Phony Hysteria over U.S. World Cup Quest

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 world.

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.

Yet, for 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 to qualify.

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 ball wide."

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.


19 comments about "Phony Hysteria over U.S. World Cup Quest".
  1. David Giordano, June 8, 2009 at 8:20 a.m.

    Alexi Lalas is a joke. He is currently the next aging "superstar" that has been plucked and put in a position to speak for the many soccer pundits in the sport. Unfortunately, he doesn't represent the rational thinking, soccer knowledgeable people who understand that American soccer will never achieve the level of the Europeans until they tone down the physicality and improve the technical aspects of the game. When that happens, the tactical piece will automatically improve as well. Lalas is a boor, and misguided.

  2. Timothy Santoro, June 8, 2009 at 10 a.m.

    Is this the same Alexi Lalas that ran two MLS franchises into the ground?

    And please, let's not talk of want, desire, commitment, grit and every other British term outside of the technical and tactical parts of the game. Talk the game!

    Our lack of technical speed, lack of individual creativity/skill in the attacking phase and the defenders who are, not only poor on the ball, but, yes, poor defenders.

    And, how about Bradley's tactics. How many times are US coaches going to make drastic tactical and personnel changes before/between big matches/competitions? Sampson and Arena both did it. Is Bradley following the lead?

  3. , June 8, 2009 at 10:03 a.m.


    It was very annoying listening to the ESPN coverage. Soccer Analyst? It's like more like overhearing a bunch of former college players whine from the alumni tent as they watch their old team lose at homecoming. Costa Rica deserves all the credit for an impressive home win. They played some great soccer, especially the passing that lead to the second goal. But you didn't hear the ESPN crew give any credit to Costa Rica.

  4. Doug Lister, June 8, 2009 at 10:52 a.m.

    you're all wrong. They didn't get after it. Anytime you sit back and let the other team determine the pace of play and possess the ball without pressure, you're doomed. Alexi may not be very likeable, but he was right about lacking heart. None of you addresses the issue. It's a beautiful game, but it's a contact sport. Get the ball and put a body on somebody. The first two goals were scored because nobody stepped up. They failed to play like they wanted to win. They sat back and let the Ticos pass them to death. Maybe it was being on the road, maybe it was the lack of playing time, maybe it was the fact that they'd not played together in more than a month, but they came out flat.

  5. Dragos Axinte, June 8, 2009 at 11:15 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner is right on this. We have had too many games where the play-by-play commentator and the analyst forget about their jobs and instead give us a piece of their big minds by providing irrelevant "coaching" to the team. I am guessing that the idea is that the American public needs soccer education, but I know that many of us would rather hear who from Costa Rica made that great last pass or snuck the ball behind two Americans. This has been a problem with TV soccer commentating for ESPN for so long, that it leaves me with 2 major questions?: (1) Am I better off turning off the TV volume during games and playing music over the video of the game? and (2) Can we find someone else among our 300 million inhabitants who can actually relay a game properly? If not, we should groom our commentators like we groom our midfielders.

    Lastly, although I always agree with Mr. Gardner's views of the TV commentators' performance, a third question pops to mind: shouldn't criticism of the media be left to us, the fans, rather than to other members of the media?

  6. Greg Fernandes, June 8, 2009 at 11:18 a.m.

    Yes, the U.S. came out flat, but that's something anyone could see, even people who don't watch soccer. You don't give up 2 goals inside the first 13 minutes if you don't come out flat.

    You're right, soccer is a contact sport. But maybe the first two goals were scored because Costa Rica's players put together some nice passes. Why do some people watching soccer in this country insist on boiling everything down to the players not getting stuck in on tackles and not playing with heart? I think every player out there for the U.S. plays with heart, but they just came out flat and Costa Rica did not.

    I have no idea why Alexi Lalas is on TV...I hate listening to him- he offers nothing insightful, just the same old stuff we've already heard from JP and John.

  7. , June 8, 2009 at noon

    Thank you Mr. Gardner. I've posted in that past my same beliefs on the subject of ESPN (and American Media in-general) commentary & analysis. Mr. Lister's post above, while technically accurate in most regards, is unfortunately a sterling example of what's wrong with US soccer. Indeed, Mr. Lister, it is a contact sport. But when we approach it like football (as opposed to futbol) and tell our young players to "put a body on somebody," we only perpetuate the basic weakness of our game... specifically a lack of finesse. It certainly takes strength & physical play to compete on the international level; but the focus on that single dimension is at the expense of the development of the other technical and tactical skills which will be required to ever see us consistently advance beyond the first round of World Cup play.

