The United States soccer team demonstrated Saturday what its fans had believed all along: that it had enough ability to beat the Czech Republic in its World Cup opener. Unfortunately, that talent combined with a rediscovery of the aggressive style that got the team this far in the first place still wasn’t enough to beat unflappable Italy. But the U.S. did manage to gain-or salvage, depending on your perspective—a 1-1 tie and keep alive its hope of moving on from the first round.
The irony will certainly be noted, at least in this country, that Italy, a country in the midst of one of the worst soccer scandals in history, may have been the beneficiary of the first scandalously bad officiating of this World Cup. Referee Jorge Larrionda issued three red cards, or one fewer than the number given in the 25 previous Cup matches. The first, to Italy, was righteous; when an elbow draws a bloody waterfall, it’s red by definition. But then the Uruguayan ref fell in love with the color and, in the process, took the heart out of America’s central defense. The first boot, to Pablo Mastroeni, was atrocious, the next, to Eddie Pope, was certainly dubious.
When FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, issued its mandate to referees to cut down on dangerous play and the interference that blunts attacks, they probably didn’t have this overreaching performance in mind. It certainly tarnished a rare showcase event for American soccer. But before we conclude that our lads took a royal screwing, pause and do consider that the calls went both ways. The linesmen had the offsides flag up on the Italians all day; most of the calls were clear-cut, but a few of them, halting dangerous attacks, were decidedly questionable.
The bad officiating performance will likely get lost in the larger canvass of a stellar World Cup. But home fans never forget. And if the U.S. team winds up exiting the tournament after Thursday’s final first-round game, there will be four years of grousing-just like there has been about the failure to call a handball against Germany back in 2002.
In the meantime, U.S. soccer fans should not be distracted from the rather remarkable turn of fortune that has blessed their team. Five days after an embarrassing loss to the Czech Republic appeared to write a doom-and-gloom scenario, the U.S. actually has a reasonable chance to advance to the round of 16. That good news has less to do with the improved performance of the Americans than the stunning 2-0 upset of the Czechs by a talented team from Ghana.
Of course, that also means that Thursday’s game against Ghana will hardly be a walkover. Still, here’s the simple scenario required for the U.S. to move on: The team has to beat Ghana while Italy defeats the Czech Republic. (Ignore the other possibility, where the Czechs and Italians tie and the U.S. defeats Ghana by at least five goals; that ain’t going to happen.)
Now it gets a little complicated. Under some circumstances, Italy might be willing to play for a tie against the Czech Republic, since two teams from each group survive and that would assure its advance. But it wouldn’t assure that Italy wins the group. If Italy tied its match and Ghana won, the African team would capture the group while Italy would be the second-place qualifier. And the second-place qualifier faces a likely round-of-16 match-up with Brazil. Because Brazil is a team that should be avoided as long as possible, Italy has an incentive to beat the Czechs. (For the uninitiated, the final games in each group are contested at the same time so that no team has the advantage of knowing a final result.)
At the very least, the devout fans of the U.S. squad will have almost five more days to be one with the world as a part of this singular sporting event. Which is longer than the folks in Poland, Paraguay, Iran or Serbia have enjoyed. With a good performance Thursday, our lads could move into the second round. At the very least, they would maintain American soccer’s respectability. Given how far it has progressed recent years, that’s no small deal.