Discover more from The 24th Minute
Where have you gone, Landon Donovan?
(A) nation turns its lonely eyes to you...
As a Canadian sports fan, I’ve always had an awkward relationship with the USMNT. My instincts – deep in my cold, hoser heart – are to cheer against any team with the Stars and Strips. Call it Little Brother Syndrome if you will, or just understand that when you live above a country as loud and B I G as the USA you might sometimes get a little overwhelmed by the near constant noise coming from the south. But, regardless, I’ll admit to it.
Yes, most Canadians tend to enjoy cheering against Americans, and we particularly like to beat them when given a chance.
But, soccer was always a little different. Unlike nearly every other sport in the world, the USMNT (and this is a men’s conversation today, so all the references I’m making will be restricted to the men’s game) has not been successful. They aren’t the bully that you like to cheer against. In fact, there was always something familiar about watching the US men.
They were playing soccer, you know. They had to struggle through the same prejudges and insults as we did in Canada, only they were always able to punch above their weight.
As a Canadian, I couldn’t ever love them, but I couldn’t help myself – I respected them. And, I especially appreciated the grit and determination that they played with and the unapologetic way they approached the game.
The US had an identity. They weren’t fancy. They didn’t play with pretension and they didn’t care about your European sensibilities and ideas of how to “properly” play.
Think back to their most famous goal. Landon vs Algeria, in the dying moments of the 2010 Group Stage, facing elimination.
It was hardly artful. What it was, was very North American playground, borrowing a little bit from all the sports were exposed to here.
A well defended attack that ends with Tim Howard throwing a Hail Mary up field to start the fastbreak by Landon. The ball gets on target and Donovan crashes the net to hammer home the rebound.
Football, basketball and hockey sensibility all in one moment that finally pushed the game from niche status to the mainstream.
Truthfully, not many football nations have a single moment like that they can point to that define them so clearly.
Or defined, anyway. You see, from my perspective, US soccer changed at that moment. Not instantly, but the attitude started to switch. No longer, it seemed, did the US view itself as a plucky underdog that needed to prove itself every time it stepped on a pitch.
They suddenly started to think about style and tactics and doing things the “proper way.” Tellingly, they also started to do the things that makes it easy for the rest of the world to cheer against them. There started to be a hubris there. Many outside the US questioned whether that was fully earned.
The obvious manifestation of this came that infamous night in Couva. Or, perhaps, the even more infamous day before when they posted the photo the waterlogged pitch.
The general reaction to that photo outside American soccer circles (in fairness, even in some parts of American soccer circles) was “suck it up, buttercups.”
It underlined a certain softness that had permeated into the American program. This was not a team that would pull a desperation goal out of their elbow when the chips were down in a World Cup, it was felt.
As it turns out, they never got the chance and it resulted in a significant turnover in the roster. The thinking being that the softness was related to the specific players in the pool, rather than anything systemic.
Here’s the thing. Couva, on its own, was a fluke. You could play that game 1,000 times and the US probably doesn’t lose it again. But, it did illustrate that the intangible that they had back in South Africa was gone. That continues today.
This is undoubtedly a more talented US team than ever before, but yet they don’t feel better than the teams that grew into themselves through the first decade of the century. It’s made up of players that came through posh academies where everything was controlled to provide perfect playing and training environments. Some played at top US colleges, while others were given the chance to go into European clubs at a young age. Being an American was no longer viewed as an obstacle to play at the highest level. These guys never had to fight to be respected – not in the same way the generation before did.
Additionally, they played almost all of their youth international games at home, or at a World Cup. They rarely play road games, period, and when they do it’s usually in Europe, at a neutral site, or in a low stakes glamour friendly.
They don’t face adversity very often. And, as we saw on Sunday, they don’t react well to getting punched in the face (not literally, but I wouldn’t put it beyond a Canadian getting a subtle jab in at some point on the weekend either..).
In essence, the US was playing its former self on Sunday. A hungry team that has had to fight for everything and with a chip the size of the Rocky Mountains on their shoulder.
The US learned how much of a pain in the ass it was to play them all those years. And, if they want to take another step forward and truly become a World Cup contenting team they’re going to need to re-find that in themselves. They are more talented than before, but not to the point they can coast on it.
If you can’t get it done on a cold Sunday afternoon in The Hammer against Canada, how do you expect to take down the global elite?
They’ll make Qatar, but if they can’t find their grit again, I wouldn’t expect the stay to be a long one.
As for Canada…no one looks forward to getting in a scrap with a hungry fighter. More on that later in the week.
If you value the work I do here, on the podcast or reporting on Twitter, I welcome a small donation to support me in covering North American soccer. In the past, I’ve suggested $2 a month, which works out to $24 a year (get it?!). To be clear, the SoccerToday Patreon covers the show’s production costs only. I do not receive direct payment for the podcast.
This space will always be free to access.
You can support my personal Patreon at: https://www.patreon.com/24thMinute