In 1998 the United States had an "off" World Cup, to say the least, finishing (statistically) dead last out of 32 teams. In 2002 they had a decent World Cup, playing two mostly excellent games (against Portugal and Germany), recording only two victories in five games (against a surprised Portugal and a superior Mexico side), and managing to coast on good fortune the rest of the time. The (American) media like to rattle on about USA's #5 FIFA rating for the United States (which every soccer fan knows is merely indicative of the ranking system's faults, and in no way accurately reflects our footballing status). The fact that they made it to the quarterfinals last time just inflates fairweather fans' sense of what the American team can and should do.
I wasn't expecting a semi-final finish this time around, nor even a quarterfinal repeat. I understand that soccer talent doesn't spring up overnight. I didn't expect to see the United States advance to the Round of 16 after seeing their tough draw, and I still don't expect them to work miracles after today's match against the Czech Republic.
But some things are just too much. Here is my advice for the United States, who play Italy on Saturday:
Pass the ball even slower. You all were passing it pretty slowly in the Czech game, but I bet you'll perform better if you crank up the lethargy. The same goes for your feet. I saw a lot of standing around, but if we're going to win soccer games and the respect of the footballing world, we'll have to do more sauntering. Heels on the ground! As for moving into space and opening up for teammates. You barely did that against the Czechs, and I don't see how you could minimalize on this front any more. So good job at being the best on 'static football,' which I hear is all the rage at Ajax right now. And whatever you do, don't even try to pretend that you want the ball, you want to win, you want to play. It's clear from this game that you didn't, and I'm OK and you're OK with that.
(Eddie Johnson, you're somewhat exempt from the above sarcasm. You made something of an effort. As for the rest of you guys, it pains me to say it because I think some of you are fantastic, but this match was well below what anyone should just chalk up to a tough break, for any of you.)
All in all, it was one of the more embarrassing games I've seen a squad play at the World Cup level, and it's sad because I have been pulling for my fellow Americans so genuinely these years, and will continue to do so, as painful as it gets. But they were outclassed in every conceivable way by the Czechs, by huge margins. I expected Nedved & Co. to beat them. I also expected them to put up a fight. It's possible for USA to beat Ghana, and they do actually have the skill to perhaps top Italy if the Americans play a phenomenal game and the Italians stumble just a bit. We're not dead yet. But it's a prerequisite for this fan's respect for the team to play with some heart, which they resoundingly did not do today. And I see no reason why I should be optimistic about Saturday's game. It could very easily be another 3:0 trouncing from a dangerous Italian side.
The Czech Republic deserve praise for playing an excellent match--they're an extraordinary team.
World Cup highlights so far: watching Mexico beat Iran (and reach my personal score prediction of 3:1) while eating tacos and drinking cervezas in a local taqueria with friends; seeing Germany play their exciting opener; gradually starting to root for Trinidad & Tobago. Disappointments included Ghana's loss and Ivory Coast's loss, and also seeing that Portugal fizzled after some really fast and exciting play against Angola. (I didn't see the Netherlands/Serbia game.)