Great Expectations of U.S. Soccer
Great expectations of U.S. soccer
Sean Wheelock / Fox Soccer Channel
For those of us who began avidly following the United States before 1990, Wednesday's 2-1 victory away to Trinidad & Tobago seems like something of a dream.
It wasn't just that the U.S. won their opening match in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification, it's that they did it with such poise, confidence, and relative ease, in a pretty difficult place to gain a result.
Now, I'm not kidding myself into thinking that beating Trinidad & Tobago in Port of Spain is like defeating France in Paris or Brazil in Sao Paulo, but a win away from home in CONCACAF is a quality win. And until relatively recently, they didn't happen all that often for the U.S.
Last week, I interviewed Bob Gansler about America's victory vs. Trinidad & Tobago, which resulted in qualification for the 1990 World Cup. The U.S. of course was not supposed to win that match, or even come close to giving the Soca Boyz an actual challenge.
At the time it ranked as this country's biggest win in international soccer since the 1-0 defeat of England at the 1950 World Cup. Now, not even a generation later, I am going to treat a 2-1 victory in Port of Spain as, dare I write this, expected. Has American soccer really come that far?
I'm actually bracing myself for the columns and comments of the soccer media who will proclaim that the U.S. wasn't dominant enough in that match; that the scoreline should have been more decisive. Perhaps they should be reminded of the years 1951 through 1988 when wins, home or away, were neither plentiful nor expected.
As the United States closes in on a fifth consecutive World Cup appearance, it's important to consider a time not that long ago, when even one trip to soccer's biggest event would have been regarded as a miracle. In fact, the berth in Italia 1990 was considered just that. Now a place in Germany 2006 is not only expected, it's demanded.
As I watched the match develop from Port of Spain, I could scarcely believe how comfortable and dominant the U.S. squad looked. I had to continually remind myself that Trinidad & Tobago is a very solid squad, with a Premiership goalkeeper, Shaka Hislop of Portsmouth; a defender who starts for Rangers, Marvin Andrews; and two of the best strikers to come out of CONCACAF in the past 20 years, Dwight Yorke and Stern John.
I also had to remind myself that Queen's Park Oval in Port of Spain is a very difficult place for an away side to play, as they have to contend with passionate supporters, sweltering temperatures and a pitch, used predominately for cricket, that is both massive, and well, not exactly of the highest standard. Yet, here was the U.S., dominating the match, and looking very much the favorites.
The United States is now into its fourth year unbeaten by a CONCACAF nation. For this cycle of World Cup Qualification, the U.S. has outscored the opposition 21-6. Against the two biggest rivals in the Confederation, Mexico and Costa Rica, America has lost just two of its last 13 matches.
This country has players at clubs in the highest divisions in England, Germany, and Holland, some of whom can't even make the current squad. And yet, with all of this evidence, it still comes as something of a highly pleasant surprise to see the U.S. so comfortably handle a match like the one on Wednesday.
I know that when at full-strength (or even close to it), the United States is a world-class squad, capable of beating any nation. I just have to pinch myself to believe it on occasion. Why?
Deep down, I think that all of us who support the U.S. squad, with a memory that pre-dates World Cup 1994, worry about becoming spoiled and complacent. We don't want to take any success for granted.
But perhaps in the evolution of a soccer nation, results need to be expected, not just hoped for. Wins should be treated as commonplace, even those away from home in a World Cup Qualifier. Were Brazilians really surprised when their team won the last World Cup? Of course not, they would have been surprised to lose.
It's going to take some time for me to affect this "ho-hum, another U.S. victory" pose. Next time out, I'll try to act as though I knew that this would be the case, so there's nothing to get that worked up over. But for now, I'll revel in the fact that the U.S. has gone away from home in a World Cup qualifier, and emerged victorious.
Come to think of it, next time out is away to Mexico, and a positive result will make me deliriously happy, thus blowing my cover.
I think it's going to take some time to become a complacent American soccer fan. My memory is just too long and vivid, but my expectations are slowing moving on up.