Friday, February 20, 2009

Do You Believe in Miracles

It was 29 years ago this Sunday that Al Michaels shouted that famous question: “Do you believer in miracles?”  A group of American college students, in a village in upstate New York, was on the verge of beating the Soviet Union’s hockey team, arguably the best national hockey team in the world, 4-3.  The economy was in the dumps, the USSR had invaded Afghanistan, the wounds of the Vietnam War remained open on the American psyche, Watergate was a fresh memory, and Americans were being held as hostages in Iran.  By beating the powerful Soviet Hockey Team, a group of young men from the Midwest and New England brought joy and pride to a country in desperate need of something to smile about.  That they went on to win the Gold Medal by beating Finland is a footnote, it was that match on a Friday February 22, 1980 that brought the country together, if for just a brief joyous moment.

Has US Soccer had its miracle moment?  The 2002 World Cup finals could have been, with amazing victories over Portugal and Mexico and an amazing game against Germany in the quarter-finals, but 2002 was not that miracle moment for many reasons, including the fact that the time zone issue.  The women’s team may have had their miracle moment in the 1999 Women’s World Cup

Does US Soccer need a miracle moment?  While the 1980 Olympic victory may have cracked the door for more US players to get into the NHL, the NHL, while a good league, is not on par with the MLB or NFL, or even the NBA, which, at the time, often found its playoff games tape delayed.  While the 1980 victory made hockey something of a marquee Olympic sport for US television coverage of the games, the US team did not score another medal until earning the silver in 2002, after the IOC allowed the inclusion of professionals.  Meanwhile, for various reasons, the WUSA which was born in the wake of the 99 WWC met its demise in 2003.  So even if the Men’s US Soccer team gets its miracle moment, there might not be long term benefits for soccer in the US.

While this is not the late 1970s, things are rough in the U.S. right now.  Our economy is reminiscent of the 1970s, the U.S. is embroiled in two costly wars, and political partisanship has managed to polarize some aspects of American life.  Another miracle which brings America together, even if just for a day, would be a nice thing for the US right now.  But can US Soccer provide that miracle in South Africa 2010?

While the US team at Germany ’06 was not the team that made it to the quarter-finals in 2002, the team that Bob Bradley fields in 2010 will not be the Germany ’06 team.  Whether you agree or disagree with his tactics and style, Bob Bradley seems to have found the right way to win in CONCACAF.  While CONCACAF might not be as strong as UEFA, it has improved greatly over recent years and should only be taken lightly by fools.  The question that remains to be answered is whether Bob Bradley can find a way to beat teams from other Confederations.  While Bradley has some nice victories over Switzerland, South Africa, and Poland, his squad had lackluster performances against England and Spain, but then acquitted themselves nicely in a great nil – nil draw against Argentina.  This summer’s Confederations Cup could prove to be Bradley’s opportunity to make a statement on the world stage, should he choose to take the opportunity.  In light of FIFA’s rules regarding players get a four week vacation, Bradley will have to decide whether he will risk sacrificing this year’s Gold Cup in favor of the Confederations Cup, and considering he sacrificed the 2007 Copa America in favor of the Gold Cup so he can get to the Confederations Cup, it seems that Bradley is looking to make a splash in South Africa this summer.

But even if Bradley manages to put together a strategy and team that can pose a serious threat in the South Africa 2010, will the US care?  I think it will.  As it is, over the years the World Cup has managed to draw more and more Americans to their televisions, even if they are just rooting for the country where Grandpa and Grandma were born.  I think American success at the Cup could unite many Americans on a Sunday afternoon in July 2010, even if it is for just that afternoon.

It is too early to make any predictions for the 2010 World Cup finals, heck we still have plenty of qualifying left to go, but there is a part of me that would love to see another miracle, especially now, even if it is fleeting.  That being said, my request to Bob Bradley is that he takes a page or two from Herb Brooks’ 1980 strategic playbook.

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