COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – History has taught us that the best U.S. national team performances have arrived when the Americans feel backed into a tough spot.
The big disappointments – think “Ghana,” and then “Ghana” again – have often arrived when the team begins feeling good about itself.
I have this theory that as the United States talent pool gradually improved, the team lost a little bit of the gritty element that got it through the 1990s and pushed it forward in the early part of the 2000s. It lost a little bit of that useful chip-on-shoulder effect.
Past U.S. versions knew they had to try harder. Unblessed with a superior first touch or the collective soccer brain to think three moves ahead rather than two, the boys in star-striped blue or red (or that awful denim) had to close the gap through heart, hustle and a stubborn competitiveness. And also through that most quintessential of American values, that optimistic, unbreakable belief that good things were ahead.
You only have to spend a little bit of time in other lands to gain perspective on the U.S. virtue of heady expectation. There are plenty of countries where the populace really does sit around and wait for the next bad thing to happen.
That brings us to tonight’s match at DSG Park in Commerce City. U.S. backs against the wall? Yeah, I’d say we are there.
Feeling the weight of it all, the pressure to get the job done tonight against Costa Rica amid the team’s first real test of locker room accord since the days of Steve Sampson, John Harkes, Eric Wynalda, etc.? That seems reasonable as an assessment.
So I wonder if a little bit of creeping self-doubt isn’t a good thing? I wonder if the players don’t rally a little bit around the unrest?
I chatted yesterday with Ian Darke, who will call tonight’s game for ESPN (10 p.m. ET). We agreed that Brian Straus’ Sporting News piece – the best piece of American soccer reporting in a long, long time, in my opinion – might just be a good thing for Jurgen Klinsmann’s team.
Straus certainly didn’t make any of that stuff up; players were saying it.
Well, you want that stuff in the open, ready to be mopped up and dealt with. Better that than whispered around certain corners of the locker room, like so much toxic sludge, slowly rotting the floors, so to speak.
It may have made some people mad (like Michael Bradley – and good for him for adding a counter-balance and saying things that needed to be said.) And perhaps Klinsmann will understand that some of his communication methods may need a re-think.
In the end, the team might just be better for it. We’ll know more in a little while.
I say it will help. I say the U.S. back line will get lots of protection and will dig in accordingly, stubbornly rather than nervously. The fullbacks will be aggressive in moving forward, but not wildly so.
Michael Bradley will be cautious, also endeavoring to protect a weakened defense.
The United States will find a goal … but perhaps not multiple goals.
I’m calling a 1-0 U.S. win.