Friday, November 13, 2015

The U.S. Men and the Beginning of the Journey: World Cup Qualifying

Good times.
As the United States Men’s National Team embarks upon what everyone hopes, and all assume, with be its eighth consecutive successful World Cup qualification tournament, I’m feeling a little philosophical. Here, “philosophical” means anxious in that unique way one feels after 7 or 8 years of marriage – i.e. safe in the knowledge that things are fine, and probably will remain fine - but, again, just “fine,” as opposed to “great,” “orgasmically intense,” “soul-suckingly shitty,” or any other usefully definitive emotional state – so, what’s there to do but smile and suck it up till one or both of you is dead.

So, cheerful, in other words.

As everyone knows, U.S. Soccer is not in a happy place right now. While every past U.S. coach ended his tenure under some uncomfortable scrutiny, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure possesses all the Sturm und Drang of a Wagnerian opera, stuff of the intensity not seen since Steve Sampson’s weird experimentation and early exit from the 1998 World Cup. Arguments have raged for at least a year now over whether Klinsmann is guiding the U.S. Men’s program or ripping out the rails from beneath it; they’ve hit such a pitch since the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the meek display against Mexico in the (stupid) Confederations Cup play-in that some pundits have speculated (hopefully) that a failure by Klinsmann’s team to take at least four points from these first two qualifiers could finally force U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati to look past the (apparent, but clearly real) blood-brother arrangement he has with Klinsmann and fire the man.

I have no opinion on that particular point beyond acknowledging a certain emotional numbness. It’s not unlike marriage sex in Year 8 (missionary OK, Judy? No, you don’t have to move. Sure, you can leave the TV on). That’s to say, I don’t think anything changes and I don’t expect it to get better, really. Look, just kick the fucking ball, already. Just play the game, yeah?

It’s precisely times like this, in the Marianas-esque depths of ennui, that one is inevitably drawn to the past. As one thinks about all those past campaigns, both the long marches of getting troops and the supply “tail” to the front (qualifying) and the decisive, pitched battles (the actual World Cup tourneys), one’s memory drifts here and there with no clear object, or even intention. Memory does its own thing, here, and one sees what one sees and dwells on whatever comes up.

I’ve gone through all but one or two of the U.S. Men’s qualifying campaign – the first one, for the 1990 World Cup, I’m not sure that was even possible to see; as for 1994, the U.S. didn’t have to qualify because they were the hosts. I bet U.S. Soccer arranged a set of friendlies for warm-ups - that was something they used to do – but I’m struggling to remember what they called those little tournaments. Dang it, what was it? The U.S. Cup? The Nike something or another? Damn, I used to LOVE those things. (Ahem… “Memories...something, something corner of my mi-i-ind.” I’m OK. Gimme a minute...sniff.)

This stuff mattered to me because, before the Portland Timbers came along, the U.S. Men’s team was MY team. To give the full history, I started as a DC United fan – that was late in Major Leauge Soccer Year One, but I moved to DC for the 1997 season, only to get bored by United (and DC, as a city, to be honest) – but my allegiances shifted to the New England Revolution when I moved to Boston for a few years. New England, as much as I liked ‘em (and, honestly, I loved a couple of those teams) never landed for me quite like the Timbers did. Those personal details aside, my point is, I spent almost all of MLS’s history viewing MLS as basically a collection of farm teams. I became an MLS generalist by accident, in other words, by way of scouting America’s top flight for players to stock the National Team roster. And to make it kick ass, as much ass as it could.

It was never a lot of ass. Don’t think I need to convince anyone of that. What I do know is that, over time, the qualifying campaigns got easier. I do remember, though, when the U.S. failing to qualify was an actual possibility – and I mean in the sense of a full-body experience. I mean, the relief I felt when Tab Ramos fired a rocket of a shot past Costa Rica for a 1-0 win in the qualifying tournament matched landing my first kiss in terms of emotional intensity. After that, though, the U.S. program progressed, FIFA offered the CONCACAF region three, then three and a half qualifying spots, and, with all that room for error, qualifying for the World Cup became more or less automatic for the U.S..., missionary, again, or do you want to be on top, or something? (Yes, you can leave the fucking TV on. Look, can we just watch something I want to watch for once?)

And that’s where things stand even today. Whatever anyone thinks of the U.S. program under Klinsmann, even as the argument for “top-to-bottom-aimlessly-fucked” becomes stronger with each successive failed youth tournament, I would be shocked if the U.S. failed to qualify for Russia 2018. We’re talking put my house on the table, you can have it if they don’t shocked. (NOTE: this isn’t much of an offer; I barely want the fucking thing). With that, the whole qualifying process becomes a somewhat dreary march to a numbingly inevitable end.

This is good, on the one hand, in that it means things will get intense and interesting once the U.S. reaches the 2018 World Cup: the games will matter, the opponents will pose a challenge, no matter who they are. I mean, it will be awesome. (Wait…what? OH, we’re talking about MY butt? Yeah, what the hell? Then a maybe a handy?) Russia 2018 is still a long, long way off, obviously; with that, we have found the other hand. There are two and a half years of international soccer for the U.S. team to play between here and there. There will be results during that time and, with Klinsmann in charge, it’s safe to wager some will be bad. Some will almost certainly be good, too. But the ultimate question at the root of all of this – e.g. has the U.S. program been steadily, if quietly improving all the way through Klinsmann’s tenure? – won’t go away until the U.S. exits the 2018 World Cup. If anything of  enduring value comes out of this whole project, that’s when we’ll know it...

...and, yes, I used the word “exits” advisedly. We aren’t gonna win the fucking World Cup, now are we?

I’ll be back later tonight, or early tomorrow to talk about what I see today. Complicated viewing ahead. And the U.S. Men had better kick the holy shit out of St. Vincent and Grenadines...

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