By Paul Gardner
It would seem that, with the USA's 2-1 victory over Honduras on Saturday, sanity and justice and decency and common sense have returned to the soccer
Those desirable qualities apparently went missing three days earlier with that Costa Rica 3 USA 1 scoreline. I mean ... the USA actually losing
a World Cup qualifying
game? How could that be?
Well, one way could be that the USA had a bad day, and Costa Rica played pretty well. Simple as that, and there's an end to it. Nothing particularly remarkable
-- and certainly nothing outrageous or sinister -- had occurred.
The U.S. players acknowledged the fact that they hadn't looked too good and said they would do better next time. As for the
coach, good old Banality Bob Bradley put forward his usual banalities, which were perfectly suitable for the occasion. At least, that way he can avoid saying something silly.
all the calmness in the U.S. camp, there was something bordering on hysteria emanating from sections of the media -- and particularly from the TV studios of ESPN. The impression came across that, yes,
my God yes!, something quite dreadful and menacing had happened, maybe even to the point where U.S. qualification for next year's World Cup was in danger.
Among the chief stirrer-uppers
of this laughable tempest in a teapot was ESPN's latest soccer analyst (that is the title that kept coming up on screen), Alexi Lalas. Lalas has most of the qualities that make for a good TV
personality -- but on the basis of his performance in this episode, he's lacking the qualities that are needed to live up to that analyst tag.
What we got from Lalas, rather than
analysis, was an emotional rant about how the U.S. players, down in Costa Rica, had lacked heart. He then "analyzed" the three goals given up, with the help of replays, and reduced them to nothing
more than a rule (the Lalas rule?) that when there are two U.S. defenders anywhere near a Costa Rican player, then they must win the ball. So the goals had little or nothing to do with the skill of
the Costa Ricans, forget about that, they were scored because the Americans had failed to exercise their right (Lalas made it sound like a divine right) to win the ball.
Having got that
out of the way, we then received a short lecture on the sterling properties of Conor Casey which were so far off the mark that I began to believe that Lalas was talking about a quite different player.
One thing about Casey that Lalas did not
mention, but should have done, was the likelihood that Casey -- who has a rather bulldozerish approach to the sport -- would get carded. It only took
20 minutes before that happened as Casey duly ploughed into Carlos Costly. At which point the other ESPN analyst, John Harkes, told us it wasn't a yellow card.
Amazingly, somehow or
other, the players coped with all this supposed adversity and won the game and put things back on track. Why that would surprise anyone, or why any one would have thought there was any crisis in the
first place beats me. Because under the current qualification requirements to the World Cup it is quite impossible for the USA not
Admittedly, that reality entails a
lack of suspense that is unlikely to go down well with the guys at ESPN. But isn't there enough soccer drama within each game itself without manufacturing a totally synthetic theme involving
accusations of the U.S. players lacking heart, and raising a soccer game to the level of a test of patriotism?
I would have thought so. Both these games -- against Costa Rica and then
Honduras -- were rich in incidents that were eminently analyzable. I don't mean from the emotional "we're always right" point of view adopted by Lalas, I mean from a strictly soccer angle, from the
viewpoint of soccer intelligence
. But, please, guys, could we step it up a bit from the two totally hackneyed insights that "you can't allow them so much space," and "you've got to play the
If that's all there is to soccer analysis -- and it seems that it may be -- then, frankly, we don't need loquacious analysts. An on-screen graphic shown every 10 minutes would
do the job nicely.
I must add a correction. I said earlier that Bradley had avoided saying anything silly. Not quite. His remarks about artificial turf may well have merit, but to make
them immediately after losing a game on artificial turf can only carry a strong whiff of sour grapes.