.
  • Tim Howard and Brad Guzan both looked up to the task.  This isn’t a surprise, but when you are so thoroughly outplayed for 70 minutes or so, you take out whatever positives you can.
  • The USA got to test out some new talent.  Omar Gonzalez, welcome to the fire.  You will be invited back for more.  It’s pretty obvious that Gonzalez has a future with the USA, and since Brazil ran right through our midfield on a number of occasions, he got a fast and furious introduction to international defending.   Alejandro Bedoya wasn’t fully convincing, but if you need potential future US National Team players to get experience, this was the kind of game to do it in.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • 77,000 fans created what looked like a great atmosphere in the new Meadowlands stadium.  Let’s say that again… 77,000 fans.  We’ve been spoiled by recent crowd sizes in the USA for games lately, but let’s not forget how much has changed in 15 years.

Glass Half Empty View

  • The USA was outclassed by an extremely young Brazilian side.  Irrespective of how good the Brazilian team played, the USA team should have made it much, much harder on them.  There’s work to be done as the cycle starts anew.
  • Where will the USA find some offense?  Yes, it’s clear there are issues at forward.  We keep hearing how confident Edson Buddle is from his MLS success – but why does he never look to be playing with confidence when with the USA?  Jozy Altidore is still raw.  Herculez Gomez is still breaking through with the USA.   Aside from moving Clint Dempsey and/or Landon Donovan up top, the USA’s finishing capabilities are not going to scare many opposing defenses.
  • However, our midfield sure isn’t offering our forwards much in the way of creative support.  One reason Landon Donovan can be successful is that he can check back, and use pace to create opportunities out of midfield – and not rely on too much creativity from around him.  Otherwise, our forwards wait for great service, which aside from occasional early first-time crosses from wide, rarely comes.
  • Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu are both good players but are too similar and – especially today – got caught being too casual with their passing and possession.   What is just as troubling is with two reasonably defensive-minded midfielders in the center of the field, you would expect the USA to have much more “bite” that we showed today.  Brazil passed through the US midfield far too easily, far too often.  This is undoubtedly why Bob Bradley was hoping to get Jermaine Jones into the mix, and maybe someday he will.  The USA’s only other real option for “bite” in the midfield is Ricardo Clark, and while his career is not done with the USA I imagine, Bob Bradley would have been a very brave man to call him into this camp.

And with that, the USA must move forward.  It’s dance toward mainstream relevance might have tripped up tonight as casual fans expected the same drama and even games as they saw in South Africa.

The Brazilians, however, appear to be ready to Samba once again.

And that’s something.

Dear Soccer Haters… I’m Done.

Dear American Soccer Hater,

We really need to talk.  I know that it has been a while since we’ve chatted.  You see, I’ve had a few other things on my mind lately.

There’s been this small competition going on in South Africa, of that sport you so love to hate: Soccer.  (I don’t dare call it “football,” I know how much that bothers you, and I’d like you to finish this letter.  I’ll avoid use of the following as well: pitch, boots, kit, nil and anything that references extra-, added- or injury-time, if possible.)

You and I haven’t seen eye to eye on much lately.  And, I was starting to worry that your ranks were growing.  I mean, Glenn Beck agrees with you.   And Jim Rome agrees with you too.

I used to try to convince you that you had it all wrong.  I tried to sway you.  I would use statistics and anecdotes that remind you how behind the times you are.

Stories like how well ESPN is doing.  With helpful facts that the US team’s recent win against Algeria was ESPN’s most watched soccer game ever, most watched non-holiday morning telecast ever, the highest watched program of any type on any network for key advertising audiences all day.   They even had 180,000 people listening in online.

I would try to demonstrate the power of interest in the USA v. Algeria game by explaining it created the second most amount of Internet traffic ever.  Of course, it couldn’t top the list.  That high bar was set by the opening of the World Cup.

I might have shared stories of how the end-of-game drama of the USA v Algeria match drastically reduced stock trading on Wall Street.

Heck, I would even spam you full of videos of other Americans in rapturous support of our team from all around the world.

Now I know… none of that matters.  And while we soccer fanatics have won a few of you over, in general, you won’t change.

So, I’m done trying.   No seriously, I’m fully, totally, completely done.