  8. David Sirias, June 8, 2009 at 12:27 p.m.

    Paul, I know this was a television critique, and I'm not going to repeat what you and other have said about ESPN's coverage. But I'd like you to comment on Bob Bradley right NOW. The timing is perfect. The Honduras win should not be Bob's reprieve. I'm in that camp that has been demanding Bob's head since last spring when he was calling up Josh W and EJ. What was Bob doing beginning a must win game with 2 defensive mids, one of whom, Pablo M, who also is no longer worthy of call ups? Why is Beasley on the team at all and why was he subbed in, with Adu and J Torres not even suited up? Please comment on the last minutes of the game, when Beasley was in at left back, again! Yes, Bornstein had a cramp. However such a situation should have never occured. Why is Dempsey an auto starter? Costa Rica was the beginnning of Bob's elixer of incompetence coming to boil, not the end. Oh, we'll probably get to SA. The path was made much easier by even greater incompetence from Mexico. But the end will be 3 and out in SA with Bob in charge. Is that the objective to which US Soccer aspires? The timing is right Paul. Have at it.

  9. Kent James, June 8, 2009 at 1:19 p.m.

    Not giving credit to the Costa Ricans for their first two goals is almost criminal. Dribbling through two players (Mastroeni was probably beaten because he was "stuck in") and then hitting the upper ninety was a sweet play on the first goal, and on the second, the quick, accurate passing that led to a tremendous shot could only be admired for the quality that it was. So those goals were more because of good offense than poor defending (though on the 2nd goal, I think it was Onyewu who should have recognized the give and go and gone with it at top speed). The third goal probably was more poor defense.
    That being said, the US did allow the Costa Ricans too much time and space for much of the time. I'm not sure if it was an intentional tactic off low pressure or simply fatigue/lack of effort, but when the Ticos moved the ball around anywhere other than in our box, we seemed to be half-heartedly challenging them, and doing nothing to shut down their passing options. So yes, we need commentators to recognize that sometimes brilliance on the part of the opposition is the reason we lost, and clearly someone like Harkes, who was an English-style player and played professionally there probably does emphasize the "blue-collar" defensive work that needs to be done a little too much (though it is necessary and often not recognized), but in his defense, he was singing the praises of Torres, who played very well and was inexplicably taken off at half time. Although I am not a fan of JP, I think Harkes does a pretty good job (Chris Sullivan is more perceptive, but Harkes can be entertaining...)

  10. Lloyd Elling, June 8, 2009 at 1:22 p.m.

    Good Afternoon Mr. Gardner, The USA played terrible against Costa Rica. Costa Rica is a quality team and a force in our region. The game was in Costa Rica and the home teams are meant to have an advantage. Cheers to Costa Rica!!

    The USA fan is becoming more and more knowledgable about the sport of soccer. Our "TV Anouncers" fail to understand that we TV fans of soccer can analyze and complain equal to the "talking heads". When I get annoyned by Lalas & the rest, I turn off the sound and change the channel for the time they are given to waste my time or intelligence.

    Costa Rica beat us with superior technical skills and creativity. Their home based fans were outstanding. Mexico is next and in La Azteca Stadium....we could win there for the first time ever as Mexico is self-destructing. This is how to make a statement. Paul, let's sit together in Mexico and raise our signs up to ESPN....GIVE US THE MICROPHONE!

  11. Joseph Breault, June 8, 2009 at 2:14 p.m.

    Right on with your comments about Lalas. However, none of this is surprising as criticism without substance is the stock and trade of US commentators for the most part. The US Soccer club is as tight as a 1960's all white golf club in Georgia. They protect their territory very aggressively as was seen in the reaction to the Klinsman demands for control of the development system. So, we get a Lalas as an "analyst." In reality what do we have available in the country and that level of analysis is exactly equal to the level of competent managing and training that is occurring in the development of our vast youth conglomerate.

    As for Bob Bradley, he is going to do no worse or better than anyone else we have hired from within. Players make the coach, not the other way round at the highest level. Give Alex Ferguson this player pool and he would have retired long ago...

