Much like figure skating, gymnastics and the pole vault, the calendar says it’s been four years, so it’s time for us Ugly Americans to care about soccer, too.
For the pretentious, passionate soccer fans who thumb their noses at the rest of us heathens who don’t get or like the world’s most popular sport, now is your time. We get it — you’re better than us.
The not-for-profit Federation International of Bribery and Corruption’s (FIFA) World Cup begins today in Brazil, and we can see just how far we’ve come as a nation in a sport that, in this country, has been known more for its soccer moms than its soccer players. Personally, I’m a sucker for this thing because, between the fans, the players and the international crooks running this event, it’s usually a delicious train wreck.
But if you listen to the head coach of the U.S. men’s soccer team, we’re toast.
“We cannot win this World Cup because we are not at that level yet,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann told The New York Times. “Realistically, it’s not possible.”
Ladies and gentleman, Knute Rockne.
Klinsmann, who has not backed down from these statements, is not alone in these sentiments.
Peter Luccin of France is a 35-year-old midfielder for FC Dallas with extensive international experience.
“I am sorry, but I don’t think the USA will go to the next round,” he told me.
Despite the increasing popularity of the sport in the U.S., its growth since we hosted the World Cup in 1994 and the presence and expansion of the MLS, our expectations should not be much higher than those of the head coach. The fact we’re here remains the gold standard for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
“It used to be we never [qualified] for the World Cup and now we are doing that all the time,” said FC Dallas defenseman Stephen Keel, who is from Colorado.
If you play, the goal is to win … unless you’re the head coach. Until our players feel and breathe this game, the way our kids do baseball, basketball and football, rather than act like a series of well-coached robots, just making the tournament and maybe advancing to the final 16 or eight will have to suffice as a great WC. Until then, the mighty USA with all of its resources is just about as good as tiny countries like Ghana or Uruguay.
Until this sport matters and is ingrained in our psyche, which requires generations, it won’t matter how much money we spend on soccer, or how many teams are in the MLS. It will — and likely always will — be a giant niche sport no different than hockey.
“I’m talking about the concepts and strategy of soccer in the mind,” Luccin said. “It is getting better every year here, but it’s different. The Brazilians, the Europeans, they feel the game and think the game in a different way. It’s a part of them.”
One of the more popular perceptions about the evolution of U.S. soccer is that our best athletes are still choosing football, basketball or baseball. That may be true to an extent, but it’s not as if the USMNT is a collection of stiffs. Some of this is a coaching issue.
Too often too many coaches in youth sports stop plays and players rather than just letting them play. Too often coaches want to stop and listen to themselves talk rather than trust a kid to figure some of this out on his own.
“Quality games make such a difference. They are getting that at a younger age now more than ever before here,” FC Dallas president Dan Hunt said. “We [at FC Dallas] have adopted the philosophy of letting kids play. There always seemed to be a coach wanting to stop and interject something. I know that is important in football and baseball and maybe that mentality has carried over.
“The truth is the kids just need to play. There is never an identical play. It’s free-flowing, creative and genius. We sent a group to France and they were amazed how they let their kids just play. We want to see them solve the problems and work it out among themselves.”
This tweak in coaching philosophy will undoubtedly help, but Hunt hit on something bigger — quality games. The best, quickest, way to improve is to play someone who is going to beat your butt. Since the original Dream Team in basketball played in the Olympics in 1992, it’s no coincidence that the international basketball scene has improved dramatically — even pulling off an upset or two against the Americans.
That’s the best the U.S. can hope for right now in the World Cup — an upset or two. Our fearless leader has told not to expect much more, so we won’t as we collectively watch a sport that the vast majority of Americans pay attention to as frequently as gymnastics, figure skating and the pole vault.
Follow Mac Engel on The Big Mac Blog at star-telegram.com/sports/.