Steve Davis' weekly column, drilling down on five hot topics in American soccer
1. Thinking of group play as one long match
If your team finds itself in a long NBA or NHL playoff series, you had better buckle in and tighten up. Most of the time, you’re in for a serious roller coaster ride.
Wild swings of emotion, up and down, will be driven by overreacting public and hyperventilating media. Whenever your heroes win a game, everything is sunshine and lollipops. We can’t congratulate each other enough for certain, impending victory in the series.
But if those bums drop a game – well, all hope is lost! The online reads and talk radio rants practically become funereal. Game over, man! No chance, no way!
But that’s not so. Because if they bounce back and win one … it’s all rose pedals and perfectly popped corn again. That’s the vertical zig-zag of overreaction.
We’re seeing something similar with the United States National Team, whose fans and media tend to examine things by the slice. That is, match-by-match.
Which is why impassioned fans and we members of the chattering class (the reporters, broadcasters, bloggers, etc.) were falling to pieces after the U.S. first-round loss to Colombia in Friday’s Copa America Centenario opener.
But within the team’s inner circles, they see things differently – and perhaps we should, too.
Inside the room, they look at three games in a first round of tournament play as one group of matches. So over the past few days the U.S. contingent remained steadfast, even extra defiant in the face of all this gloom and doom.
"We've talked so many times about the ability to know how to navigate through a group stage,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said late Tuesday night. Yes, he does try to remind us all the time.
“You know that it's not always going to be perfect. You know there will be ups and downs. You know that in certain moments you may not always get everything you deserve, but you have to keep a strong mentality and understand how to keep yourself going, how to live see another day,” he said.
Bradley admitted the United States could obviously have done some things better in the loss to Colombia. But in the players’ and coaches’ minds, it’s like one period of a hockey game.
"It was Game 1,” he said. “Tonight was Game 2. And that also doesn’t mean anything yet. So now we get our selves ready for a 'final' on Saturday."
2. Strange condition: we kinda miss Rafa Marquez
It’s among the strange condition of U.S. soccer fandom that we sometimes like talking about the MLS failure as much as the MLS successes. And when it comes to the goats of our game, no one occupies higher ground, it seems, than senor Rafa Marquez.
It’s not that Marquez was a terrible performer on the field in his up-and-down days with the Red Bulls. The man certainly did spray a few of those sweet passes around, the over-distance numbers he still hits with some regularity for Mexico.
In fact, he’s topical again for precisely that reason: because he is still hammering away at those precision efforts, the kind that instantly remove three, four, maybe five defenders from a play. Never mind that he’s 37 years old; he swung a few of those balls around Sunday night as Mexico reminded us why they are among the Copa America Centenario favorites with a big win over Uruguay.
There have most certainly been less productive Designated Players than Marquez. Heck, you could come up with a “Best XI” of under-performing DPs. A couple of them are still collecting MLS paychecks. Yep, looking your way, Super Frank Lampard.
Rather, it was the apparent level of disrespect Marquez showed for MLS and for teammates (recall the hit job on fellow New York defender Tim Ream) that stoked the flames of dislike. Which is why even Red Bulls fans took to booing the man.
American soccer fans, with a history of defending their sport, tend to be protective of it. So when Marquez petulantly throws a soccer ball at Landon Donovan after a playoff game (nearly causing a full-on donnybrook), or when he breaks a players’ collar bone with a rugby-style tackle (Shea Salinas) or when he trots behind the play while his teammates scramble defensively, people take it personally. They look at it and wonder if he believes MLS specifically and American soccer in general is somehow beneath him?
All that, plus he’s from Mexico, U.S. Soccer’s bitter border enemy.
Either way, Marquez’s two-and-a-half years with the Red Bulls were suboptimal on the best days … and complete farce on the worst. No one can ever say he didn’t give us something to talk about in MLS. Heck, still does.
Keep it up, Rafa. We miss ya, man. Never liked ya – but somehow we do miss ya.
3. Copa America as permanent U.S. fixture? Depends on your viewpoint
Folks got their soccer pants a-jumpin’ at reports that a combined CONCACAF and South American tournament, much like we are seeing play out across 10 U.S. venues right now, was close to becoming a regular thing.
ESPN Deportes reported Monday that it was all but done, down to the “finishing touches” stage. That the two major continental tournaments would merge into an event always staged in the great United States. Presumably, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and South America’s stately Copa America would cease to be in their current forms.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati pooh-poohed those reports Tuesday, claiming they were “completely inaccurate.” Still, we know things can change. And we know money talks – especially in a pair of confederations hit hard in the pocketbook by the global soccer scandal’s backsplash. So who knows?
The reaction to a newly created event was overwhelmingly positive on social media channels across our country. But there’s the key: “across our country.” In all honesty, it seemed like a pretty selfish, self-centered point of view.
