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June 30, 2009

Of Minnows and Whales

Michael Kurtianyk

I was thinking over the weekend how great it was that the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team made it to the finals of the Confederations Cup in South Africa. I remember when I was growing up that the biggest claim to fame for the team was a win over England in 1950. That was at the World Cup, which was played in Brazil. It was dubbed “The Miracle on Grass” (not to be confused, of course, with the “Miracle on Ice” in the 1980 Olympics).


It was always frustrating as a child to watch the U.S. men’s team play and seemingly lose all the time. We were always considered “minnows” – a soccer term meaning a team that is very weak, playing against whales like Brazil, Germany, and Italy.


Sure we had some good players, but we never seemed to rise to the level of greatness. We are a country that produces great athletes – see any set of results from the Olympics and other world games like basketball, football, and tennis. Why couldn’t we produce star soccer players?


The reasons typically given include the popularity of other professional sports, like basketball and football. Growing up, what would a child be attracted most to: fame and fortune by being a highly-paid athlete. That or being like Robert Plant, which was my dream. But I digress. Children throughout the ages look to athletes as role models and heroes, and the money they could make is more than in soccer. There was, to a certain extent isn’t, money to be made in soccer.


So, it was with great pride that in 1994, our country hosted the World Cup for the first time. By being awarded the opportunity to host the tournament, the world would focus its attention on our country, and soccer in America would flourish. The men’s team did remarkably well, making it as far as the second round, losing to Brazil 1-0 (there’s that pesky Brazilian team again!). However, it was another four years before the U.S. would win a significant game.


In February 1998, the U.S. Men’s team played Brazil in the Gold Cup. Thanks to some stellar goaltending by Kasey Keller, USA won 1-0 on a goal by Preki. It was a monumental win, and thoughts were that soccer, again, would flourish in America. Though we still didn’t see soccer overtake baseball, football, or basketball, it seemed that youth participation in soccer grew during the nineties.


In this decade, the team did well in the 2002 World Cup, when we made it all the way to the quarterfinals. We lost to Germany 1-0, which eventually lost in the finals. We were still being considered minnows in the eyes of the world – a team that couldn’t stay consistently strong. Their performance in the 2002 World Cup was really the only highlight for the national team until this month, when we participated in the Confederations Cup in South Africa.


In this tournament, we lost 3-1 to Italy and 3-0 to Brazil, before playing Egypt. The way the groupings and tiebreakers were set up, the U.S. team had to beat Egypt 3-0, and Italy had to lose to Brazil 3-0. We all know what happened next: the stars and planets aligned and both Brazil and the U.S. won 3-0. We beat Spain, the number one ranked team in the world, by a score of 2-0 in the semifinals, setting up a rematch with Brazil this past weekend for the championship.


It was a great game as we led 2-0 at halftime. However, minnows that we are, we gave up three goals in the second half and lost 3-2. We seemed to play back on our heels the entire second half: Brazil kept pressing and passing and playing elite soccer, as a great team should. They are a class team, with great talent and depth. They’re always fun to watch, except when they’re playing the U.S.


As a result of this tournament, maybe the U.S. men’s team won’t be considered minnows anymore. It’s hard to tell. We played poorly in the first two games, and then dominated the next two, before losing a close game in the finals. This tournament can be seen as a microcosm of the national team’s efforts through the years: consistently inconsistent.


What does the future hold for our men’s soccer team? The team will host the 2009 Gold Cup in July, having been drawn against Honduras, Grenada, and Haiti. We should do well in this tournament. The perception is that having beaten the number one team in the world (Spain), and coming close against the number five team in the world (Brazil), we should have little trouble in this tournament. Maybe the other teams in the Gold Cup are the minnows, and we’re the whale. Let’s hope so.


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