Jun 17 2010
You would never know it from looking at the results alone–two ties, three total goals–but this World Cup has been a crystallizing moment for American soccer. It’s not a new star, a suddenly higher level of play, or a masterful coach that we have discovered. It’s something both less measurable and more fundamental–it’s an American style of soccer that we’ve put our finger on, or, better yet, the conviction that there is in fact a distinctive national attitude toward the world’s game.
Henry Kissinger was quoted recently as saying that America does not have a “national style” of soccer. (Kissinger himself has of course always been an expert on style.) Until recently, I agreed with Kissinger, whose argument is the corollary in sport of the thesis that there is no American identity, only a series of appropriations from other, more sharply etched cultures.
What’s more, if Kissinger means that America does not play the kind of highly stylized soccer associated with countries like Brazil and France, though more often present in the discourse than the practice of soccer in these nations, then he is right. However, if he means that America has not developed a unique approach to the game, then he is becoming more and more wrong with each passing match in the 2010 World Cup.
What we have seen (in the defiant 1-1 tie against slumping England and yesterday’s stirring 2-2 draw against Slovenia, the best game of the tournament so far) is that American soccer is in a word tough.
It plays you tough, competes with toughness, gives you a tough time, gets tough when the going gets tough, goes into challenges tough, always stays tough. This is an attitude that prevails most clearly in the good high school and college teams around the country, which play with reckless physicality, enjoy competing for balls in the air, kick the ball hard, start many athletes who also play football, baseball, and lacrosse: make the field seem small. On the US national team, this style of tough play is the dominant ethos as well.
The Americans are not interested in being interesting. They are not aesthetes. They are here to get each others backs and pull out the tough win. At its most exalted, American soccer is not beautiful at all. Instead, it plays a Joe Dimaggio game Pete Rose tough. This is what the team has done so entertainingly against England and Slovenia.
Think back on Onyewu’s brave late-game defensive stands against England. On Donovan, sprinting toward the goal from the right corner against Slovenia, and deciding not to pass or to cut or to spin but just to shove it down the keeper’s mouth and see if he flinched. On the refusal of the Americans to take dives against teams who use acting as a lifeline. On Michael Bradley, the coach’s son, near tears after the second tie of the tournament, and promising, “The mentality of this team has always been that no matter what happens, we’re going to give everything we have and fight until the end.” Tough.
Given this attitude, it is fitting that so far in this tournament the driving instinct of the
American team has been to play defense unless forced to do otherwise. On offense, you often have to use individual initiative, instinct, creativity, a touch of the magical, to succeed. The team is almost never comfortable doing this. On defense, though, there is esprit de corps. You pack it in, backs against the wall, all for one and one for all, stick together, and do everything you can to keep those bastards on the other side of the field from scoring.
You saw this delight in defense in the 2009 Confederations Cup final against Brazil and also in the game against England. Even when all we have to do to win or tie is score a goal, we’d rather defend. The emerging symbol of American soccer is big solid Onyewu in the back. It’s no coincidence that for the last two decades, our best players have most often been our keepers.
When I was a kid, I played eleven years of soccer on the kind of elite travelling teams that are the breeding grounds of American soccer. On such teams, you have it drilled into your head from the beginning that soccer is a game of oppositions. On the one hand, you can be soft, tentative, uncommitted, precious. On the other, you can be hard, selfless, willing to sacrifice, decisive. You don’t pass up a shot. You don’t go into a tackle half-hearted. You do not, ever, ask to be taken out of a game. Instilled in pre-teens by coaches with sharp jaws, who speak in short clipped phrases, tough soccer takes hold.
On these teams, and even more so in high school, you do very few individual ball drills. It’d be nice to be able to juggle the ball a lot, but when are you going to use that in a game? Instead, players spend most of their time scrimmaging against an opponent or, better yet, doing one-on-one competitions. Soccer in America is more often not about technique; it’s about testing your mettle.
In Franklin Foer’s excellent book, How Soccer Explains the World, he argues that the American middle class has turned to soccer in order to satisfy its liberal distaste for the violence of football, the competitive starkness of baseball, the ghettoism of basketball, and the backwoods Americanism of all three.
There is a great deal of truth to this thesis, but I think that ordinary Americans have also
turned to soccer because it satisfies a different, deeper desire. It is the middle class’s way
of making its boys into men. At the most basic level, the US style of soccer from the travelling team to the national team has taken shape as a response to this yearning.
This is an incomplete interpretation. It does not always hold true. It is complicated by the number of American national team players who play on foreign clubs, and the United States Soccer Federation’s recent efforts to develop the country’s top players in European-style soccer academies. (What’s more, this American team is by no means a group of heroes. It is improving, but it is still nothing more than a decent team in the second or third tier of the international level.)
But this way of understanding American soccer does have several advantages. It begins to explain the character of American soccer as a unique creation with a distinct lineage, a task which has almost never been done. Finally, it also helps to explain why this national team is so sincere, so apparently limited in their aspirations on the field, and so endearing.
I hope they tough it out this year.
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