And as they say so often when people realize they need a change:  it’s not you, it’s me.  In fact, it’s not that you won’t change, but I’ve come to realize something else, something very different.

What I realized was, that we don’t need you.

We, the “oddball American soccer lovers,” the immigrant fans, the youth-team leaders and the people playing pickup games on Saturday or after work, we are doing just fine without you.

I mean, it’s not just that we have new cool friends.  Which we do.  (You know, we have the President and Vice President, we have Reggie Bush and OchoCinco, and heck… even the somewhat logically connected Playboy Playmate and Bill Clinton have hopped on the US Soccer bandwagon.

Karissa Shannon getting her mail while in a US Soccer Jacket. (From http://theoriginalwinger.com/)

Bill Clinton and US Captain Carlos Bocanegra in South Africa after the USA victory over Algeria. (From: http://twitpic.com/1zl4j1)

It’s not just that we have a successful domestic league now.   Which we do.

It’s not just that we can see as much soccer from a variety of countries nearly any day of the week, year round.  Which we can.

It’s not just that our kids are playing the game as much or more than ever, and now can have a viable path to a professional career in the sport they love.  Which they do.

It’s all those things, and more.

It’s also that the more I see you, the more you seem irrelevant.  You sound out of touch.   You feel like yesterday’s news.

For those who try to convince me that the “USA will never be a soccer nation.”  I say it already is.

I also note that the nation no longer looks like the (almost always) wonder-bread white guys who are preaching of soccer’s ridiculousness on television.

I believe that the younger generation does indeed know who Ronaldihno and Cristiano Ronaldo are.   (Even if primarily through their PlayStation or Xbox 360.)

The USA, or to potentially be more accurate the collective of people who live here, is already a soccer nation.  Our league might not be as well attended as the NFL.   That’s fine.  But, just like soccer, it’s ours and as far as I can tell, it’s not going anywhere.

So please know that when your sentences start with “you know why soccer will never catch on in America…” I may look like I’m listening, but from that second on, you sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher to me.

Because I’m done.

To me, having you join our parade would be great, but we are marching either way.

And as long as I see Americans with this kind of passion marching through Seattle on their way to a stadium for an MLS Game, as in the above video, or those that sing America the Beautiful, while half-way across the world in a men’s room in a South African stadium during half-time of a World Cup game, as in the below video…

There’s one thing I know, sooner or later, you’ll be marching too.  Or we will just step right over.

Regards,

Bob

Wynalda for US Under 20s: Handle With Care

It went widely unnoticed or cared about, but when Soccer America reported that Eric Wynalda is being given a trial run as an Under-20 National Team assistant coach . . . my head started spinning.  

Would Eric use his brash style, deep history and strong playing experience as a force of good to help groom our promising “next generation” of players?   Or would he lapse into his occasional MLS bashing and venting that would be counterproductive and potentially confusing to new (or nearly new) professional players?

Let’s be clear . . . I like what I know of Eric Wynalda.  By the way, if you don’t know much about him, Yanks Abroad had a great 2 article piece on him not too long ago.   You should check out Part One and Part Two – a great read.

As a player, he got the job done.   Being an early American  to break into the German First Division doesn’t come easy.   His exploits with the National Team are also widely known.   Scoring the first goal in MLS history was also a fitting notch in his belt.   Of course, he was at times known as difficult, fiery (putting it kindly) and often a petulant player.

Wynalda is probably known next for his commentary at ESPN and now Fox Soccer Channel as well as his (almost) off the record commentary.    His statements often rub many people the wrong way  . . . both in soccer terms, and occasionally for just sounding like a jerk.   

In fact, he’s swiped at a veritable who’s who of American Soccer . . .

  • Bruce Arena:  “He can take a team to a certain level, but he has no idea where the next level is. How much does he know about playing in Europe, other than having a hot dog and a beer in the stands?”
  • On Landon Donovan’s trial in Germany: “Last time, he gave up . . .  So let’s see how long this lasts. I’m just as curious as the rest of us.”
  • The unloved (in soccer circles) Jim Rome . . . well, let’s just say Wynalda didn’t have kind words for him.  

Those words for Rome, and many other choice ones are found here – in the tirade that cost Wynalda his ESPN job.   The saga – which included some unfortunate comments about a supporter section flares looking like California (which had massive fires at the time) that led to his dismissal is here.

