Thursday, June 25, 2009

A big victory for the U.S.

Yesterday was quite the day [Jason Davis, Match Fit USA] for the American national team, as they pulled off a 2-0 defeat of Spain [Chris Nee, twofootedtackle] to advance to the Confederations Cup final. Soccer clashes between the U.S. and Spain are always expected to be lopsided, but this result was even more bizarre considering that Spain were the top-ranked team in the world and the defending European champions, had a international-record 15-straight victories entering the match and were about to break an international record for the longest unbeaten streak (36 games). It's certainly one of the greatest victories ever [George Vecsey, The New York Times] for the American national team, and up there with some of the most unanticipated victories in other sports.

Normally, the Confederations Cup isn't all that important of a tournament. Generally, it's just a test run for the World Cup and an excuse to see a final between the European and South American champions, with maybe a few interesting games against the lesser sides along the way. Even on the rare occasions when other sides have won it (Mexico in 1999) or made the final (Australia in 1997, Japan in 2001, Cameroon in 2003), it hasn't meant a lot, as the sides they beat generally weren't taking it all that seriously. However, the gap between the top sides and the rest seems to have been closing a bit of late, as shown by recent strong performances at the World Cup and the European Championships by the likes of Turkey, Ghana and Australia. Moreover, in this case, Spain were pulling out all the stops in an attempt to extend their streak and advance to the final. They gave it their all, and they came up short.

That doesn't mean that the U.S. is suddenly a better team, though. Anything can happen on any given Wednesday, and in this one, Spain had the majority of the chances. The Americans defended well, throwing themselves in front of shots whenever possible, and goalkeeper Tim Howard was outstanding, but the Spanish could have had two or three goals if their finishing had been a bit more clinical. The U.S. did very well to capitalize on their only chances of the match, but that doesn't all of a sudden put them among the best teams in the world. They're a very good team that, at their best, can compete with the elites, and that's plenty to be proud of right there.

From a Canadian perspective, it's nice to see the U.S. doing well. They're quite a ways ahead of the Canadian team at the moment, but the difference is about as wide as from the American team to the Spanish one: Canada can give them a good game at any time despite the superior talent on the U.S. side. Thus, seeing them do well against top-drawer sides provides hope that Canada can one day do the same. The Canadians have come close at times, most recently in last summer's friendly against Brazil, but there's still a long ways to go.

One other thing to consider is how much popular and media interest there is in the American national team. Almost every general sports newspaper and website in the States was doing something on the game, and even guys who primarily cover other sports were talking excitedly about the game on Twitter. You never see an explosion of interest of that magnitude in the States around any other soccer event, be it MLS, the English Premier League or the UEFA Champions League. For MLS, the quality may be an issue, but that's not the case with the EPL or the Champions League. In my mind, part of it's due to patriotism, but another part of it's due to being able to identify with the team; many Americans don't feel a real connection to a MLS side or a Premiership one, but that isn't an issue with the national team.

It's interesting that there never seems to be anywhere close to this level of popular support around the Canadian national team (see the Gold Cup later this summer for a perfect example; it's been barely mentioned outside of the soccer blogs so far). The soccer writers will cover the team, and a few of the big papers will run recaps from time to time (often just wire service ones), but the Canadian team never manages to transcend their sport the way the American one seems to. Maybe part of that's due to their relative lack of success lately, but that's not entirely the case; there was very little mainstream interest in the team that won the 2000 Gold Cup against all odds and played in the 2001 Confederations Cup. It seems, at least for the moment, the U.S. is well ahead of Canada in this dimension of soccer as well.

It's hard to predict definitively what this win will mean in the long run. A lot of that depends on what happens in Sunday's final (against the winner of today's semi-final, which will be either Brazil or South Africa). If the U.S. goes on to lose that game, this one will still be big, but not as important. If they win, this victory becomes even more important. It's not just about winning the Confederations Cup; this gives them a good shot at the number-one CONCACAF (North American) seed in the World Cup and a higher seed in general. As the Americans found out previously, seeds can be everything; last time around, their second seed from CONCACAF (behind Mexico) placed them in the Group of Death with eventual champions Italy, the second-ranked Czech Republic and African powerhouse Ghana, and they didn't make it out. Meanwhile, Mexico wound up with Portugal, Angola and Iran, and sneaked through in second place. That seeding difference could be big in the long run.

Beyond that, I'm not going to predict any sudden explosions of interest in soccer in the States for the long run. That's been tried before, and it hasn't panned out as well as people had hoped. However, the interest in today's game showcases that there already are a significant number of people following at least the national team, and that may translate to other levels in time. It's not a rocket to the top of the mountain, but it's another step along the way. Fortunately, the slow, step-by-step approach does result in less of a tendency to dramatically fall to earth. Moreover, Canada and the U.S. are considerably intertwined in soccer, as Toronto F.C., the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact demonstrate; all three have found success playing in primarily-American leagues. Thus, anything that helps the game in the States is likely to help it in Canada as well, and that's a good thing in my books.

- I have a more detailed take on the match over at The Phoenix Pub
- Another good piece on the subject from Avoiding The Drop
- Andy Hutchins puts it in historical perspective at The Arena

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