Perhaps the tournament would indeed make more money if played in the United States each time. But …
First, it’s a very cynical point of view. Obviously, someone has to pay for these tournaments. But seriously, is this 100 percent about money?
Second, even if the tournament does create higher stacks of cash, given the levels of graft and corruption that have flown so steadily through the game over the years, what guarantee does anyone have that additional revenue would actually go into South, Central and North American soccer programs?
Third, would it truly make that much more money? Ticket revenue might be greater in the United States, where the prices can be set higher, and where a few more massive stadiums allow for more seats to be sold. But TV revenue, the big financial beast of these tournaments, wouldn’t necessarily be that much higher.
I could go on; there are other reasons to doubt such a thing happening. The ESPN Deportes report seemed half-baked.
From a competition standpoint, the United States, Mexico and other CONCACAF nations would clearly benefit from next-level competition. But having the tournament permanently placed in the United States only looks like a grand idea from a very narrow view, form a completely U.S.-centric outlook.
I’ve been blessed to have been at five World Cups on four continents, plus two European Championships. One common denominator through all: the people of these lands are usually so, so proud to host the tournaments.
Think of this: The world pays attention to the United States every day, so we take it for granted. This just isn’t the case everywhere else. So when they find themselves in the global spotlight, it resonates. It means so very much.
Sure, if you live in the United States you’d love for this thing to be held here every four years. But if you live in Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, etc. … well, probably not. Of course you want your next chance to be a proud, proud host. And maybe working class fans want to go to a match or two without spending a live savings to get here.
4. Kendall Waston needs to think about Jamison Olave
It’s come to this for Vancouver Whitecaps and Costa Rican center back Kendall Waston: when you talk about “that time Waston got in trouble,” you gotta get real specific.
There comes a point when Waston, talented as he is, will become a liability for his teams (club and country, that is) if he can’t put a governor on all that aggression. It’s OK if central defenders have that element in their game; Klinsmann has let on recently that he more or less requires it from central defenders who wear the U.S. shirt. But it’s got to be controlled and channeled properly.
Waston was ejected from Costa Rica’s opening Copa America match. A day later, word came down that he had received an additional suspension from MLS for his latest ejection in a Whitecaps shirt. At this rate, a healthy Waston will be suspended from more matches in June than he actually plays.
The red card Waston received on May 22 against the Portland Timbers was his second already in 2016. That’s on top of 21 yellow cards he has collected in 48 starts for Vancouver.
Back when he coached at Real Salt Lake, Jason Kreis went through something like this with Jamison Olave. Just like Waston, Olave was talented. And just like Waston, he was a brute. Sometimes too much so. Kreis, having watched his young center back collect three red cards in 2009, hurting his team in the process, had to get through to Olave.
They “had a conversation,” as Kreis told me at the time.
Message received, apparently. Olave settled down and was thrown out just three more times over the next five years. He was a Best XI selection in two of those years.
Waston has Best XI talent. But actually being Best XI, or just a great defender who helps win championships, means the brute force and intimidation need to be applied strategically. It’s on Waston to sort that out.
5. The Little Five
5a. Let’s assume for a moment that parties in our country are interested in running a combined North-Central-South American tournament, staged permanently in the United States. Getting national anthems wrong on two consecutive nights is not a way to inspire confidence that we know how to run it. Sunday, Chile's anthem was played in place of Uruguay’s. And then Monday, a shortened version of Chile’s anthem was erroneously offered up. No, not a good look at all for a country that wants to do this on the regular
5b. Everyone wondered Tuesday why Clint Dempsey went 78 minutes and Jermaine Jones all 90 with matters in hand? With another important group match ahead, the team’s oldest starters need a break, eh? But maybe we should look at it like this: over a long tournament, keeping team accord is important. With Kyle Beckerman’s and Chris Wondolowski’s introduction Tuesday, Klinsmann has utilized 15 members of his 23-man roster.
5c. Dempsey scored his 50th U.S. goal Tuesday, so he’s just seven behind Landon Donovan on the all-time list. Makes you wonder if the pursuit will affect his thinking on when to retire internationally?
5d. Best players in the tournament so far for the United States? Easily, its center backs Geoff Cameron and John Brooks. Neither has been perfect, but both have been dependable cops on the beat back there.
5e. A really interesting take here from U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones on how the United States always seems to perform under pressure, as it did Tuesday in Chicago. "Sometimes, it's tough to understand, but I think in most countries, you have a lot of pressure [anytime] you step on the field for your national team, " he said, suggesting it may not always be that way for the United States. "But today, we know we are going to be out of the tournament with a loss. The support [from fans] was amazing. So we felt from the beginning when we stepped on the field that something could happen today."
Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since is first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for FourFourTwo and co-hosts the weekly radio show/podcast ESPN Soccer Today on 103.3 FM in Dallas. Davis is also the radio play-by-play voice for FC Dallas on 100.7 FM.