World Cup wipeout obscures U.S. growth


America's interest in world soccer is back in the suitcase for another four years, and we're left to make sense of Team USA's failure to win a game at the 2006 World Cup.

It is being deemed a crushing disappointment by many fans and observers because expectations had never been higher, thanks to the Americans' surprising run to the Cup quarterfinals four years ago and their No. 5 world ranking heading into this year's tournament.

There's no denying the American players and coach Bruce Arena laid an egg (one American-footed goal in 270 minutes?) and there's no doubt the sport's American decision-makers need to take a hard look at how and why it happened, but when you stand back and take the longer view, the situation isn't quite so dire.

Yes, the U.S. team was out of whack in Germany, but those great expectations were even more out of whack. America was, is and probably will always be a middle-class soccer nation.

If you really believed we had the world's fifth-best team, you've probably attempted one too many headers.

FIFA, soccer's worldwide governing body, maintains the world rankings, and let's just say the formula needs an overhaul. In a hurry. College football's dubious Bowl Championship Series formula looks infallible by comparison.

FIFA's May rankings had Team USA ahead of such powers as Argentina, England, Italy and Germany (Nos 9, 10, 13 and 19, respectively), all of which are always better than Team USA, and all of which advanced out of group play in the 2006 Cup, to no one's surprise. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic (No. 2) and Mexico (No. 4) were near the top.

I'm wondering if FIFA just picked the country names out of a hat, because that's how much sense it all made.

Team USA at No. 5 makes sense only as an exaggerated referendum on how far American soccer has come in the past two decades, because it has come a long way, 2006 Cup notwithstanding. Take it from someone who covered the old North American Soccer League, where franchises had to rent entire rosters of European players because there weren't enough capable Americans, and someone who also covered the 1990 World Cup, in which Team USA consisted of a bunch of overmatched college kids:

American soccer is way, way better than it used to be.

Three lousy performances by the national team should never be construed as a reflection on the entirety of the sport in America, which encompasses millions of players and a slew of winning junior national teams. Yes, what happened in Germany was disappointing, but the soccer infrastructure here is much more sophisticated and competitive with the rest of the world's than it was two decades ago. It is always grooming a new generation of world-class players, which was never the case until recently.

Having been a bottom feeder less than two decades ago, America is now one of the many middle-class soccer nations that can fare well in the World Cup if things break right, and can also fare poorly if things go against it. Getting to the semifinals would be a colossal achievement. (See: Korea, 2002.) Winning the whole thing? Sorry, that's what the Brazils and Germanys do.

In those and other top soccer countries, where the sport is beloved, the national pastime, soccer recruits a majority of the nation's best athletes. American soccer would need to do the same to become an equal, and given its relatively lukewarm popularity here compared to football, baseball and basketball, that's not going to happen.

So what do you do? Root for a little magic, a moment of brilliance, some good fortune. That's what happened in 2002, when Team USA upset Portugal and played well enough to advance, drew a beatable opponent (Mexico) in the first knockout game and scored a 2-0 victory - the only win in U.S. World Cup history in a non-preliminary round game.

But the breaks that went the Americans' way in 2002 went against them in 2006. They drew an especially tough group with Italy, Ghana and the Czech Republic. There was a bad call against them vs. Ghana, a call that resulted in the penalty-kick goal that gave Ghana the victory.

But luck and scheduling aside, the Americans just weren't good enough to advance this time. Their offense was bland throughout the three games. They were tenacious against Italy but mostly played with little spark. Ghana deserved to beat them.

It doesn't mean the sport is going backward here, as some surely will suggest. It just means the time probably has come for a new generation of players to take over. And it means the expectations won't be as high for the 2010 Cup, which is for the best.

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