I headed over to Nevada Smith’s on Saturday night to watch the USA take on Haiti. I’ve always been a little reluctant to watch games there because it tends to attract this brand of American soccer fan that I find particularly annoying–the fan who wishes he were born English. Symptoms of this condition include: the desire to argue with anyone who uses the word “soccer”; the inability to watch an MLS game in its entirety (usually coupled with the desire to make fun of the low quality of play to anyone who will listen); the necessity to call the referee “wanker” at least once per match; etc. It took me about five minutes to realize that not only was I standing by one of these guys, but I was standing by the king of them all. Most leave it at, “Aw, dude, the ref is a total wanker!” This guy went well beyond that mere child’s play. “FAWKEEN’ELL!!” “FAHFUCKSAKE!” “FUCK OFF, MAN!!!” “FAWKEEN CUNT!” “FAWKEEN WANKAH!” His accent was so convincing, in fact, that I thought there was a chance he might even be British. Not the case. At halftime, I overheard him talking to an Englishman wearing a West Ham polo. “Aw, man, we may hate each other in six months from now [writer’s note: ???], but tonight we can agree to pull for the stars and stripes.”
“Aw, man, West Ham?! Let’s sing some West Ham songs. I know a few!”
“That wouldn’t make sense. We’re watching a USA game.”
Shot down. But our drunken compatriot didn’t leave it there. Later on in the second half, the Englishman tried (unsuccessfully) to start a “Come on you Eagles!” chant:
“Come on you Eagles! Come on you Eagles!”
[American footie fan gets within an inch of Mr. West Ham’s face, sticks arms out and sings screams:]
This guy was amazing. He was screaming so loud, I was astonished he could muster a whisper, let alone another “FAWKEEN CUNT WANKAH!” by the end of the game. Most would have buckled, but this guy was a champ.
I know what you’re probably thinking at this point. I’m deep into a tournament recap and I’ve failed to mention a single player’s name, result, or anything of the sort. But that’s just it: after watching the last game of the group stage, the most entertaining thing I’ve seen so far were the antics of that guy at the bar.
Enough with the nonsense. Here’s the one real lesson we’ve learned from the first round: there is a monumental gulf in class between our first team and our B team. There have been some promising performances–Robbie Rogers, Stu Holden, and Chad Marshall, come to mind–but most have been totally forgettable. I know I was probably expecting too much going in, but I really thought Jay Heaps and Colin Clark could at least hold their own against Haiti. The fact that Kyle “Battlefield Earth” Beckerman–a player who has no business playing in any meaningful games for the United States–could step into that game and look decent shows just how weak this team is.
I am a fan of MLS. I appreciate everything it has done for American soccer and what it will continue to do for us in the future. But any player who is a career MLS-er is faced with a huge problem–they’ve been playing a game for their entire lives that takes place at about half the speed of international soccer. While Jay Heaps, Colin Clark, and Logan Pause struggled to keep up with the competition in the first round, even the more viable options for future call-ups–Kyle Beckerman, Luis Robles, and Michael Parkhurst (yes, the latter two are playing abroad)–were mediocre at best. (Some will point out that the first team contains MLS-based players. I would counter that these players are the few exceptions who are capable of playing in bigger leagues. Ching might be the exception to this exception, but I see him as a place-holder between the McBride and Altidore generations.)
Perhaps the gulf in class is best demonstrated by our second game against a less-than-full-strength Honduras team. What was a neutral game, arguably favoring Honduras for the first 60 minutes, was completely turned around by Benny Feilhaber (soon to be our fifth-choice center mid after the arrival of Jermaine Jones) and Charlie Davies (arguably our third-best striker). These two were clearly in another class and were able to tilt the game in our favor.
The point of this analysis is not to be alarmist. The USA has enough depth (just barely) to remain competitive, even when faced with some injuries. The point is also not to make fun of the MLS. But at the end of this competition, what we’re really looking for is a group of players who can step up and challenge for 2010 roster spots. Unfortunately, not many people have shown the ability to do that. I could see Chad Marshall displacing Danny Califf. I could see Robbie Rogers making it in as a back-up winger. Maybe–just maybe–if Adu goes another year without significant playing time, Stu Holden could sneak his way into the field of 23. Beyond that, none of the non-Confederations Cup participants (with the obvious exceptions of Cherundolo and Ching who were both injured) have shown that they’d be able to compete at the international level. I’m happy for career MLS-ers–those who have dedicated their careers to growing soccer in America–getting the chance to represent their country, but I cringe thinking of a scenario in which we’d actually have to rely on them.