New Expectations: What Is Realistic For the USMNT In South Africa?
Four years ago was thought to be the "moment" that the Americans finally broke through in the world's game. Hope from a surprise run to the Quarterfinals in 2002 after stunning victories over Portugal and Mexico coupled with a top ten world FIFA ranking meant the United States was finally going to become a world power in the one sport that it could not seem to penetrate.
However, this would not come to pass, as the Group of Death draw which included a powerful Czech team, future champions in Italy and African powerhouse Ghana brought too much talent against a young U.S. team which was limited to one goal and a fortune own goal scored against the Italians.
Supposed superstars in goalie Kasey Keller and 2002 hero Landon Donovan simply did not deliver on the world stage, and the United States was yet again back outside the final 16 watching the knockout rounds from halfway around the world.
Fast-forward until a December night in South Africa, where fate finally shined a favorable face on the United States in the form of a "weak" Group C draw. The USMNT now faces a formidable power in England; however, compared to possible other outcomes, Algeria and Slovenia seem to be competition which is more than favorable for an American advancement into the knockout stages.
Has the United States really finally gotten its wish at a group where it is a powerhouse?
Many U.S. soccer pundits are seemingly regarding the United States as a lock to go to the next round and face a German team on the decline or a possible rematch against Ghana. However, is this anointing premature and are we giving ourselves hope where it is unnecessary?
Weighing the reputation of the United States while comparing the strengths of its qualification run to the talent of its group stage opponents and understanding what really happened one year ago at the Confederations Cup are all reasons why American hope is only expectations from the Yanks themselves, and thus must be tempered.
The United States has certainly grown its reputation in the department of world football, gaining new found respect. American soccer superstars such as Clint Dempsey on Fulham and his spectacular ability to score incredible goals from a wing position or the pace of Donovan on the right side for Everton at the beginning of this year are to thank for this new belief of the American's ability to produce world talent.
The thin talent pool does not outweigh the negatives of the American's game when it comes to world football. But the weak domestic league of Major League Soccer often thought about as a retirement home for former European All-stars (see Beckham,David or Ljunberg, Freddie) and a weak qualifying league under the Caribbean and North American zone has resulted in an "ultimate underdog" label for the United States. World respect is earned in the beautiful game, not given and the country simply has not earned it yet.
A true evaluation of prospective is necessary before committing to the thought that the United States is a lock to make the next round. Four years ago, the United States reached as high as fourth in the FIFA World Rankings and were believed to be growing in the world's game. Now a more realistic rank of 14th is present for the U.S., meaning prospects shouldn't nearly be as high as they were before the slaughter of 2006.
The United States won their qualifying group; however, they lost their two hardest games, at Costa Rica and Mexico and barely tied the Ticos on a cold October night in Washington D.C.
By comparison, group rivals, 23rd ranked Slovenia made the World Cup out of a European qualifying stage including a Czech team which annihilated the United States only four years ago and eliminated a strong Russian team in a playoff. You would be hard-pressed to find a Slovenian that would be disappointed to play an American team over other teams in pot two, namely Asian powers Australia or South Korea or even the American's biggest rival in Mexico.
Furthermore, America's prime strength at goalkeeper in Tim Howard is arguably surpassed by Slovenia in Udinese man Samir Handanovic who has almost single-handily carried his team away from relegation in Series A this year.
Eighth Ranked England is a team chalked-full of World XI who's lack of injuries and great in-form play means a win against the Three Lions would be nothing short of the miracle that happened sixty years ago. American ignorance is quick to point out the injury to Beckham; however, it is arguable that he would have even made the team over midfield stalwarts Frank Lampard or Steven Gerard, outside of the current management position he seems destined to receive.
Even 31st ranked Algeria, the "minnows" of the group beat African champions Egypt in-route to their arrival at the World Cup finals, meaning they carry the ability to make a major upset against any other contender in the group. The squad is riddled with European talent such as Portsmouth winger Nadir Belhadj creating a situation where a goal can be created from any position. Consider that group C is widely thought of to be a weak group because the United States are in it, and not the other way around.
So what of this sudden thought process that the United States is a budding superpower? New found hope exists thanks to a historic win a year ago over then number one ranked Spain in the Confederations Cup in South Africa. However, Americans highlighting this event as a prospect of hope are quick to ignore certain facts about the competition itself.
When looking more closely at even this event, it is realized the United States only won two of a possible five games including two crushing defeats to world powers in Brazil and Italy. A lucky set of circumstances allowed for even the match against Spain before America was brought back to Earth in a crushing loss to the Brazilians in the final. Furthermore, this event is still not the "World Cup", it's simply an equivalent to Spring Training in baseball.
The best way to cheering for the "MNT" is to believe in winning, but do not expect it actually happening. Sure, we didn't draw the Ivory Coast and France along with England, but that doesn't mean we should expect great things.
A reputation that is only seen through American eyes along with a group much tougher than it seems and the false promise created by the Confederations Cup are all reasons that America is gaining a false reputation at home of getting "a shot" at world glory. Expectations need to be lowered so the world's game can be viewed through positive eyes, regardless of outcome. As an American, it is hard to imagine another disappointing World Cup, but the U.S. is simply not ready for its "moment".
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