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How I almost missed the dramatic U.S. victory over Jamaica

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I received an email from Stampede Sports, the name of the indoor soccer facility where I’ve played on a team the past couple years. It was an invitation to come watch the US v. Jamaica World Cup qualifier in Stampede’s bar area, creatively dubbed “The Corral”.  The email made the event sound very exciting, including that it would be the first gathering of the Southlake chapter of the mighty American Outlaws (the US men’s national team supporters group).  I’m certainly not in the habit of watching my soccer matches in pubs or bars, primarily because I don’t drink.  But in this case I perked up since all of the US’ away qualifiers are only televised on the be In Sports channel, which I don’t get on my cable package.

So, right after I read the kids a goodnight story I threw on my US jersey from World Cup 2010 (the one with the beauty pageant sash) and headed for Stampede Sports in Southlake (about a 20 minute drive).

I arrived at “The Corral” at 8:30, just in time for kickoff, but there was no soccer on the single big screen TV hanging above the bar.  The few patrons seemed oblivious to any imminent World Cup qualifier.  There were no American Outlaws in sight.

I found a flight of stairs.  Aha!  I wasn’t aware that Stampede had an upper bar area.  The gathering must be upstairs.  I jogged up the stairs, afraid that I’d miss an early surprise goal by Clint Dempsey or more likely a squandered chance by Jozy Altidore.  Alas, no one was upstairs and the sole TV was turned off.

I jogged back downstairs.  The bartender changed the channel… to a Texas Rangers game.  I nearly broke into a cold sweat.  Did I dream up this qualifier?  It was June 7th, right?  I checked my watch to verify.

I suddenly remembered there were a couple party rooms at the far end of the arena.  Duh!  Why hadn’t I thought of those in the first place?  Surely the big watch party was there.  I jogged down to the rooms only to find them completely empty, lights turned off, doors locked.  This was not cool.

Ten minutes of the match were already gone.  I jogged to the front desk and asked where the game was being shown.  The teenaged girl manning the desk barely looked up as she replied (as if it were no big deal), “Oh yeah, we’re not showing it.  We don’t have that channel.”

“We don’t have that channel”?  Don’t have that channel?  But what about the email invitation?  What about the American Outlaws?  Why was I the only one that seemed to care that there was a crucial World Cup qualifier in progress?  I could feel my pulse in my temples.  This was turning into one of those dreams I periodically have where I’m running all over trying to find something or someone and never succeed.

I jogged back to my car without a plan.  Where could I possibly watch this game?  If I were in Europe or South America I’d probably just have to drive a couple blocks and look for a crowd spilling out of a shop or café broadcasting the game.  But not in Southlake, Texas – the ultimate suburban oasis.  If I wanted a designer latte, fancy ice cream, to see a movie, or purchase an Apple product, I’d be in business.  But finding a place to watch US v. Jamaica here on short notice?  I might as well be in the Australian outback.

I thought about calling my friend Kristian, but I was pretty sure he didn’t get be In Sports either, plus he lived in Arlington which would be another 30 minute hike from Southlake.  I thought about my friend Jim (the former professional mascot) but it was getting late, he’s working on his doctoral thesis, and his wife is pregnant with their second child, so I didn’t really want to bother him.

I hopped in my car, started driving, and dialed up the only fake person I could think to turn to:  Siri.  I asked her for Buffalo Wild Wings locations in Bedford.  I hadn’t been to a BWW in probably a decade, but I remembered they have lots of TVs.  Surely one of them was tuned to US/Jamaica.  Siri zapped me a map in a flash.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled into the strip mall parking lot where I thought the Buffalo Wild Wings used to be.  It was gone.  Had Siri led me astray?  I checked her map again.  No.  I was wrong – the restaurant moved in the decade since I’d been there and was now on the other side of the freeway.  I checked the time, disheartened.  It was nearly halftime already.

As I drove to the Buffalo Wild Wings I refreshed the match score on my phone… the US had scored!  I whipped into the parking lot and could already see multiple TVs tuned to the game.  Yes!

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I asked to be seated outside on the patio because the night air was unusually pleasant for north Texas in June.  I got a table and a menu just as the players left the field for halftime.  As soon as I sat down, the only other groups using tables on the patio finished up and left and I was suddenly sitting outside, in the darkness, all alone, in my US jersey.

Though I’d already had dinner and wasn’t hungry, I felt obligated to order something.  But my wife Trevlyn had me on the caveman diet, so a soda was forbidden.  I gritted my teeth and ordered an unsweet tea.  I hoped Trevlyn would forgive me for the chips and salsa I also ordered (chips aren’t caveman diet approved either).

