Which shifts a lot of the blame from Wicky over to the people who appointed him. U.S. Soccer’s brain trust in Chicago. What on earth were they thinking? One is forced to the opinion that they didn’t do any thinking at all, or at least any soccer thinking. Bringing in a foreign coach with minimal experience of the American game, a coach who could not possibly know much, if anything, about the players who already made up the pool? A coach who was supposed to bed in quickly (he had seven months) and ... well, and what?
What did these non-thinking super-experts in Chicago expect Wicky to do? Win the U-17 World Cup? I fear they may have been thinking something like that. The recent history of the U.S. U-17, U-20, Olympic and senior teams has been heavily embroidered with fanciful claims of victory -- claims that persist even though the reality of the results repeatedly tells a much less ambitious tale.
The irony is that this time, with this group of boys, there indeed was more solid ground for optimism. That was based on the fact that there was, for the first time, a core of players (seven of them) who had first-team experience with MLS clubs.
The optimists need a reminder: the USA is not, is never, the only country whose youth teams improve. For World Cup assessment, any U.S. improvement must be measured not against previous U.S. teams, but against likely current opponents. How much better than they used to be are, say, Japan or Korea, Nigeria or Senegal?
Yes, Senegal, who tromped all over the USA in the opening game.
It was obvious, painfully obvious, that the USA was not ready for the Senegalese. Going ahead 1-0 after just three minutes evidently kindled notions of U.S. superiority. Notions that were soon shattered as Senegal turned up the intensity. The USA seemed never to get out of first gear, as the lively Senegalese were zooming past them all over the field. The USA failed to respond, continued to play as though it was preordained that they would win comfortably.
Instead, looking increasingly bewildered and inept, it lost 4-1. What on earth was the problem? I’ve seen quite a few U.S. teams, at various age levels, lose games. But not like this, not looking like a team apparently unable to rise to a challenge.
Next up was Japan. Whose level of play has increased considerably over the past decade -- they are now Asian champions. The problem for the USA -- playing with an already large adverse goal difference -- was to make sure they didn’t lose. A loss would almost certainly spell elimination.
Two ways then: take it to the Japanese (the USA, surely, had the talent to do that, didn’t it?), or play a defensive game and be satisfied with a 0-0 tie (but hoping all the while for a breakaway goal and a 1-0 win). Wicky chose caution, with the USA pulling everyone back whenever Japan had the ball. An unappetizing approach that worked in that it got the 0-0 tie and the USA at least played cohesively. Yet ... they didn’t look too comfortable doing it. Rightly so. Youth soccer, if it has a character of its own, is an attack-minded sport, a lively sport full of flamboyance and risk-taking. Open, unpredictable, exciting soccer ... before the seriousness and the responsibilities of the pro game and pro coaching have taken over. That is not what we got from the USA whose play now took on a rather mechanical, robotic look, in which avoiding errors took precedence.
So, a win against the Netherlands in the final group game would be necessary. That looked within reach, given that the Dutch had lost its first two games, giving up six goals and looking close to apathetic.
Both teams needed the win, but it was the Dutch who took off and played an inspired game. Once again, as in the first game, the USA never seemed able to raise its game. Defeat was inevitable, ignominious. The 4-0 scoreline could have been worse.
Who to blame? The coach, for a start, of course. It was Wicky’s job first to instill confidence, then to raise spirits when things weren’t going well. Yet the USA looked ludicrously overconfident against Senegal in its first game, competent but unimaginative against Japan, and finally -- and woefully -- thoroughly dispirited against the Netherlands.
But not all the blame lands on Wicky. There were players on the U.S. team who played poorly -- certainly below the level to be expected from national team players. Wicky can be blamed for some of these failures -- after all, the players were his choices, and he persisted with one or two who should surely have been dropped.
I do not, for one moment, believe that this poor performance in Brazil reflects the truth about American youth soccer. The players are better than they looked.
The lion’s share of the blame belongs back in Chicago where the big decisions are made. But before anything sensible can be done by the Federation, it has first to recognize its errors and failings. There is no sign that is happening. We can take the recent disgrace of the Youth Task Force: Sixty people named to the task force, and not one of them a Latino male. Quite aside from this being a soccer outrage, it is also a resounding slur on the very large Hispanic soccer community. It calls for a public apology. The man who should make that apology, Federation President Carlos Cordeiro, has not been heard from. I think it fair to infer that he simply doesn’t care.
With that sort of leadership, the Federation will remain a sick body, out of touch with the soccer realities of the youth game, unresponsive to the changes that need to be made, unaware of its own considerable imperfections, and far too interested in hiring foreigners when the USA -- for the first time in its history -- is alive with a variety of young soccer talent that deserves to be encouraged, not ignored. The sport needs a Federation that gives it dynamic, intelligent leadership. It has got a Federation that is falling asleep on the sideline.
A final word or two on the matter of spirited play. We have seen a magnificent example in the U-17 World Cup. Give a thought to the guys from the Solomon Islands. First game: a 5-0 loss to Italy. Second game: a 7-0 loss to Paraguay. In their third and, obviously, last game, they ran into Mexico, who needed a big win. But the Islanders never gave up, running and challenging and trying to play soccer. Quite good soccer, at times. The very last kick of the game saw the Islanders on the attack, with a free kick 25 yards out from the Mexican goal. The ball went straight to the Mexican keeper. And that was that. The Islanders had given everything in a cause that they knew was futile even before the game began.
There’s probably no award for that sort of unquenchable spirit. Maybe there should be. It was exciting and uplifting to behold.