With this morning’s methodical victory over Good Korea, Uruguay become the Cup’s first Quarterfinalist, and the US’ potential opponent should the Yanks get past Ghana’s Black Stars this afternoon (but more on that later). First we need to take a look at how the teams that got this far did so, and how some teams ended up watching this morning’s action from home. This tournament has been anything but pain-by-numbers, with upsets and intrigue galore. Having a group stage like the one just concluded — outside the first go-round where teams were still adjusting to each other, the ball and the altitude, producing some dire viewing — can only help casual fans embrace what the rest of the world thinks is the best sporting event in the world.
France and Italy are home. My wife and her father are fuming; he won’t even talk about it yet. Meanwhile, the US are through and our media can’t stop talking about it. Topsy-turvy world we live in right now. France completely imploded in about the most French way possible: bickering with one another to the point of refusing to pass to certain team-mates, going on strike for a day and looking disorganized and unpleasant on the field of play. Italy were simply, as I warned, old. They looked every bit of it as Lippi refused to play his young and enterprising players, preferring most of the team that lifted the trophy for years ago. The new manager will have an embarrassment of riches to play with in four years, with bit players from this squad ready to take the reins from the last gaspers.
Also, I was wrong, so so so wrong, about so much that I’m tempted to gloss over everything, but I won’t. Argentina were as rampant as I expected, but Maradona looks more capable as a coach than I’d ever thought possible. All the African teams I tipped to get out and make some noise quietly faded into the mountains, rarely even appearing likely to get a point, let alone win a match. About the only things I was right about were that I hate Tim Cahill and that Chile are a fun team to watch. After taking tomorrow off, I’m going to try to preview all the matches this week, looking back at the appropriate groups, where I missed and where I hit on something.
But today is about one game (because there’s only one left, but still). The US, the Mighty Yanks, Uncle Sam’s Army, The US MiNT, will take to the field today after winning their group for the first time since the inaugural World Cup in 1930 (held in and won by Uruguay, who, again, potentially our next opponent). They did so playing against 12 men in the matches against Serbia and Algeria (counting the referees) in which two perfectly good goals were disallowed. Much has been said about the Serbia match, and the atrocity that was Edu’s non-goal. But that controversy greatly overshadowed the fight and verve the Yanks came out with in the second half of that match and the energy they sustained not just through the burst that led to Donovan’s goal, but for the full 45. Seeing a national team come together like that is rare. These guys don’t train together often, they don’t even play in the same leagues, let alone teams, throughout the professional calendar. And, the team that came out for the second half against Serbia, in the positions they were playing, was not an 11 I’d ever seen at the same time. But they gelled, stayed in formation, played their game. Papa Bradley has turned most supporters to his side, after years of doubting, questioning and, on many occasions in my house, screaming at his tactics; his boy has helped him on that count by making the leap. Michael Bradley especially has impressed a ton of onlookers, probably earning himself a few million Euros or Pounds in the process.
But all of that is prelude to this morning, a short preamble to a hopefully long and glorious manuscript — perhaps, if the team can carry on at the level its operated at thus far, even a manifesto. It is yet to be written, and it starts this afternoon, against two Princes, two Mensahs and 19 other Black Stars from the only African nation remaining in the tournament. They are not the same team that the US lost to in 2006, 2-1, if only because they are missing their best player, and one of the world’s best, in Michael Essien. His absence has been obvious in Ghana’s inability to score from open play. They’ve got two goals, both penalties, in the tournament. The US has double that, and ought to have treble their goals (yes, I’m continuing to bitch about officiating). They’re not without threats, but they’ve been content thus far to sit back, absorb the attack and catch their opponent on the counter. That may or may not continue today. I could see this game being far more open than the previous three.
Is that an advantage to the US? I have no idea. The back four is still something of a mess, and I can’t say I didn’t cringe when I saw Bornstein in for the Algeria match. Why bring Clarence Goodson as cover for Onyewu if you’re just going to slide Bocanegra in the middle and then put Bornstein on his wrong foot on the outside? Again though, results matter and that team did give one. Michael Bradley and Kevin-Prince Boateng (former Spur) will be THE battle today, more so than Altidore v. 2 Mensahs (John and Jonathan) and our centerbacks v. Assamoah Gyan. Whichever of those players throws his weight around, moves box-to-box and manages to keep the ref’s card in his chest pocket, will go a long way to helping their team through to Uruguay. Bradley and Boateng are both young guys who rely on strength and motor (the American term is probably “gritty” or some such), though Boateng has a big box of tricks that he’ll pull out possibly to his detriment. That said, they’re both huge hot heads known to getting a bit of the red mist in their eyes followed by a red card. Keeping their head in the game might matter even more than keeping their feet on the ball.
If the US come out like they have the last three halves of play, I think they walk away with more to play for. If they come out as they did against England, letting in something easy, playing out of shape and outside themselves, it will be tough to hang on. Ghana aren’t going to come out guns blazing, I doubt, but if handed a gift-wrapped opportunity, they’ll take it and shut up shop, putting 10 men behind the ball and daring the US to break it down (which, to be honest, is not the US’s strong suit by a mile). The one huge mismatch (which isn’t really a matchup, what with both players at the opposite ends of the surface) is in goal. The US, as I’ve said time and again, have one of the best keepers in South Africa. Tim Howard has saved the bacon of his shoddy defense and helped the US put up points in every match thus far. If it comes to penalties after 120 minutes, I’d put my money on his gloves rather than Ghanaian keeper Kingson.
I’m done with patriotic bluster and jingoistic rationale. If you’re with us, be with us today, and if you’re not, we’ll be waiting when you finally hop aboard. This team has the ability to be something special, to become a team that we tell our kids about, to become a team that other nations tell their kids about. This group of kids, raised on the 1994 World Cup, giving our national team an identity in the international game. Watch the beginning of something this afternoon. Watch it for Dempsey, bleeding from the mouth. Watch it for Tim Howard, screaming and striding about. Watch it for Donovan, the prodigal son of US Soccer who epitomizes so much of its good and bad that to separate the two from one another is almost impossible. Watch it for Michael and Bob Bradley, father and son. Watch it for Bocanegra and Cherundolo, and all the old soldiers out for one last parade. Watch it because this is the beginning of something today, that could just as easily be the end.