The thing is – aside from that unfortunate slip about California and the unfortunate dance about how it happened – I love it.   American soccer is a personality free zone most days – and Wynalda offers a brief respite from the boredom.

  • Is Bruce Arena a great manager? Sure.   Is there proof of how he (or most American coaches) can handle the constant pressure, or have the tactical acumen, seen in Europe?
  • Is Landon Donovan a great player?  Absolutely.   Were there reasons to question his commitment to a harder league that MLS . . . history would say yes.   (Hopefully his current great form at Everton is helping put that to rest.)
  • And any true US Soccer fan grins thinking that Jim Rome has been lashed at.

So what’s my concern?   Aside from his commentary, he has a history of being argumentative, disruptive force that bickered with coaches, and the MLS big wigs.

Wynalda suggests he’s learned a lot about himself and how to handle adversity, something that would be clearly of value to the Under 20s.  But it also appears that he houses a deep bitterness toward MLS, calling his move potentially the “biggest mistake” of his career.  

While it will be helpful for young players to join any league with their eyes wide open . . . I hope that they are getting a balanced perspective.   MLS is a good option for much of our U20 player pool.

Eric, please remember, with great power comes great responsibility.   Let’s not poison young minds with negativity of ghosts MLS transgressions of the past.

“MLS Team America” Could It Work?

Yanks-Abroad is a great site.  I read it near religiously.   You should too.

The name alone, however, suggests its latent bias – one toward a preference for US players that are playing abroad, and a (general) disinterest in MLS.    That made Brent Latham’s new Yanks Abroad piece “PHILLY..GO AMERICAN!” such a peculiar and interesting one.  It is a worthy read, so I won’t recap it here, but needless to say he makes an interesting argument that the Philadelphia Union has a unique opportunity to go 100% American with its roster – and that it might actually be a good idea.

A thought provoking idea, for sure, but I am struggling with some of the surrounding analysis. Here are some themes or points Brent made that trouble me a bit.

The fact that more US players leading the scoring charts would “…fight a trend that threatens to make it less relevant on the international soccer scene.” 

This depends on how you define international soccer “relevance.”    I could see a few ways to build “relevance”:

A) MLS clubs start beating International club teams from top leagues in something that matters,

B) MLS clubs compete for, or sign, players who are respected/desired by European clubs, or

C) MLS provides talent to International clubs that succeed in the best leagues.

MLS Clubs do not do “A” very frequently.  Superliga – though entertaining – is a weak competition in terms of international respect – at least outside of Mexico.  Well, perhaps within Mexico too…

The MLS All Star Game?  Good fun.  But not “real” by any stretch of the imagination.

I would say that “B” almost REQUIRES the player to be an International, since any American player “coming home” provides a built-in excuse for the Euro’s to say he’s headed to MLS for “non-sporting reasons.”     And for relevance, to me it is hard to name four bigger things MLS has done lately than the additions of David Beckham, Freddie Ljungberg, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and perhaps Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Blanco might only add Mexican respect, and GBS may only add South American credibility, but still… )  These players came, played hard but they were not able to dominate the league.

The “C” option is likely where we have more chance and history of “relevance” in the international soccer community.  Providing talent to European or other top-tier international teams.  However, I think it matters little to the “international soccer scene” if the players we are growing, showcasing and/or selling come from the USA, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago or anywhere else.

MLS will be relevant if it is successful as a feeder system to them, not for where those players come from.   There is a difference between US Soccer relevance and MLS relevance.

Another general theme is: while Europe is probably the best place for a young American creative talent to develop, they might be well served with more options in the USA.

I generally agree – the more options for American players, the better.   I think the evidence is out on if/when there is a right time to jump to Europe – especially for “creative” players.  So many of our promising US Players end up floundering post transfer (Eddie Johnson, Freddy Adu are easy examples.)  Would Landon Donovan be better if he stayed in (or went back to) to Europe?  Maybe.

The interesting thing I struggle with here though, isn’t that more MLS options for creative/offensive American players in MLS is a bad thing – surely not – but the suggestion that including international players alongside them stunts their growth.   Yes, there are only so many positions on the field, thus limiting overall chances when there’s an experienced foreign international player.

