When the alarm went off at 4:55 a.m. that morning four years ago, I instantly sensed my inner dread mingling with my stupor. In five minutes the U.S. soccer team would kick off its first World Cup match in Korea, and four years of waiting, hopes and dreams for this country’s burgeoning soccer clan might quickly be exposed as little more than an advanced case of wishful thinking.
I had been in Paris four years earlier for the U.S.A.’s World Cup opener when, just minutes into the game, a sharp German elbow into the gut of America’s best player, Claudio Reyna, knocked the stuffing out of the whole team. It was a blow from which our lads never recovered, at least not during their French sojourn. The United States exited that ’98 World Cup 0 for 3—and ranked a humiliating 32nd out of 32 teams in the competition. I saw all three American games and left France completely dispirited about our country’s soccer future.
Portugal, the opponent that fretful morning in Korea four years later, was not quite as physically intimidating a squad as the Germans. Still, it was an immensely skilled group that was just as capable of sending the Yanks reeling toward World Cup ignominy. In our fantasies, U.S. fans dreamed of maybe a tie. But, in truth, we believed that our best—and perhaps only—hope would come in the following two matches against a couple of teams more our measure, South Korea and Poland.
I turned on the television, keeping the sound down low as the sole courtesy I extended toward my sleeping wife. I was simply too skittish to venture far from the cocoonish comfort of my bed, where, if necessary, I could pull the sheets over my head and spare myself the sight of another nightmarish performance. It turned out to be my wife who required protection. Scant minutes into the game she was startled by the ringing phone—given the hour, a harbinger, she suspected, of bad news. What other possible reason would anyone have to call at that ungodly hour?
My wife, it turns out, doesn’t have a very good grasp of World Cup fever. Over the next half hour, the phone rang off the hook—a steady chirping of good news, or at least confirmation from my soccer brethren around the country that the scene I was witnessing on TV was not an elaborate practical joke played on me. By the time, just 36 minutes into the game, Brian McBride scored to put the U.S. on top 3-0, even my wife had surrendered to the delirium of my delight.
Had more folks here cared, let alone been awake, to witness that stunning 3-2 victory, then perhaps that game might now be immortalized as our “Miracle on Turf.” It helped propel the U.S. team into the second round where it dominated its fiercest rival, Mexico, and then onto a memorable quarter-final game against Germany, where only a few tough bounces and one very bad noncall by the referee prevented a monumental upset.
On Friday, the World Cup, a global celebration of which we here in the U.S. are finally starting to partake, begins anew in Germany. Three days later in Gelsenkirchen, at the decidedly civilized hour of noon, the United States will once again take the field as an underdog—though never before as less of one—against the Czech Republic. There are scenarios in which the U.S. could lose its opener and still become one of the two teams in its four-team group to reach the second round. It might forge a tie against cautious, defense-minded Italy in its second game; then it might thump Ghana, a talented team, but one that could be reeling from back-to-back losses to the European powers. (And at the same time we would have to pray for the Czechs to thrash Italy.)
There are more possible scenarios by which the Americans could reach the second round, but don’t hold out hope for any of them. These exist so that losing coaches can proclaim with a straight face after an opening loss, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” In fact, the World Cup becomes a marathon only after you are successful in that opening sprint. Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner looked at the last two World Cups and found that only one of the 23 teams that lost their first game made it past the first round. (In 2002 Turkey lost its opener to Brazil but survived to lose to them again in the semis.)
The nine other opening matches in those two cups resulted in ties, a happier fate for those looking to advance to the second round; 11 of 18 teams that managed a single point from a tie (in the first round of the World Cup system, a win is worth three points and a tie one; the top two teams in each group of four advance to play single-elimination games the rest of the way) escaped group play and reached the round of 16. The American team has demonstrated how critical that first game is in each of the last four World Cups. In 1990 in Italy, the just-happy-to-be-in-its-first-World-Cup-in-four-decades U.S. team opened against Czechoslovakia and was run off the field 5-1—and soon after out of the tournament. Four years later, the host Americans stole a 1-1 tie from a superior Swiss team and snuck into the second round. The loss to Germany in the ’98 opener marked the end, the victory over Portugal in ’02 just the beginning.
So where does it leave the U.S. team this time around? Residing somewhere in between the proverbial rock and hard place they’ve occupied since last December, when America was drawn unluckily into one of the two groups that warrant the sobriquet “Group of Death.” Since history suggests the Italians will muddle through to the second round regardless of whom they draw or even how they play, the Czech opener looms as the critical match for the Americans. They need at least a tie, and that is no easy task against a team ranked second in the world. The U.S. can no longer sneak up on anybody like they did Portugal, not when they themselves are ranked fifth (even if it’s a fifth inflated by many games against weak opposition).
The Czechs are big and physically gifted, a powerful attacking team that is lethal in the air and extremely dangerous on set plays. Still, the U.S. is faster and fitter, an advantage that may be magnified by playing the Czech Republic early while several of its key players are battling injuries. Moreover, while the Czechs are a seasoned, veteran team—older than the U.S. team on average—not a single Czech player has competed in the World Cup. Half the American squad and most of its starting lineup have been there before. I haven’t met a soccer authority, player or otherwise, who doesn’t believe that World Cup experience is unique and, thus, a plus for our side—especially in the first game.
U.S. team manager Bruce Arena has the longest tenure of any of the 32 coaches in this World Cup. That is not because he is a uniquely brilliant strategist (though his game plans are usually well conceived). Rather it is his inspired grasp of the American psyche that has transformed his team. Once saddled with an inferiority complex, America’s soccer elite now believes it can compete on the pitch with anybody. “Would I bet that we would beat Brazil?” says American star Landon Donovan, the key man in the U.S. attack. “Nine out of ten times, no. But can we beat Brazil? Absolutely!”
This time a victory over the Czechs would suffice and very likely produce a second-round matchup with those fearsome Brazilians. Simply getting to the second round might be enough to enhance the U.S. team’s prospects for years to come. Seeding for the 2006 World Cup was based on the past two World Cup cycles, and the U.S. team just missed out on one of the eight seeds, a penalty for that dismal showing in France eight years ago. A second straight World Cup success might help lock up a seed in the 2010 tournament in South Africa, assuring an easier draw (by avoiding pairings with the other top seeds like Italy, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, England) and boosting the prospects of success. Instead of anticipating the next juggernaut, it would be nice for a change to worry about the perils of overconfidence opening up against a team like Togo or Saudi Arabia.
Regardless of the outcome Monday, the future of soccer in the U.S. is no longer at issue. Soccer is now firmly entrenched as a core element of the American sports culture. And with our sizeable population, our expansive youth programs and the growing Hispanic presence here, the American national team is destined to become an international power of the first rank. That should hardly be surprising. If the world can beat us at our games, like basketball and baseball, surely we will ultimately beat them at theirs.