New England Soccer Today

The Year That Was: U.S. Soccer

For many, FIFA’s refusal to grant the 2022 World Cup to the United States  undoubtedly left them with a bitter taste as 2010 closes. Losing to a country smaller than the state of Connecticut will usually do that. But, on the whole, it’s difficult to fathom a more exciting year than the one U.S. Soccer experienced these past 12 months.

For two glorious weeks this summer, U.S. Soccer, via the 2010 World Cup, gave us not one, not two, but three remarkable matches that few of us will ever forget.

The first was, naturally, perhaps the most hyped match in U.S. Soccer history. USA vs. England. Former colony vs. its former colonizer. Little brother vs. big brother. Yanks vs. Brits. A rematch of the biggest upset in World Cup history. It was a fixture that was talked about and debated well before 2010 started.

And what a wild affair that turned out to be. As expected, England took an early lead and looked keen to deflate the hopes of their opponents with another goal or three. There was only one problem though: they couldn’t.  At all. With less than five minutes until halftime, a speculative Clint Dempsey effort from distance somehow, someway evaded Robert Green’s gloves and gleefully found its way into the net. A prayer answered. Although a win would have been superlative, the consensus gave the 1-1 draw two confident and cool thumbs up.

Then, there was the Slovenia match. As my boy Fabolous once said, it’s not about the come up. It’s about the come back. And the Yanks proved it. Like great theatre, the heroes found themselves down for the count early, with history suggesting little hope of a comeback. History, however, took a backseat to one of the greatest halves of football ever registered by an American XI.

Whatever Bob Bradley threatened and shouted during halftime, it worked. Beautifully. Because for the final 45, the Yanks became sharks. They were aggressive, unrelenting but organized, and their ferocity was promptly rewarded when the skipper himself netted the first American goal only three minutes after the interval. Their form tightening the vices on the Solvenians with each passing minute, another appeared in the 82nd minute, thanks to Michael Bradley. Within the course of 34 minutes, a lost cause became a harbor of hope.

Incredibly, the greatest American comeback ever seen became reality, if ever so fleetingly. From a deadly Donovan free kick, Maurice Edu emerged from the heap to give the Yanks an insanely improbable three points. Delerium. If your heart wasn’t trying to burst out of your chest, you were either dead, in a coma, or in deep-sea submarine without a video or audio feed.

It would only last about ten seconds until Koman Coulibaly cruelly waived the goal off. Allegedly, an American had shoved his counterpart in the fracas, and thus the goal was null and void. Heartache. But it was the kind of heartache that could only be experienced when hopes are lifted into the stratosphere. A terrible call, but a game for the ages nonetheless.

Undoubtedly, the defining moment of the year, if not of the decade, came on June 23rd, when the U.S. squared off against Algeria in the final match of group play. Few could have foreseen the palpable drama felt by millions for a match against the unheralded Les Fennecs.

Knotted at zero with time rapidly diminishing, not to mention their hopes for advancing through to the knockout stage, the Americans furiously attacked the Algerian end, but to no avail in regular time. As the match crept into extra time, the window of hope was about to shut itself until Landon Donovan poached a Clint Dempsey rebound and put it through.

Exhileration. Excitment. Ecstasy. Name the adjective. It was a classic nailbiter, and one that the Yanks would often found themselves either dead or without the girl at the end. This was a nice deviation from script, for once. The win not only saw them advance, but also allowed them to boast their first group win since 1934.

For all the peaks, there were naturally a number of valleys. Staring at a extremely favorable path for advancement to semis, the Yanks gave up an early soft goal to Ghana in the Round of 16, leveled it in the second half via a Donovan penalty, then coughed up the backbreaker in overtime, leaving Sam’s Army & Co.  to wonder “what could have been” for another four years.

Shortly after the Nats walked off the pitch at Rustenberg, Bob Bradley’s future as manager loomed. And loomed. And then loomed some more. True to form, the Federation took its sweet time to decide whether Bradley would be back.

Adding to the spectacle of the situation, the players provided a shaky endorsement of their gaffer after getting manhandled by a reborn Brazil 2-0 at the new Meadowlands back in August. Weeks later, Federation president Sunil Gulati reaffirmed Bradley as manager, but only after he was rebuffed by Jurgen Klinsmann for the second time in four years.

The valleys weren’t merely reserved for the mens side. It was equal opportunity disappointment in 2010. After losing a 1-0 stunner to Mexico, the best country in the world was on the brink of elimination from a ticket to Germany ’11. Only after they seized an aggregate result over Italy did Pia Sundhage’s charges breathe easier knowing they had avoided an extreme embarrassment.

On the federation front, all appeared rosy in the months, weeks, and days leading up to FIFA’s December 2nd vote on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting bids. After some nips and tucks of its bid, the U.S. announced in the closing weeks that its focus was 2022, as reports correctly suggested that Europe would get the 2018 bid. With Qatar, Australia, South Korea, and Japan as competition, the States appeared to be a shoe-in for ’22.

Not so much. When Sepp Blatter read the card with the word “Qatar” before a worldwide audience, FIFA proved once and for all that an open vault is the key for capturing any future bids for the Cup. And for the second time in less than six months, many were left to ponder the possibilities.

Despite the setbacks, failures, and misfortunes of 2010, next year looks especially bright for U.S. Soccer. And with good reason.

First and foremost, the Women’s National Team is poised to reclaim another World Cup Championship this summer with a young, spirited side that evokes memories of the Foudy, Hamm, Scurry, and Chastain era. They may have stumbled through qualifying a bit, but I suspect that the Mexico scare has only improved their focus and determination.

And talent continues to emerge on the men’s side, with the promise that Alejandro Bedoya, Juan Agudelo, Omar Gonzalez, Eric Lichaj, and Tim Ream all bring to the table. And  the most encouraging sign that the bigger picture is brighter than ever? The rising talent level in MLS, where club academies are finding those elusive diamonds in the rough, will foster the growth and development that the national team has missed out on for far too long.

Losing the 2022 bid hurt. Badly. No question. But before we chuck the deuces on 2010, let’s remember the indellible images of the past year. The hysteria. The hope. The moments that often left us wanting for more.

It was a year to behold. A year that proves how far we’ve come – the players, coaches, and fans – as a footballing nation. There is much to be excited about in 2011 and beyond. As Martin Tyler Ian Darke cheerfully exclaimed during Donovan’s goal celebration against Algeria: GO, GO, U.S.A!


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