However, I’d be curious to measure (impossible, of course) what difference Carlos Valderamma made on Steve Ralston’s game.   Or what effect Guillermo Barros Schelotto is having on Eddie Gaven or Robbie Rodgers?  Etc.  Etc.

Hey, there are other successful clubs that do this, why not in Philly?

Examples of Chivas Guadalajara and Athletic Bilbao are given to prove that an “all local” team can survive or even thrive.  The problem I see is that – that both Chivas and Athletic have a terrific feeder system and development capability (or at least, I suspect so) by which they can source (grow? groom?) local talent.   (Especially Athletic, since Chivas can “buy” good Mexican talent more easily than Athletic can “buy” good Basque talent.)    MLS clubs development and youth programs are nascent, to be kind, and far from reliable.   This presents a significant hurdle since one American-only club will have trouble out-bidding others for American talent in MLS.

So I’m against this “All American Team” thing, right?

No, not at all.  In fact, in “What is a ‘Chivas’ anyway?” I suggested that – in a very different direction than the go-America theme – maybe Chivas USA blew it when they gave up their ambitious All-Latino goal.   Why not have a themed team?

Brent rightly calls out some risks – but leans heavily on the “marketing value” associated with “Team USA” as a saving grace.   That however, might be the biggest risk.  Do US fans still need some convincing that American players are the headliners?   David Beckham isn’t here just because he hits good crosses and free-kicks, now is he?

Marketability – as well as capability – would be key to building such a team.   I suspect Freddy Adu (“Wunderkind comes Home”) is looking for playing time.     Maybe Jermaine Jones (“Loves the USA so much he dumped Germany!”) is interested?

The Soccer Talent Drain Matters. (Sort of…)

The bad thing about having a “real job” is that I don’t blog about the beautiful game as much as I’d like. There is a silver lining though, I get to ignore lots of topics that are only marginally interesting to me and rather focus on some more interesting theories.

I decided to sit down for a few minutes and think about an article that for blogger standards is ancient (August 26) but that struck a chord for me. That article is Jeff Carlisle’s piece at ESPN about what many suggest is a key factor holding US Soccer back on the world stage, the idea that our “best” athletes are siphoned away from soccer by the more lucrative (and loved) basketball, football, etc. Seeing that there are over 300 comments on this article, I’m clearly not alone in finding the topic of interest.  I recommend you give Jeff’s piece a read, and as such I won’t recount all of the interesting ideas posted there.

I admit that I’ve long held the easy to grab belief that if our best athletes were soccer players we’d be in a much better place than we are today. However I was glad someone added to that discussion by at least asking some tough questions about the other factors that play into success.

I too realize that I am somewhat of a hypocrite with this view, in that I yearn for the beautiful game and find as much – or more – value in a visionary pass or incredible first touch as I do a break-away sprint. Carlos Valderamma could orchestrate more beautiful soccer standing still for a full game than most of the young mobile athletes of today. Xavi of Barcelona could probably fit inside Oguchi Onyewu’s shoe, yet pulls the strings for one of today’s best clubs. Does anyone remember Arshavin’s Euro Campaign? And without needing to qualify this: College Soccer. Clearly, it’s not so simple that better, bigger, stronger athletes would equal success.

That admission is where many leave the debate, as they figure this disqualifies the “better athletes” view of what “could have been.” They suggest that without the proper soccer “culture” the overall level of athletes added to the pool does not drastically change anything. While I agree what is clearly lacking in this country is a soccer mentality, a soccer “culture” – as many would describe it – I am not sure that this disqualifies the idea that if the best US athletes chose soccer it would lead to success.

First there’s the simple numbers game.  The more talented athletes that play soccer the more likely you are to find some stars among them.

Second there’s the idea that skills matter MORE than size and strength. However, what if that wasn’t a tradeoff? What if there was size AND skill. Anyone watch Didier Drogba recently?

That leaves us with the culture conversation – and our inability to “create” skillful soccer players in abundance. I think we need to simply understand that our sports culture will never be the same as that of other nations, meaning whatever “soccer culture” we could create would be equally different.

One thing that the US always responds to is something perceived to be the “best” – which can be seen when comparing the interest “World Football Challenge” (pre-season Euro teams selling tickets and jerseys) versus MLS games (our domestic league) or why it appears more people excited to see ESPN showing Premier League games than MLS games. I’d submit it also plays in the lagging interest in MLS (at least as attendances go) this year . . . as fans refocus their recession-affected wallets only on the “best” sports, athletes and experiences that they can.