  12. Doug Lister, June 8, 2009 at 4:55 p.m.

    It was technically correct in all regards. Playing with heart not only means getting after it, it also means showing up in good shape because it's your job. It means working your butt off to be the best that you can be. You put that jersey on, you give it everything that you've got because you've made a committment. As for what happens to Bob, I'll reserve judgement until after the confed cup. Then we'll see what happens. Give lots of credit to the Ticos, they played a fine game, an excellent game, but there was a lack of effort and cohesion on the part of the American side. Let's just see what happens in SA next week. As far as Eddie Johnson not being worthy of a call from time to time, you really ought to see how he does in Cardiff when given the chance. He plays pretty well.

  13. John h Borja, June 8, 2009 at 7:51 p.m.

    Lalas is a bit pedestrian when it come to soccer analysis. But here's the thing, the U.S. played horribly in Costa Rica. As in many sports, it's the defense that makes or breaks a team. There was no defense in Costa Rica. There is no excuse for that...anywhere in any sport. We'll qualify for the WC, but there is a wall that everyone recognizes that needs to be broken. That wall is about creativity. I saw some creativity on Saturday, but the U.S. need much more. Landon Donovan is good, no question, but not great...too many errors with other teammates. And, I'm sorry, but Bradley cannot bring his son on as a starter. He's good, but he's just MLS good. He's not WC good.
    We have great people in the U.S. and we need to bring them!

  14. Doug Huston, June 8, 2009 at 10:14 p.m.

    Having watched both games and listened to the commentators, in some respects, I agree with Paul. However, understand that commentators are there to create good TV.

    My biggest concern is the lack of passion displayed by the team. In Costa Rica they just mailed it in. They might as well have fielded the U-21 team. Against, Hondurus, the first half looked suspiciously the same. Only, in the second half did some spark emerge. Is there a problem with the players and the coach? Is there a certain attitude between those who play in Europe, looking down their collective noses at those who play in MLS? Something doesn't seem right and I can't quite put my finger on it except to say, the last 2 games were not what I expect, effort wise, from our National Team.

  15. Joseph Krakora, June 8, 2009 at 10:57 p.m.

    Paul, you are usually a self-important fellow who thinks he knows more soccer than the rest of the world but I agree with his assessment on this. The first goal by Costa Rico was a terrific piece of skill to avoid the tackles and hit a perfect shot. The US was outplayed by an inspired team at home but I doubt it will impact the US chances for qualification. On the other hand, I find it depressing that a country the size of ours has trouble finding 11 soccer players capable of beating a country as small as Honduras. My other problem is having the coach's son start in center midfield in every match. I am quite certain that there is a great deal of resentment on the team about that.

  16. B F, June 8, 2009 at 11:28 p.m.

    "Alexi may not be very likeable, but he was right about lacking heart."

    He may have been right. But he wasn't made more right by the fact that he said it about 20 times between the two match days. His "analysis" was reduced to taking a rather obvious fact (that the US played with little energy in San Jose) and repeating it ad nauseum. It was rubbish commentary. The analyst is to tell us what we don't know, not to belabor what is blindingly obvious.

    Joseph, you're dead wrong. Michael Bradley has demonstrated ON THE FIELD beyond any shadow of a doubt that he's our best central midfielder. He's there on merit.

  17. , June 9, 2009 at 8:27 a.m.

    J Krakora

    I've been reading PG since I grabbed "The Simplest Game" off the library self in 1970somthing ... I never found him to be "self-important" ... i tnink he speaks for so many of us that love this game. furthermore, if I lived his life I would think I know soccer better than the rest of the world too.

  18. Doug Lister, June 9, 2009 at 11:09 a.m.

    How many other central midfielders do we have that start for a team in a top level domestic league? Let's see? Any others in Europe, South America? No. Let's see? When Borrussia Moenchengladbach needed to win some games to avoid relegation, who stepped up? oh Was it MB among others? Yes, it was. They'll be playing in the Bundesliga next year thanks to MB. As far as not being able to find 11 players capable of beating Honduras, maybe you should check the scoreboard. The only thing you said that makes any sense is "The US was outplayed by an inspired team". The rest of your post should probably be deleted as it's so far off base it doesn't merit publishing.

  19. Timothy Santoro, June 9, 2009 at 11:28 a.m.

    Read Paul Gardner's piece from May 2009, "Envisioning an American version of soccer." It is absolutely dead right and is a synopsis of problems in our soccer culture, including those addressed in this blog. A great piece of writing that all American soccer fans should read.

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