Thursday, July 12, 2007

Cup Check

Don't look now, but between: (1) last night's 2-1 victory over Uruguay, which put the U.S. into the quarterfinals of the under-20 World Cup; and (2) last month's Gold Cup victory over Mexico, the U.S. soccer program might be on its way to setting a new Top 5 high-water mark. What, you might ask, is the current Top 5?

5. 1950 World Cup: U.S. 1-0 England

Yeah, you read that right. The U.S. actually beat England at the '50 cup. There's a bit of an asterisk here, as the game was played in Brazil, and travel from London to South America was no joke back then. Still, the win was contemporaneously viewed as a huge upset.

The U.S. team (which was largely made up of recent immigrants) promptly loses its next match, goes home, and watches their kids become shortstops.

4. 1994 World Cup: We Get a Man Killed

FIFA awards the '94 Cup hosting responsiblities to the U.S. in much the same way that the Mormons send missionaries to the South Pacific: in the vain hope that exposure to The Truth will somehow distract the residents of paradise from their heathen pursuits.

The U.S. team responds by making it out of the group stage with a 1-1-1 record most notable for a win over Colombia driven by a Colombian own-goal. The guy who scored that goal is promptly gunned down upon his return to Colombia, which probably doesn't do much to convince the average American of the virtues of the "Beautiful Game."

3. 1990: The Shot Heard 'Round The World (Except in the U.S.)

Paul Caligiuri scores a fantastic goal in Trinidad to qualify the U.S. for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. No U.S. sports fans notice, and the team is run off the field at the '90 Cup in Italy.

However, aspiring sportswriters around the country see the AP datelines from the matches and realize that, if they begin covering the U.S. soccer team, there's a chance that they could make work-funded trips to Trinidad and Italy. Domestic coverage of the U.S. soccer team increases exponentially.
2. 1981: Bill Simmons Watches "Victory" for the First Time

The movie becomes, along with 90210 and Joe the Alcoholic Counter Guy, one of the lynchpins of the Sports Guy empire.

1. 2002 World Cup: Vague Respectability

The U.S. plays exactly 35 minutes of good soccer at the tournament: the first 25 minutes of its first game, in which it carjacks a complacent Portuguese team to the tune of a 3-0 lead; and 10 minutes worth of sporadic counter-attacks against Mexico, which lead to a 2-0 win in the Sweet Sixteen.

OK, that's actually unfair--the team played well against Germany in the quarters, and were unlucky not to take the match into extra time. But the world tends to remember results, and Portugal and Mexico were the team's best-ever results in a major tournament.

And that's why we might be on the verge of a new high.

The U.S. beat Mexico in the (North America/Carribean Championship) Gold Cup final for the first time ever, using guile (a quasi-dive that led to a penalty kick) and skill (a fantastic volleyed goal) to win. Both guile and skill have traditionally been in short supply for the U.S., which tends to rely on effort and stamina.

And now the under-20 team is putting on the first genuine display of football in U.S. history. Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore have each scored classy goals. The team beat Brazil 2-1 in the group stages, and, shockingly, deserved the win.

Even in last night's shaky display against Uruguay the team showed more composure on the ball, best exemplified by a moment from late in extra time when the U.S. was trying to hold the lead. The U.S. central defender hoofed a ball out wide in his own end to Michael Bradley. Rather than just hammer it downfield, where it would go right back to Uruguay, Bradley settled it, beat one Uruguayan attacker with a juke, and carried the ball upfield. That would NEVER happen in the past.

This U-20 team could actually make a run. So pay attention (and ignore the JV team's Copa America shellacking--we basically punted that tournament). The quarterfinal match against Austria is on Saturday, and the matches are being televised on Galavision. Why not us?

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