USA World Cup Reflections
The Black Stars of Ghana brought the World Cup journey of the United States to abrupt end with a convincing 2 -1 win in Nuremberg today. For me, perhaps the most memorable moment of Team USA's disappointing showing this year occurred not on the field, but while reading Matt Weiland's reflections in the New Republic on growing up a soccer fan in America.
But first, a few obligatory comments on Team USA. The loss to Ghana capped a 2006 World Cup run that showed none of the risk-taking elegance of the U.S. sprint to the quarterfinals in 2002. No doubt, the heroic American effort in the 1-1 draw against Italy provided some redemption after the catastrophic 3-0 pasting by the Czechs. But throughout, Team USA seemed mechanical and tentative, vulnerable to counterattack and, in a nutshell, simply not dangerous with the ball. While the U.S. has produced world-class goalkeepers in Casey Keller and Tim Howard, the American side has yet to feature a first-rate finisher like Germany's Klose, Italy's Toni or Brazil's now bloated Ronaldo. Only Clint Dempsey, with his glorious 43d minute strike against Ghana and his darting runs along the right wing versus Italy, seemed able to recapture the echoes of 2002.
While the early exit for Team USA fell far short of expectations, Weiland's piece in the New Republic brought back memories of happier days. He described his love affair with the now defunct North American Soccer League (NASL) and his 1970's team of choice, the Minnesota Kicks. He wrote fondly of Ace Ntsoelengoe, the star South African midfielder whose international career was blighted by the apartheid era. (Sadly, Ntsoelengoe, who helped bring the 2010 World Cup to South Africa, died last month.) And Weiland still exults in the crushing 9-2 defeat his beloved Kicks inflicted on the hated New York Cosmos in the 1978 playoffs.
Weiland's American soccer memoir struck a personal chord for me, as I experienced the mirror image of it. While he was a Minnesota die-hard, I was a huge Cosmos fan, listening on radio, watching on TV and often going to the Meadowlands to see Pele, Beckenbauer and the often infuriating Chinaglia. But my favorite was Jomo Sono, a South African who, like Ntsoelengoe, came to the U.S. to pursue his career. In the 2002 World Cup, Sono coached the South African squad.
As for that 1978 playoff, I remember Minnesota's 9-2 annihilation all too well. But the NASL playoff format then featured a two-game home and home series to be decided by a half-hour "mini-game" followed by a shootout in case of a draw. And after the Kicks' slaughter in Minneapolis, the series returned to Giants stadium, where the Cosmos got their revenge in a 4-0 blanking. After a scoreless 30 minutes to decide the series, the teams went to a shootout (which in the NASL commenced at the 35 yard line). Ultimately, the Cosmos prevailed in a thriller, with Beckenbauer scoring and Brazilian Carlos Alberto lobbing the winner over the keeper's head with a deceptive flick of his foot. I can still remember my best friend's father yelling at us to keep it down after our noisy celebration next to the radio.
That was 28 years ago. Hopefully, we can all look forward to better times for American soccer.