The waitress asked me if I’d like to have the sound turned on outside.  I certainly did.  Soon, I was kicked back with my own snack, two high-def TVs, with surround sound, and a cool breeze blowing.  Did it make up for missing the entire first half?  Probably not, but it wasn’t a bad consolation.

Still, it wasn’t quite the same without any fellow fans to cheer on the US with.  I called my brother Dan, who has started his extreme busy season as a summer camp director, in the off chance that he was actually getting to watch the game live.  He’d just started watching the recording so we couldn’t discuss the action or gripe about players in real time.  He said he couldn’t stay on the phone long because he didn’t want to read any spoilers in my tone, but we started talking about Star Trek Into Darkness and ended up on the phone ten more minutes anyway.

Into darkness is exactly where I and all other true US soccer fans plunged when a victory that seemed relatively in hand disappeared with a Jamaican equalizer in the 89th minute.  I blamed Graham Zusi.  The Sporting KC midfielder lazily mistimed his jump for a header against a Jamaican player who won the ball and might have raced past Zusi had Zusi not tripped him and earned a yellow card.  The match commentators commended Zusi for a “smart” foul, but I’m not convinced the play would’ve been much of a threat had he not fouled.  Jamaica lined up the resulting free kick within easy distance of the US box.  Sure enough, the ball floated in and Jamaica’s Jermaine Beckford easily waltzed through and headed the ball into the goal past a frozen Tim Howard.

All my effort scrambling around suburbia like an obsessed treasure hunter suddenly seemed madness.  Why did the US team constantly break my heart so?  Why can’t they finish out games when they have the lead?  Why did I have to be on this wretched caveman diet when I’m not even a caveman?

As I stewed and pouted into stoppage time, the US pushed the ball up field with semi-urgency.  They earned a corner kick.  Michael Bradley played it short to Zusi, who wisely returned it to Bradley.  Bradley turned sharply toward the end line trying to beat his Jamaican marker.  Bradley looked covered but he struck a pass anyway.  Brad Evans received Bradley’s pass with his back to goal, spun and ripped a desperate shot that zipped into the upper right corner past Jamaica’s Hulk of a keeper Donovan Ricketts.

I was dumbfounded.  This.  Never.  Happens.  To.  The.  US.

I suddenly wanted Brad Evans posters for my office.  I even contemplated not cheering against him next time Dallas plays Seattle.

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Sure, a draw wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but the away win provided the US with some welcome breathing room.

I paid my bill and walked to my car.  The restaurant seemed unusually empty for a Friday night.  What a match!  The whole spectrum of sports fan emotion, dejection to elation, in under five minutes.  America doesn’t know what it’s missing.

Klinsmann v. Donovan

Landon unwisely left out in the cold for upcoming U.S. games

Landon Donovan

Last week, US Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann released his roster for this month’s friendlies and the World Cup qualifiers in June.  The big brouhaha is his failure to include Landon Donovan on the list.

Though the team’s overhaul hasn’t materialized quite the way I hoped it would by now under Klinsmann’s guidance, I continue to give him the benefit of the doubt.  The team is a work in progress of course, but it is precisely because it’s a work in progress that it seems crazy to leave out Landon Donovan.  The team needs him during the course of figuring out the best starting eleven mix for the 2014 World Cup (and even after that’s figured out, it’s hard to imagine Donovan not being one of those starters).

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Is anyone on this latest roster – besides Clint Dempsey or perhaps Michael Bradley – currently a stronger overall player than Landon Donovan?  It’s hard to imagine Argentina leaving out Messi, or Portugal leaving out Ronaldo.  Yes, Donovan’s older than those superstars, but his leadership, stature, and quality are of parallel importance to the U.S.

I’m not sure the tension and controversy created by omitting Donovan is the kind of division you want to have when you’re about to enter the heart of World Cup qualifying.  What would’ve been the harm in putting Donovan on the roster?  It doesn’t mean you have to play him if you don’t think he’s up to par.  It seems there’s much more to lose by leaving him out.

If Donovan doesn’t make the roster later this summer for the Gold Cup, and the US makes it to the semifinals of that tournament (for which I have a ticket), I’m going to be an extremely disgruntled camper – along with a lot of other US soccer fans.

What do you think about Donovan getting left out?

Not Cool, Mon

Jamaica puts U.S. in a dreadlock with 2-1 defeat

My thoughts exactly.

