Bob Ford: U.S. soccer has a long way to go

Posted: June 29, 2010

The eternally half-full glass that is the United States men's national soccer program had another occasionally interesting run through the World Cup. It was certainly more interesting than four years before, when the team was dismissed with hardly a whimper, but still fell far short of the promise made in 2002, when the U.S. team advanced to the quarterfinal round.

As usual, it is difficult to tell if the team - and more broadly, the level of the sport - is still going steadily forward in this country after it was bounced in the second round of the finals by a Ghana squad that is talented but hardly among the game's elite.

Consider: If prior to the tournament, the U.S. team was assured of advancing further than powerful sides like Italy, France and Greece, and of going just as far as England and regional rival Mexico, that might be an outcome the U.S. Soccer Federation would have accepted sight unseen.

But also consider: If given the knowledge that the United States would have a lead for only three minutes of the 390 minutes it would play, would fail to get a goal from a striker for the second straight World Cup finals, and would display an unfortunate tendency to run about without urgency until really pressed, and that might not be as good a showing.

That is what happened, however. The U.S. team did win its group by the fickle mathematics of the round-robin, but needed a dying-light goal from Landon Donovan against a spotty Algerian team in the final group game to avoid elimination and utter embarrassment.

Had the U.S. gone into the second round and found itself matched up against a world power, but played well in a losing effort, the players could have come home with their heads high and their mission mostly accomplished.

Instead, the U.S. was eliminated by Ghana for the second straight World Cup, and they didn't play their best in doing so. They continued their habit of sleepwalking through the first half, fell behind Ghana, rallied decently in the second half to tie, then lost in overtime, when the U.S. looked totally gassed.

"It happens. What are you going to say?" said team captain Landon Donovan, who had three of the team's five goals in the finals.

If that shrugging acceptance is disappointing, it is also not unusual during Donovan's reign as the face of the team and man most responsible for imparting the urgency, not to mention shepherding the ball through the midfield. It would be wrong to blame Donovan entirely for the team's personality, but it's a factor that is hard to ignore.

"Big players play in big minutes. Today, unfortunately, we didn't have enough of those players," said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who had a solid tournament and deserved a better fate.

Head coach Bob Bradley might have lost his best chance to make a real splash in this World Cup when striker Charlie Davies was injured in an automobile accident last year. Davies, in combination with Jozy Altidore, would have given the U.S. a more dangerous set of forwards. They might even have scored a goal.

As it was, the strikers didn't do so, as they haven't since Brian McBride put one in the net against Mexico on June 17, 2002. The U.S. has played nearly 14 hours in World Cup finals matches since that goal, which, by any measure, is a long shutout being pitched against its primary goal scorers.

"That is the greatest challenge in the game, to have someone who can consistently score goals," Bradley said.

Developing a pool of those creative talents has been difficult, and in the words of former national team coach Steve Sampson - who suffered his own embarrassment in France in 1998 - the United States is a "nation of midfielders."

The structured climb up the ziggurat of the national soccer program leads the best young players through elite club teams, youth academies, resident programs, and age-group national teams. That process turns out very sound athletes who are strong on fundamentals and discipline, but can't seem to muster the brilliance in the box of players from those nations whose stars rise from barefoot matches in the street or endless games of pickup in the park.

Those other nations also have the advantage of placing their best athletes on the soccer field. That is not the case in the United States, and a circumstance that doesn't look likely to change any time soon.

Still, that doesn't mean the U.S. can't keep improving and can't put together a squad that needs more than luck and overachieving to really compete for the world's greatest sporting prize.

The soccer federation would do well to rethink some its methods, however, and the result from South Africa should add some motivation. Of course, the result from Germany four years ago should have done the same thing, and the U.S. showed up again this time with essentially the same team-building philosophy and the same indeterminate style of play.

When the best result of the tournament - judging things by world rankings and the level of opponent - is a 1-1 draw with England on a goal that was hardly earned, then it's time for the U.S. soccer hierarchy to put away the noisemakers and get back to work.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or

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