Maybe this was what U.S. men’s national soccer team coach Jurgen Klinsmann was talking about.
The Miami chapter of the American Outlaws soccer fan club helped pack the outside area of Miami Beach’s Clevelander for a Sunday afternoon welcome home party for DaMarcus Beasley, Jozy Altidore and Fabian Johnson of the U.S. national team.
“THANK YOU, TEAM USA!” screamed one sign. The M.C. exhorted the crowd to give it up for the “amazing job!” the U.S. team did in Brazil.
The scene kind of told you where we are as a soccer nation. Take away each game’s dramatics and it’s still the U.S. going out in the Round of 16 with a 1-2-1 record. As Klinsmann departed Brazil, on his list of Things That Must Change was a national attitude of being OK with that.
“I agree,” said Beasley, a member of four World Cup teams. “We need to think we’re going to win the World Cup. We’re not there to make up numbers. We want to win. If our guys, younger players as well, get that mind-set that we can compete with the Brazilians, we can compete with the Argentines, we can compete with Belgium … we get that mind-set from 20, 21, 22, it’s only going to bode well when we get to [the] World Cup in years to come.”
Before you call up Klinsmann’s pre-tournament statement that it wasn’t “realistic” to think the U.S. could win this year’s World Cup, remember that I wrote Klinsmann might be poormouthing publicly while telling the team something different?
Beasley said: “We didn’t think about it. We know Jurgen, and we know what he thinks of our team. Every day he told us, ‘Guys, we can win the World Cup, we can win the World Cup.’ ”
Klinsmann’s bumping up hard against some of the builders of U.S. soccer. Many of those foundation people remember 1950-90, our 40 years in the desert just trying to qualify for the World Cup. They have a different perspective than someone from a nation that has never failed to qualify, never failed to get out of the group stage.
They’ve seen the steady progress — qualification in 1990; getting to the knockout round and losing respectably to eventual champion Brazil 1-0 in 1994; the run to the 2002 quarterfinal, outplaying tournament runner-up Germany throughout a 1-0 loss; not losing a group game in 2010; getting out of the group stage this year for a second consecutive World Cup, a first for the U.S.
Klinsmann, a Californian from Germany who sees a nation of potential, asks why not expect even more? The World Cup winner as a player doesn’t see the respectability in two consecutive Round of 16 losses in extra time. He views that the way I do eighth-grade graduation ceremonies: all you did was what you should. You didn’t flunk out.
“Our best game was Portugal,” Beasley said. “We did OK. I thought we could’ve gone further. The guys played their hearts out. They played for each other.”
In a way, Sunday perhaps showed the U.S. is moving toward the mind-set that Klinsmann wants. Before anyone demands better performance, they must care to even notice what you’re doing. More have in each World Cup since 1994. They come with enthusiasm first, expectation next.
We’re at the enthusiasm stage. When we get to expectation, here’s what we should do to fulfill that: look to Clint.
Not Eastwood. Dempsey.
Clint Dempsey’s the kind of technically skilled, creative player we need to produce by the handful to be contenders. The only U.S. player to score in three World Cups is also the kind of player who we do a terrible job finding and developing.
Dempsey built his skills playing against adults in Texas heat that encouraged possession rather than kick-and-chase. Few of our prospects grow up playing the small-field, pickup soccer games that force that kind of technical development. Few spend time alone with the ball, creating the kind of relationship the Messis and Neymars have with the soccer ball, similar to what LeBron James has with the basketball.
Dempsey spent part of his youth in a trailer park. His club soccer team came together to help pay for his participation. How many other possible Dempseys got lost because they couldn’t pony up the bucks for all those club soccer game trips?
And there’s that toughness — you knew he wouldn’t miss a minute with the broken nose sustained against Ghana. That hunger that drives football players from Pahokee and Immokalee exists in Dempsey.
Dempsey played a few years in the English Premier League. Today’s youth know of the EPL, Serie A, the Bundesliga, etc. They know of transfer fees and big contracts. It’s on their TVs and video games. They know there’s money to be made in soccer. (Beasley pulled up in a convertible Bentley on Sunday.)
As Reuters’ Simon Evans wrote, the flap over whether or not Landon Donovan should’ve been on the team ignores the real problem — we haven’t produced more goal scorers to make the question moot. We also need to produce more Dempseys.
“I think we’re going in the right direction,” Beasley said. “For me, it’s getting our younger players a better environment to play [soccer], day in, day out. That’s what the Europeans do. That’s what the Brazilians do. That’s what the Argentines do. That would be a big step going forward. Hopefully, one day, we’ll be going to the semifinals, going to the quarterfinals of the World Cup and feeling that we deserve to be there.”