It took a while for things to come together — and by a while, I mean a lifetime — but the U.S. men’s national soccer team is in the midst of a fundamental breakthrough. Finally, and at long last, the team has learned how to score.
As you can probably imagine, this is kind of important.
For years — decades, really — men in this country were playing international soccer without the basic ability to, you know, kick the ball into the goal against good teams. Being plucky Americans, the program compensated for this foundational flaw in two ways: conditioning and excellent goalkeepers.
This was the basic formula of U.S. Soccer for an entire generation. It was an endearing style to diehard supporters of the team — Don’t Tread! — but to the country’s general population of sports fans, it was boring to the point of shaping a negative perception of the game. Why watch a sport with no scoring?
Then, on a historic night in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a few weeks ago, the paradigm shift that has been building for some time finally came into focus. The United States began attacking the defense of Bosnia with world-class bravado.
Bosnia is expected to qualify for the World Cup, and several of its players star on top-flight European clubs. No matter. The United States shredded that team in front of its own fans.
Jozy Altidore scored three elite-level goals and assisted on another, and he wasn’t even the team’s best player. (The best player that night: midfielder Michael Bradley, the new rock of the U.S. men’s national team.) It felt like a watershed display of soccer but, in the end, the team’s 4-3 victory on European soil was devalued because it came during a friendly.
Say what you want about international friendlies, but that victory was anything but inconsequential for American soccer.
Under that backdrop, the U.S. men’s national team plays in San Jose, Costa Rica, on Friday with a chance to qualify for the World Cup and extend its winning streak to 13 games. The Americans have never won a World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica, but there was a feeling at practice Monday at FIU that, once again, something special was expected to happen, another breakthrough.
“This is a huge game for [Costa Rica] but for us, we’re very confident and we have a big opportunity to do something we’ve never done before and we want to go make history,” U.S. attacking midfielder Landon Donovan said.
Miami has become a weigh station of sorts for the national team before trips to Central America, and it was here on Labor Day that players arrived from all over the world before boarding a plane to San Jose on Tuesday. A long-time follower of the U.S. men’s national team, it was the first time I’ve watched the team practice in person. A few random observations:
Clint Dempsey’s skill with the ball is magician-like. I watched him goof around for about 20 minutes during a 7-on-7 drill and was completely mesmerized by his endless array of touches on the ball during live action. That a player of Dempsey’s skill level is now playing in Major League Soccer in the prime of his career was unthinkable only a few years ago.
• Alejandro Bedoya, who grew up in Weston and played for Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, is a wellspring of stereotypical South Florida swagger. He plays with the same type of confidence and style as your favorite homegrown football player. Bedoya on his recent move to the French first division, Ligue 1: “I was the best player in Sweden. It was time to take the next step.”
• The goal box is in good hands when Tim Howard retires from international competition. Backup goalkeeper Brad Guzan is an imposing force between the posts. The guy is built like a linebacker. Imagine a more athletic Zach Thomas in the goal for the U.S. men’s national team. That’s Guzan.
For Donovan, practice at FIU represented his first action with the full team since taking his self-imposed sabbatical from international competition. Yes, he’s a diva, but he’s also Betty Crocker when it comes to cooking up scoring chances for his teams. With Donovan back in the fold, the team’s attack is truly world class. That it arrived there with Donovan first away from the team and then rediscovering himself makes coach Jurgen Klinsmann seem like some kind of madcap genius. In truth, it has been a long and patient journey to this moment for U.S. Soccer.
“I feel like a youngster,” Donovan said Monday morning. “Mentally, I can do things I couldn’t do in the past.”
And that probably includes wrapping his head around how quickly the team has developed in the past year.