The FIFA Confederations Cup began four days ago, and for the United States Men’s National Team, it’s already over. Two games played, 1 goal scored and 6 allowed, and it’s curtains.
You would be forgiven for having no idea what I’m talking about. The Confederations Cup is a pretty minor event in world soccer, never mind in the American sports field. It is, essentially, a dry run of the World Cup, held the year before the main event is staged, in the host country for the World Cup, sunny South Africa in this case, and using the same venues. There are a quarter as many teams (8 instead of 32) and a quarter of the public interest. The entrants in the competition are the winners of the 6 FIFA confederations, the host nation, and the reigning World Cup champions.
This year’s contesting teams are World Cup 2006 winners Italy, hosts South Africa, and regional champs Spain (UEFA), Egypt (Africa), Iraq (Asia), Brazil (S. America), New Zealand (Oceania), and These United States, champions of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, held here in balmy Chicago 2 years ago (CONCACAF stands for Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, which is just silly). The teams are broken into two groups of 4, play 3 games a piece, and with 2 of them already over, the United States has scored 1 goal and come away with 0 points.
Now, it’s not all doom and gloom. The US were damned from the start by the group draw, and herein lies the major flaw in the tournament. Of the 8 teams, three are guaranteed to be powerhouses, those from South America (inevitably Brazil or Argentina), Europe, and the World Cup winners (Brazil, Argentina, or someone from Europe). As a matter of fact, this year those three are all within the top 5 of FIFA’s world ranking system, unintelligible as that system may be (a formula involving variables for strength of opposition, strength of region, decline in importance of results based on time, the amount of matches played, and then the actual result). The next highest ranked team in the Confederations Cup? Why, that’s the United States, at 15th. That’s a pretty serious drop off, with the US being ranked below the likes of Turkey and Paraguay. Now, the FIFA rankings are bizarre, and probably a little arbitrary and maybe even overly generous to the US. But the point remains, the United States are not basement dwellers, like co-contenders South Africa (72nd), Iraq (77th) and New Zealand (82nd).
So why have the US done so poorly, losing (and miserably at that) their first two games? Well, it’s not their fault really. The US had the grave misfortune to have been drafted into the vastly harder of the two groups. Group B includes the US, Brazil, Italy, and Egypt, and with only the top two from the group continuing, it was all but a foregone conclusion how things would pan out. For reference, consider that of all 8 teams, 5 are ranked above 50th – 4 of which are in Group B, 1 of which, Spain, is in Group A (along with SA,NZ, and Iraq). I would dare say that if the US had been placed in Group A, with one of the lesser teams trading places, the US would have certainly progressed to the semi-finals (and then lost miserably to Brazil or Italy).
Instead, what happened was an uncomplimentary 3-1 defeat by Italy (with a very interesting sub plot featuring an American-turned-naturalized-Italian/traitor scoring the two goals) and a masterclass lesson from Brazil. To advance now, the US would have to defeat Egypt by 6 goals, have Italy loose their two remaining games and go goalless throughout. It’s a bit embarrassing for what is supposed to be an up-and-coming footballing nation, a team for the future, as they say. Really, though, it just means that the United States Men’s Team is exactly where they should be. Perhaps it pulled the rug out from under a bit, but a little humility can do favors for a team like the US. They played their best in recent memory, after all, in the 2002 World Cup when they were distinct underdogs, the butt of jokes, and desperate to cram the jokes back down the throats of their detractors. It’s typically American – only performing well with a chip on their collective shoulder. It’s also typically American to expect our sports teams to be among the best in the world (see: weak US showing in World Baseball Classic and subsequent flagrant attempts to discredit the competition by sore loser sports media).
The US Men’s Soccer Team rarely play opposition of that sort, against the world’s top-most teams. Unlike baseball, there is a densely structured international system, so most of the time, the US is contesting regional competitions in which the strongest opponents are Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras. Sometimes Jamaica or Cuba puts up a fight, but mostly not. The US has dominated its region (CONCACAF) in what is being referred to as the “modern era,” meaning ever since soccer in America came out of its dark ages of the late 70s, 80s and early 90s (the World Cup in 1994/formation of MLS in 96 often used as the demarcation line). Much to the infuriation of Latin American nations for whom soccer is the national sport, the Americans have up-ended Mexico as the dominant force in recent years. But that only goes so far.
According to FIFA’s rankings (yes, I know, I use them a lot while discrediting them in the same space, but there’s no other quasi-statistical system), the other Big Boys in CONCACAF rank from Mexico’s 26th to Cuba’s 99th, meaning they are anywhere between “okay” and “dismal.” Which means that the US (and even Mexico and Costa Rica) are in a class of their own, the only stiff regional competition coming from each other, not, for example, from Barbados or Guatemala. Even the gap between the US and Trinidad and Tobago, who qualified for WC ‘06, is as large as that between Italy and the US. The Americans simply do not get strong enough competition on a consistent basis.
All of that makes for an ill-prepared United States soccer team when faced with true World Class opposition and unfortunately the US found itself with match ups against two of the absolute best this week, Brazil and Italy. Ultimately, I think, the real gauge will be the upcoming match against Egypt, champions of Africa. The United States desperately need competition like that, against other 2nd- and 3rd-tier teams, from which the players might actually take a lesson after a hard fought win or loss, rather than just frustration after an embarrassing hiding by one of the world’s elite.