Clint Dempsey scored for the U.S. in the first minute of last night’s World Cup qualifying match in Kingston, Jamaica.  Looked like it was going to be a good night for the U.S.  But it wasn’t.  In unfortunately typical fashion, the U.S. flushed away their crucial road lead, this time by granting Jamaica two free kicks, which the Reggae Boyz converted to goals.

I don’t want to completely flog the U.S. team; after all, they’ve shown a lot of promise since Klinsmann took over and have enjoyed some good friendly wins this year.  But I do want to decry something that has bothered me for years about the U.S. men’s teams:  their lack of mental discipline in matches.  You’ve got to think out there.  For the full 90 minutes!  In the heat of battle it often seems this raw, brute force, overly aggressive American athletic instinct takes over that produces boneheaded fouls in dangerous areas and at inopportune times.  When will we learn?

And when will we learn that 1-0 leads aren’t enough in World Cup qualifiers away from home?  They usually aren’t enough in World Cup qualifiers at home either.  It may be enough of a lead for the Spains and Brazils of the world, but not for us!

One last vent… Kyle Beckerman – seriously?  I’m a Jurgen Klinsmann fan overall.  I like that he’s mixing things up personnel-wise, giving players like Brek Shea an opportunity.  But I don’t get what he sees in Beckerman.  I know we missed Donovan and Bradley in the lineup last night, but why not try Bocanegra in a holding midfield role, or start Shea?  Spector, Jose Torres, and Zusi were also on the bench and are each a better option than Beckerman.

The only silver lining here is that the U.S. doesn’t have to wait long to right the ship.  The return leg against Jamaica is this Tuesday in Columbus.  Here’s hoping the U.S. can rally with a big shutout before their World Cup qualifying picture really gets messy.

Need to vent about the U.S. loss to Jamaica?  Feel free to comment below…

Scorin’ in the Rain

U.S. defeats Antigua & Barbuda in so-so fashion

The fact that fans are so critical of the U.S. national team is a positive indicator that U.S. Soccer is on the right track.  The team has made so much progress over the past twenty years that fans now hold the team to a higher standard.  I recall the days when a 3-1 victory like last night’s win over Antigua & Barbuda was a celebrated rarity.  Now we grumble that Antigua & Barbuda actually scored.

 

The U.S. wasn’t awful last night, just not as smooth as they were against Scotland a couple weeks ago.  Primarily, there was the defensive leak caused by Onyewu in the second half that granted A&B their goal.  Unfortunately, Onyewu just doesn’t seem up to the task right now.  He has a very long way to go to recover his starting spot.  Other issues included too many second half giveaways by the U.S., and a general concentration lapse in the last fifteen minutes that allowed A&B to press the U.S. goal.

It wasn’t a close match.  Most of the action took place in A&B’s half of the field.  But the U.S. couldn’t finish precisely enough to run up the score (which is important since goal differential matters in qualifying).  Granted, the monsoon weather conditions didn’t help.  A&B also had the box well clogged for most of the game.  The U.S. needs to shoot from outside the box more to draw out defenses, which in turn will sometimes open up space for those darting runs into the box that Donovan, Dempsey, and Gomez (last night) do so well.  Dempsey and Bradley tried a couple distance shots that proved tricky for the A&B goalkeeper.  The U.S. needs to increase outside shooting because most of their CONCACAF opposition will employ the same defensive strategy of stuffing the box.

On a positive note, Herculez Gomez has been such a breath of fresh air at forward instead of Altidore.  He works much harder – on and off the ball – than Altidore and will actually hustle back to pitch in on defense.  His hard work paid off with a goal last night.  I’ve been saying for a long time that Altidore has received far too many chances to prove himself, so it’s great to see Klinsmann open to trying Gomez instead.

It was great to open World Cup qualifying with a win, but the real test will come Tuesday night in Guatemala.  If the U.S. can improve their concentration and tighten up on defense, they should be fine.

How did you think the U.S. looked against Antigua & Barbuda?

Great Scot!

Thoughts on the United States’ 5-1 wallop of Scotland

Saturday night’s international friendly between the U.S. and Scotland in Jacksonville, Florida was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from a U.S. side.  Seriously.  The peppermint-striped Americans looked nothing like the defensive, lone-striker, mistake-prone teams we’ve suffered with over the years.  Instead, this group was energetic, organized, fast, aggressive, and passing out of their minds!  What is going on here?

The Americans’ shooting and finishing was none too shabby either.  Landon Donovan began the scoring festivities (his first of three!), joined later by a long-distance, half-volley rocket from Michael Bradley, and a header goal by Jermaine Jones.  The U.S. absolutely swarmed Scotland, particularly in transition play where the U.S. had many more options than they usually do.  Michael Bradley was fantastic – I never thought I’d be saying this but he might be the third best American player at the moment behind Clint Dempsey (first) and Donovan (second).  Another standout U.S. midfielder last night was Jose Torres.  I hope Torres continues to get starting nods for the U.S.

