Tag Archives: USA

Landon Calling

7 Jul

Last week, I caught up with all-time leading USA goal scorer, Landon Donovan – a short profile and some thoughts on how American soccer should pursue its own style and method.

Landon Donovan was in the Bay Area last Saturday scoring for Los Angeles Galaxy in his team’s 4-3 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes before a sell-out crowd at Stanford. Is he the best US player of his generation? Cue the stats – all-time leading scorer for the national team with forty-nine goals, the leader in assists, a career spanning over a decade with one hundred and forty three appearances for the country. He is the public face of American soccer internationally. And he’s earned respect by demonstrating purpose and leading by example.

Now a veteran, he offers advice to the next generation of US soccer players. “As a young player you can tend to get caught up in one good game or one bad game, one good moment or one bad moment or one good team or one bad team. If you are in it for the long haul, there are lots of ups and downs,” he said last week when I caught up with him by phone. “The players I have most respect for are those who play year after year and have been very consistent and that is the hardest thing to do.”

Soccer’s rigors are intense. A few years ago, I watched Donovan train in Los Angeles. He was tireless, outpacing his teammates in challenges, firing shots at the goalie with an intensity equal to the force expected during a match. How does he prepare mentally for games?

“I do different sorts of, I guess you’d call it, meditation,” he says. “At this point in my career, I have played quite a few games. So it is not that I am going to come to a match and have some kind of realization. I do think about the specific opponent that I am dealing with and I try to be positive with myself and envision doing positive things in the game.” Strike that as a California attitude.

Donovan’s colors rose on scoring key goals for the USA. His strikes in the 2002 World Cup run to the quarterfinals helped bounce interest in the domestic game at a time when there were doubts to its survivability. And his famous last minute winning goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup unleashed a wave of patriotism that carried soccer’s message to all stars in the Union – this foreign game has an American stamp.

Last Saturday’s match at Stanford was a thrill beyond the norm. Ninety minutes of rollercoaster game action, a noisy spectacle bookended by a salute to the armed forces and fireworks celebrating the Fourth of July. Look at the contrasting styles between this match and the prize games of the recently concluded Euro 2012. At Stanford, we enjoyed an adventurous game of openness and space, goal loaded and wild. At Euro 2012, a taxing economy of European soccer obsessed with possession and control. For sure, the better odds of victory in international match ups lie with technically superior teams with powerful club traditions. But emerging US soccer has its own flavor and should not be afraid to develop its own methods. Flying down the field and heading for goal is the portrait Landon Donovan can hang in the soccer Hall of Fame. Call it the American game – willing and ready to bang.

The Dark Ages – What if the USA Failed to Qualify for Brazil 2014?

6 Jun

Imagine the scene – Clint Dempsey’s face is covered by the darkest shadow and it has nothing to do with forgetting to pack his razor. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, once the blond, now the gray, is catatonic. TV images show the colors on US painted faces dissolving in tears. The Stars and Stripes is lowered at the stadium. Somewhere inside the byzantine FIFA, bureaucrats ransack files to find a reason to disqualify a small country already packing for the beaches of Rio. No one steals the economic thunder of World Cup corporatism – but no reason can be found, and FIFA has to keep its new nose clean. The USA is out. A dark specter haunts the soccer fields of America. Fans are starved of USA! USA! Enemies pounce and eviscerate the alien game – the haters have been waiting for this moment for a long time, those foul bastards. Play the scary music. Would it be a dark age for US soccer?

Think of this argument. Major League Soccer’s existence, founded 1995, is enveloped through the four-year cycle of World Cups. And its growth has been connected to the success and failures of the US team at the tournament. At France ’98, the national team played rubbish and went home early. By 2002, there were questions as to whether MLS might survive – franchises were going bust. The surprising US quarter-finals appearance in the World Cup that year – including the rise of  Landon Donovan’s star and victory over Mexico – transfused interest. Expansion followed. Leap forward to South Africa 2010 and Landon Donovan’s famous last minute strike against Algeria which sent waves of patriotism around the fifty states. US soccer was stocked again and MLS got even fatter. So what would MLS feed on if the nightmare was real?

MLS has built silos in its field. Soccer specific stadiums for one. A place called home for the majority of its teams. Stock them with the grass roots fan movement that has been nourished on a diet of organic soccer and foreign grains. The many who have played the game, fans who cross over from other sports, those who occasionally migrate from the sofa-centric fix of the Fox Soccer Channel to attending a domestic game. Irrigate some TV revenue and the odd foreign star showing up for his American swansong. Look over the horizon to the promise of the sun rising on Russia 2018.

But no one wants to go there. In Klinsmann we trust. Produce enough aggression and finishing to carry the flag to Rio. USA kicks off its World Cup qualifying run against Antigua and Barbuda on Friday June 8 followed by a trip to Guatemala on Tuesday June 12. Six points in the feed bag would keep the sun shining. Rio, here we come.

American Immigrant

15 Jun

us soccer fed

Immigrant. The old country is Scotland. And the old American story, yeah, yeah, yeah, we all   came from somewhere else. But when do you actually become an American, for an immigrant when does the tipping point occur? Well, glad to say it happened to me last week in Chicago.

The United States was playing in a crucial soccer World Cup qualifying game against Honduras. Soldier Field was packed, the atmosphere electric, proof that soccer’s stealth popularity was on the rise. Granted, sixty per cent were Hondurans, many of whom had flown in from around the country. The motel at the airport was jammed with Honduras supporters.

A Scottish pal had the extra ticket, and he was rooting for the Hondurans. There was no way he was supporting the Yankee imperialists. He tried humming his oppressed allies national anthem. Then I heard, Oh say! Does that star spangled banner yet wave?

It surprised me that so many patriotic American sports fans ignored a chance to root for America, preferring to sing to each other whoopy versions of the anthem between hot dog bites, at the onset of sedentary baseball games. Soccer offered the chance to show the world the American spirit. It was unpatriotic not to get behind the national team. In the distance, I could see Uncle Sam’s Army of fans behind the goal. They were ecstatic with American fervor.

The tipping point came mid-way through the second half. The USA scored their second goal, breaking the tie, and I found myself bursting the air with bombs of delight. Besides me was an Honduran kid, no more than ten years old, his face painted in the colors. He looked at me with disappointment in his eyes.

Already, I had a passport. But documents mean nothing. You can buy them. What makes you American? For me, it was the old glory of a goal.