Thanks to a recently streamlined rotation of international tournaments, the United States Men’s National Team is one of the few teams that Americans can collectively come together each summer and root for. You know, when it’s hot so you want to be in front of a screen in a cold room and major American sports are either in hibernation or devoid of high stakes. I don’t bat an eyelash, though.
I am a third-generation Slovenian-American. My parents grew up here, in the States, and so did I. I have grown up playing and watching soccer extensively. But when the USMNT has a game I turn on the TV and watch it half-heartedly. I can’t get invested. Is it the players, the style of play, the pace of the game? The USMNT has talent and explosive players. They can play well at times–a fast-paced, knock-it-around possession type play that’s increasingly coming together under new management, European legend Jurgen Klinsmann. The USMNT has scorched its North American competition in this month’s Gold Cup–scoring 19 goals in five games at a blistering pace.
Admittedly, I never got into rooting for the team regularly until the 2010 World Cup. Going in, I was skeptical. I was mostly excited about this World Cup because I could watch Slovenia grouped with the USMNT. I am very involved with my culture and heritage and felt an urge to root on Slovenia.[ref]The smallest country ever to make the World Cup, might I add.[/ref] I anticipated this game more than the eventual Spain-Netherlands final, because I could watch the mighty USA fall. As an American I love a good underdog story. The Slovenian in me pulled me away from my nationalism, had me rooting against my friends and family.
When the game finally came around it was one of the best during the group stages of the tournament. Slovenia took a 2-0 lead and I was so sure that they were going to chalk up a W and I would be able to brag to everyone that I was Slovenian. The United States eventually tied up the game and at full time the score read 2-2. Weak.
You might think that it is hard for me to root for the USMNT because of this one, deeply personal game. It is not. This was the summer I became a soccer fan that loves watching good teams. I’m like a fine wine connoisseur–I appreciate subtle notes and elegant beauty no matter where the batch is brewed.
I do not like to see good teams make a tiny mistake that costs them a game. Case in point: Robert Green. In one of the biggest flubs in World Cup history, the English goalie gave the USMNT a point that they did not deserve and started a run that ran on smoke.
After this came the Slovenia tie. Then came a must-win against Algeria that the team needed to advance into the knockout stages. They made it exciting with Landon Donovan’s late heroics; a goal in the 90th minute that secured a date with Ghana. While everyone was going ballistic, I, again, was less than impressed. It was a goal that Algeria should not have conceded, scored on a dice roll. In the end, the USMNT lost days later in the Sweet 16 to a more impressive Ghana side.
Since this tournament I have followed the USMNT closely but not wholeheartedly. After much thought and reconciliation, I think I figured out why I’m just not that into it. While growing up, I watched a lot of English Premier League soccer as well as some La Liga and Bundesliga. The players on these squads were far superior than any of the players on the USMNT. They played beautifully together, and their televised crowds offered contagious enthusiasm.
What people hate to see in soccer is garbage goals. Whether it’s the Green error or even a rebound goal playing “FIFA” wherein the programmed gaming glitch makes you lose your shit in anger, no one likes cheap, chippy goals.
Except USMNT fans, who call those goals “scrappy.”
The whole team plays a rough-and-tough style that goes hard for 90 minutes trying to capitalize on other teams’ miscues. They do not score pretty goals. They play a style completely different than the one that someone would consider part of the free-flowing brand that international fans favor. The USMNT style is direct. They play a long ball over the top and see if Jozy Altidore can score. If he doesn’t, he cuts the ball back and creates time for others to catch up to him, playing a ball in to try and notch an assist. The “beautiful game,” in contrast to American soccer, is more of an indirect style of play. They create confusion with crossing runs behind the defense. They take men on, one-on-one, isolating weaknesses to score goals.
It is just hard to root for a team that scores most of their goals through unorthodox methods, with eye-rolling grit. If I could compare them to one team, it would be the San Antonio Spurs, save the prosperous dynasty. You know the Spurs narrative about fundamentals. It’s not fun to watch, but it works.
I had the chance to go see the USMNT live this summer in a friendly against Belgium at First Energy Stadium. I was reluctant to go because it was scheduled before some crucial World Cup qualifiers. Everyone knows that managers do not play their first team during theses friendlies to preserve studs. Some stars were playing, like Clint Dempsey, but I was mostly there to watch the young Belgium ace, Marouane Fellaini. He was reported as a possible transfer to Manchester United this season, so I wanted to see him play in person. As most thought the game would go, Belgium won a 4-2 blowout.[ref]It could have been uglier, and the USMNT saved face with a late penalty goal.[/ref]
Belgium just looked so much better than the U.S. in this game and controlled from go. It was much more technical, pass pass pass, make a run, shoot, score than the U.S.’s style of long ball, sprint, try to get control of the ball. I cheered when Fellaini scored and got understandable looks from the bros in Uncle Sam’s Army.
Look, I love the USMNT but it’s been a lifelong eye-sore.
They go against Panama on Sunday, in a Gold Cup final that the USMNT is expected to win. It’ll be in front of a national audience on FOX, and casual viewers might find that they like what’s on display. The good news is that it’s an increasingly different squad from the teams helmed by Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley. The team has come together over the past few months and the camaraderie between the players and coach Klinsmann means splashes of brilliance. Klinsmann’s roots playing in the Bundesliga are clearly changing the USMNT at its fundamental core, for the better. He is slowly shifting to an indirect style of runs and crosses, and it has paid off in the team’s longest win streak in history at nine current games and counting. With Klinsmann at the reigns, I have no doubt the USMNT will win the Gold Cup. But between now and Brazil, I need to see more than runs against Cuba.