Americans Lag Behind World’s Elite Teams
Published: Friday, September 7, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 7, 2012 00:09
The No. 33 squad in the FIFA World Rankings, the U.S. men’s soccer team will take on Jamaica today in the third of its six semifinal-round World Cup qualifying matches. Some have dubbed the team’s low ranking undeserved, while others have argued that it’s just right.
Right or not, the fact remains that — after a win over Antigua and Barbuda and a tie with Guatemala — the Americans are considered inferior to 32 other teams around the world. And the bitter irony is that Algeria and Slovenia, both of which the United States acquitted itself well against in 2010’s World Cup, are ranked above the United States.
So what merits such a harsh and seemingly unjust ranking?
They’ve lost just one of nine games played in 2012, beating Italy and Mexico in the process. They’ve exhibited stout defense and tempo control just about every time they’ve taken to the pitch. Thirty-third? That number is infuriating — and humbling.
Let’s throw it into context. The No. 33 basketball team in the world is South Korea. The No. 33 baseball team in the world is a tie between Brazil and Sri Lanka.
Granted, soccer is more universally played — though other sports are cutting into the gap — so a direct parallel to other world rankings is inherently skewed.
Nonetheless, the Americans can only have one response to their ranking: “Not good enough.”
The return of bona fide superstar Clint Dempsey, just weeks after he wasn’t named to the roster for the 1-0 monumental thriller over Mexico, should help boost the United States’ fortunes.
Dempsey brings a refreshing element to an American attack that has been known to show yawn-inducing stagnancy for long stretches of play. He breaks down defenders in both the open field and crowded penalty areas. His offensive game contains few weaknesses, if any, and his play in recent years puts him in the running for best male soccer player to ever represent the United States.
If the Yanks intend to change their reputation for inconsistency and disappointment, Dempsey will need to embrace the role as main cog in the machine.
However, his return is not the only piece of the puzzle. The team, led by Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann, still lacks a locked-in starting forward. The logical choice would seem to be 22-year-old Jozy Altidore, whose recent return to form in the Netherlands has renewed faith in his standing as one of his country’s best players.
The ancillary is Hérculez Gómez, a 30-year-old Mexican-American whose scrappy style of play embodies everything that American soccer has reluctantly become. Both will have ample time to prove themselves and win their spot. In the words of the late Heath Ledger, “So we’re going to have tryouts.”
For a team in the throes of an identity crisis, a group of young, unproven players will have to step up and make a difference.
Enter Brek Shea, the 22-year-old, blonde-haired phenom and the most promising of the bunch. Apart from his uncanny name and David Beckham-like locks, Shea brings an “it” factor to a team that’s otherwise mostly devoid of one.
“It” in Shea’s case, is his array of intangibles. It’s the concerted effort to invent attacks out of nowhere and shy away from no one. It is also the dissatisfaction with conservative possession and the Magic Johnson-eqsue ability to play any position on the field effectively. Finally, it is a consummate understanding of the idiosyncrasies of the game.
If Shea blossoms, the Americans will be ranked much higher than 33rd.
Jamaica brings to mind “Cool Runnings,” Bob Marley and Usain Bolt, not historic soccer stadiums and World Cup trophies. FIFA tabs their team as 60th in the world.
When the United States meets Jamaica tonight, the Americans must avoid their habit of playing down to opponents. And then it must do so once more, as the two teams meet again in just four days to complete a home-and-home series.
Anything but two wins will validate the 33rd-place ranking and its accompanying tag of irrelevance. If Jamaica wins today, the United States will find itself stuck in the mud on the road to Rio.
Matt Bell is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. FRESH OUT OF PHILLY appears every Friday.