The U.S. was defensively firm as well, though Scotland didn’t threaten very much.  Even Scotland’s goal was an own-goal, scored after Kenny Miller headed the ball off U.S. center back Geoff Cameron.  Granted, Scotland doesn’t have the urgency of impending World Cup qualifiers like the U.S. does, but it was still a surprisingly (and pleasingly) dominating all-around performance by the U.S.

The U.S. is in a good place right now personnel-wise.  When is the last time a U.S. coach had this many choices at each position?  The most exciting aspect of last night’s victory was the Americans’ purpose-driven possession.  The U.S. has rarely, if ever, moved the ball so quickly and accurately, with plenty of goals to show for the effort.  Last night’s match was evidence that Jurgen Klinsmann is making his mark on the team as he approaches his first anniversary as U.S. head coach.  It was exactly the kind of offensive performance we hoped he would bring to the table.  This new-look U.S. team will really be put to the test on Wednesday against Brazil in Landover, Maryland.

Speaking of new looks, I was on the fence about those new red/white horizontal striped, Kirk Douglas-in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-inspired home jerseys for the U.S….

But after seeing the jerseys in action last night, I’m slipping on the negative side of the fence.  They just look a little too much like a costume for my taste.  The light-gray numbers don’t work for me – I’d rather seem them in blue.  While I appreciate the nod to the American flag, and while I’d like to see more red incorporated in the U.S. kit (which has traditionally been navy blue-dominant), I think Nike was trying a little too hard with this one.

What do you think of the new U.S. home kit?  Thoughts on the U.S. performance against Scotland?

The Italian Job

Thoughts on U.S. Men’s 1 – 0 defeat of Italy…

Yes, it was “just a friendly”, but the U.S. win over Italy on Wednesday is a very big deal.  A little historical perspective helps in fully appreciating just how far U.S. soccer has come the past twenty years.  For those who don’t remember the deer-in-headlights U.S. team of Italia ’90, trust me, we’ve come a loooooong way.  So even though it was a friendly, it is a very significant win for the U.S. – in Italy no less – that should give Klinsmann and company plenty of confidence heading into World Cup qualifying this summer.

It was still primarily a defensive effort from the U.S., but the apparent game plan worked.  They made the most of their few chances, with one of them finally paying off in Dempsey’s grass-burner of a goal early in the second half.  It was the kind of goal Dempsey seems to score almost weekly now for Fulham.  Too bad the World Cup isn’t this year in order to catch this guy in his absolute prime.  Still, as long as he stays healthy, he should be a major contributor in 2014.

In midfield, Michael Bradley was mature and poised.  His stint in Serie A this season is obviously paying off.  He needs to start every U.S. qualifier.  Maurice Edu was also very effective and I hope we get to see more of him.  Brek Shea didn’t have one of his better games.  His decision-making needs honing as he too often tries to dribble guys he shouldn’t and sometimes passes to covered teammates.  But he’ll grow out of that.  He makes up for his mistakes by hustling back on defense.  I like his work ethic and speed.  I hope he continues to get U.S. team minutes because he could be a huge factor by 2014.

The defense was leaky in the first half, but fortunately the Italians were repeatedly offside.  The last ten minutes were nerve-wracking, but the defense got the job done and Howard came up with some quality saves.  It’s no small feat to keep Italy scoreless in Italy!  I hope Klinsmann can settle soon on a core back line so they have plenty of time to gel in qualifying.

My only real beef with the U.S. lineup was Altidore.  Has any American player been given so much opportunity with so little to show for it?  Commentators continue to heap praise, but I don’t see what the fuss is about.  Against Italy he received raves for assisting Dempsey’s goal.  Sure, it was good that he saw Dempsey’s run, but it was a very routine layoff that every player on the field could have made.  Altidore just isn’t enough of a scoring threat.  If he has speed, he rarely uses it.  He’s strong, but rarely uses his strength to force his way toward goal with the ball.  Most of the time he seems content to try to draw fouls.  Yawn.  For my money, if the U.S continues to do the lone striker thing, Dempsey’s the ticket.

It wasn’t always pretty, but it was a unified effort from the U.S. to get a memorable win.  It’s a very long road to Brazil 2014 but the first couple steps are looking good.

Which U.S. players were standouts against Italy?  Feel free to weigh in below…