Composite made from AP images
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa
It’s painful to admit this, but after being in stadium for the greatest goal in U.S. soccer history I will be on a plane during the knockout match against Ghana tomorrow.
I can’t say that I booked the flight thinking the U.S. would bow out of the World Cup early. On the contrary, I was hopeful of a deepish run. But I was taking in the tournament sans media credential. I planned to stay only for the first round. I neglected to check the second-round match schedule when I bought the ticket. And now that history has happened, I want to stay and can't easily (or cheaply) rebook.
That’s what I get for freelancing.
Before I fly home, to salve my own stupidity, I present three likely media talking points for the the big match, which I will instantly knock down:
The United States hasn’t won consecutive games at the World Cup since 1930. True fact. What does it mean? Mostly that the the United States hasn’t played in that many World Cups (nine out of 19 — 1930, 1934, 1950 and the last six) and that it’s hard to win games at them. When the U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals in 2002, its record went like this: win, tie, loss, win, loss. In the modern era, the U.S. really hasn’t fielded a team you could reasonably expect to win twice in a row — until now.
In any event, athletes don’t care about history. I’m guessing the U.S. team isn’t reading this blog to get psyched for the game. As for 1930, that was the inaugural World Cup, held in Uruguay. Only four European nations made the long boat ride — Belgium, France, Romania and Yugoslavia. The U.S. beat Belgium and Paraguay, then lost in the semifinals to Argentina, 6-1.
The path for Team USA’s first trip to a World Cup semifinals in the modern era is clear. Well, not clear. But it does offer about as good a chance of advancing deep into the tournament as the U.S. could ever possibly hope for. The U.S. is playing Ghana because it won its first-round group, while Ghana finished second in its group. If the U.S. wins, it will face the winner of group-winner Uruguay and second-place South Korea. England, which finished second in the U.S. group, has to play Germany. The winner of that game will play either Argentina or Mexico.
Let’s look at this numerically. There are two sets of rankings in world soccer. One is maintained by FIFA, the sport's governing body. In that one, the U.S. is 14th, Uruguay 21st, Ghana 27th and South Korea 49th. The other teams? Germany is 5th, Argentina 8th, England 9th and Mexico 17th. The second ranking system is the World Football Elo Ratings, which soccer geeks prefer for its more rigorous mathematical approach. (The Elo system also is used in games like chess, Go and Scrabble.) In the Elo standings, Uruguay is 11th, the U.S. 20th, South Korea 23rd and Ghana 28th. Meanwhile, Argentina, England, Germany and Mexico go, in order, 4-5-6-7. Yikes.
Bottom line: All World Cup teams are good. Advancing to the final four won’t be easy. But after opening against England, the U.S. conceivably could not play another of the world’s elite soccer nations until the semifinals. Wow.
The future of American soccer rests on this game. If you hear this, cover your ears and go: “LALALALALALALALALALALALALA!”
As I say on All Things Considered this afternoon, Landon Donovan’s stoppage-time goal against Algeria was indeed important because it 1) avoided a three-ties-and-out exit by the U.S., preventing the dwindling number of soccer know-nothings from raising that dumb old complaint about soccer; 2) demonstrated to the most engaged U.S. soccer audience ever how viscerally thrilling and nationally unifying soccer can be; 3) made possible this tear-making YouTube montage that helps debunk the notion that only pockets of Americans care about soccer; and 4) extends the general-public momentum for the tournament, giving ESPN (and Spanish-language Univision) another weekend of U.S.-fired ratings.
The media love do-or-die narratives. Had the U.S. tied Algeria and gone home, it would have been a bummer, but soccer’s progress wouldn’t have skidded to a halt. As I wrote four years ago after the U.S. lost to Ghana at the World Cup, this is a 20-year or 30-year or, as U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati told me last week, 50-year march. A loss to Ghana tomorrow won’t stop that.
But I don’t think the U.S. will lose.
Stefan Fatsis is a regular guest on All Things Considered. He’s also a panelist on Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen and the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic.