The shortcomings of the U.S. team -- its early lapses on defense and lack of urgency, the total lack of scoring up front -- have been widely discussed in the wake of the loss to Ghana. But improving at striker will be the most difficult task.
Jozy Altidore -- who played really well against Algeria and very poorly versus Ghana -- shows both how far U.S. soccer has come and how far it still has to go. Altidore, pictured above, appears to be an elite athlete, with great size and speed. His rise is evidence that soccer is having success in attracting some of America's best athletes. But athleticism isn't enough to succeed in soccer. Altidore's skill level is good, not great, and even though he has room to grow at 20 years of age, if he were going to develop world-class skill, we'd have seen the evidence by now. He's certainly good enough to remain a starter and leader for the U.S. team over the next decade if he continues to improve, but the U.S needs to figure out how to develop a new generation of forwards. Robbie Findley, Hercules Gomez and the rest aren't going to get it done. (Apparently Charlie Davies was quite good, but it seems possible he'll never recover to full strength after that car wreck.)
I've often imagined that you could grab some of the best players from the NFL and NBA and, even though they've never played the sport before, give them a month's crash course in lacrosse, and they'd be able to beat the NCAA champion or the U.S. national team. There's a lot of good athletes in lacrosse, but they can't compare to the country's top pro athletes, particularly in football. You may be a nifty attackman, but you're going to be writhing on the ground in tears after 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis has been beating you with a six-foot metal stick for an hour. And no defenders would be able to stay in front of the Titans' Chris Johnson or the Vikings' Adrian Peterson.
Well, it's not the same with soccer. Even if our very best athletes gravitated toward soccer, that would only bring us a notch or two above level with respect to other countries, whose top athletes already play the sport. And being an athlete isn't enough. You need to have a special level of coordination with your feet, one you're either born with or not, and you need the intricate skill and feel for the game that come from playing several hours or more a day for your entire life.
Being a striker isn't easy. I flunked out of the position in high school and moved back to midfield. You can go long periods without getting the ball in space. You may not touch the ball at all for stretches of the game. But when you get your rare chances, you're expected to make the most of them, sometimes with just one or two touches on the ball. It's a results-driven position. Either you score or you don't. Our strikers don't score, so they're not good enough, and frankly they're not even close.
As for soccer as a spectator sport, I think despite all the hype Americans probably rediscovered in 2010 why they've never been interested in the first place. Let's face it: Soccer, while fun to play, can be boring to watch. That alone doesn't disqualify it from capturing Americans' interest. After all, baseball can be exceedingly boring to watch. And the experience of watching football, if you don't TiVo the games and zoom through the endless TV timeouts, can also be tedious.
But there's other factors. The diving in soccer is both out of control and, it seems to me, anathema to Americans' view of sports and sportsmanship. There's some flopping in basketball, but nothing on the level of what occurs every game in international soccer. Perhaps more importantly, Americans are slowly but surely pushing toward erasing human bias and error from officiating. Even baseball, despite the blown perfect game this season, is beginning to embrace replay. The World Cup defies this trend. Americans have been utterly repulsed by the arrogance and incompetence of FIFA when it comes to officiating -- the latest display of chutzpah being the talk of removing replays from stadiums so fans can't see the bad calls, rather than, you know, trying to fix the bad calls. Unless that situation improves -- and it's hard to say, even in light of Sepp Blatter's recent comments, if it will -- American fans may justifiably remain wary of international soccer and whether any team can ever really get a fair shake.