If we lived in some parallel universe where soccer WAS the premier sport in the US (which I think would have happened if all the best athletes were historically playing it) in the country (as it is in many – if not most – other countries), it would be the place where people turned to see the crème de la crème. It would get the front-page arguments about lineups, about style, about what makes a good soccer team great. Today, those arguments are found in a corner of a major sports outlet’s site, a blog or 100 comments deep on someone’s article. Meanwhile, page one talks about how many times the same quarterback can retire.

Would success come if the “best” athletes weren’t pulled away to more “tier one” sports? Yes. Just not for pure athleticism’s sake (though I hardly see how it could hurt.) Instead, having the best athletes playing the sport would – I submit – build a soccer culture based on totally different values (quest for fame/wealth, need to be the best) than what makes Brazilian soccer (need to escape Favelas?) or any other leading nation successful.

If the MLS Cup was the Super Bowl? The College National Championship referred to “futbol” not football? If March Madness had ‘extra time?’ If our Olympic “Dream Team” fielded 11, not five?

Kids in inner cities that turn to basketball and bring creative playing and a deep desire to the NBA would instead be kicking a ball instead of shooting hoops in hope of getting out of their current situations.   Latino fans and players would find it easier to jump allegiances to US teams as they jump North of the border.   We’d have a player pool that would be difficult for any other country to match – soccer power or otherwise.

In that pretend world we’d be the best I think, and maybe the most skillful as well.

The problem is, I don’t see a simple path to that place from where we are today.

US Men v. El Salvador: The glass is half…

Since thinking through results of soccer matches require a fair bit of perspective, and I’m often in need of some emotional detachment . . . I’m going to try offering a view double-sided view  of the US v. El Salvador game (and maybe others)  via a glass half-empty vs. glass half-full analogy.

(With this game, I am doubly drawn to a “halfway” view of an analysis, since that’s about how much of the game I saw . . . due to a significant (and certainly user-error-driven) mistake in DVR planning.)

Glass Half Full View

  • USA won a critical three points, just as they needed to and remains on track for qualification.
  • If it were not for some phantom calls (Dempsey-to-Jozy?) and a mis-hit breakaway (a tired Dempsey) this could easily have been 4 to 1
  • Seeing Davies and Altidore up there as a growing tandem warms the heart
  • In counter-attacks (and some pure passing motions) we often move quickly, precisely and are hard to deal with going forward
  • Presuming Charlie Davies isn’t badly injured, we got out of Salt Lake City without any yellow card or injury trouble (that we didn’t come in with)
  • CONCACAF referees are not what we would like them to be, and if there’s a karma issue here, hopefully we spent a good deal of the mystery call voo-doo that was coming our way in this game

Glass Half Empty View

  • We are incapable of keeping possession and managing a game against even presumed lesser teams – scenes from Azteca in midfield all over again, no possession . . . meaning any precise attacking sequences occur far to infrequently and the defense is constantly under pressure
  • Left-back roulette continues with the unspectacular Bornstein, the (club) homeless Pearce and the often-recalled-to-center-back Bocanegra . . . can Castillo or Orozco help?
  • Central defense was OK, if not over-powering . . . but if Onyewu is the answer we may be in for a wild ride (poor pre-season with AC Milan for my money, and hasn’t been playing since heading to Italy)
  • Qualifying just got incredibly interesting, especially now that Mexico has remembered how to play soccer . . . 3-0 at Costa Rica?  Ouch.
  • If this is indeed the best players we have in the country (and I’d have trouble naming an altogether different bunch)  and we continue to give up early goals and cannot control against CONCACAF minnows . . . is the coaching door really closed until after the World Cup?

Wednesday night’s game versus Trinidad and Tobago might tell us if we are full, empty, or in need of a new glass altogether.

Also, I wanted to point out a great blog over at the excellent No Short Corners.    Always on my must-read list, this particular post covers Colombia’s victory (always close my heart after the USA), the decisions against Arsenal and Chelsea this week and a very interesting commentary on the shady Jack Warner, the Trinidadian who is CONCACAF President.