Monday, March 26, 2007

Goals, Goals, Goals... for the Red White and Blue!

The chanting, the cheering, and a whole lot of people speaking Spanish. So that’s what live soccer is all about. Yesterday was all about the world’s most popular game coming to Tampa. In a fun, friendly atmosphere beneath a clear blue sky the US Men’s National team defeated Ecuador’s national team 3-1 in an international friendly at Raymond James Stadium. It’s great that a “friendly” can involve several hard fouls, boo’s directed at the referee and a kick to the face.

Landon Donovan, the much beleaguered American star, was sensational on the pitch. The diminutive midfielder’s speed was too much for the Ecuadorian backfield as he slashed through their line almost at will. Donavan, wearing the captain’s armband for the first time under coach Bob Bradley, netted three goals, was denied on another and had a penalty kick taken away from him when the referee ruled (incorrectly) that he was taken down outside of the South Americans’ penalty area.

For the most part the fans that showed up were great. The early goal by the American squad energized the home side fans. While the 31,000 fans didn’t cheer with the game long passion of their English counterparts they didn’t do much to embarrass themselves as well. The only real blemish from a fan perspective was the guy behind us that kept imploring the rows in front to “sit down, SIT DOWN”. Umm fella; I hate to call you out in this very well read medium, but you’re at an international soccer game. You’re lucky people weren’t standing for the ENTIRE game.

That being said there was another annoying fan in front of us. I can’t say that he did anything particularly annoying – it was just the fact he was a Rutgers fan. Since Big Mike was wearing the blue of Seton Hall I thought there might be some Big East trouble in our section. Fortunately they were civil and all went well.

Speaking of blue I was quite impressed by the amount of Ecuadorian supporters that were in the Stadium. The blue and yellow jerseys numbered at least equal to the red, white and blue of the US supporters. For the fans that didn’t have any national gear (which wouldn’t be surprising since I checked three sports stores in the area on Saturday and none of them had any Team US shirts or hats for sale) they seemed to break out whatever soccer jersey they had in the closet. It was a veritable cornucopia of teams represented from Celtic to Manchester United with some Real Madrid’s and even a Tampa Bay Mutiny jersey or two.

Sam’s Army made its appearance with a large contingent in the north end of the stadium. While it wasn’t quite the sea of red that they hope full it was at least a sizable lake of red. They banged the drums and waved a large US flag. Donovan’s goals set them into a state of euphoria that I don’t think the Bucs have yet to inspire.

The game itself was entertaining. If there were any casual fans in the crowd then they should be swayed when it comes to how entertaining a soccer game can be. Big Mike was quite the prognosticator as pre-game he predicted a 3-2 US Victory. His happiness was tempered by the Rutgers Fan and the fact that he had to cave in and give the Glazer family $5.50 for a Coke.
Along with Donavon’s superb game his roommate Brian Ching played strong despite getting the boot in the face mentioned earlier. He only missed a few minutes before returning to the field with tissue jammed into what appeared at first to be a broken nose. Other impressive performances came from Oguchi Onyewu (you have no idea how bad I misspelled that before looking it up) and Michael Bradley, the coach’s son, who came on to start the second half.

One player that didn’t seem to impress on the field was Benny Feilhaber or as we called him “Number 5”. It wasn’t that he had a horrible game, but early on he struggled to match up against the bigger Ecuadorian forwards. Bad positioning led to him picking up a yellow card on rough takedown midway through the first half.

He played better as the game went on but I was surprised to see the papers today praising his play. The back line of the Americans struggled early, but as the game went on they seemed better organized. Jonathon Spector arrived late in the game and played strong. The young defenseman should enjoy a long and productive international career.

It was surprising to read today that many fans were quite dismissive of Landon’s performance in the game. The overwhelming opinion was one of, “nice game now do it when it counts”. It’s a bit unfair to blame all of the US struggles in World Cup play on his shoulders. The showing in Germany showed an overall bad strategy and performance by the entire US Soccer organization. While his performance in major competitions hasn’t been as scintillating as his performance in international friendlies such as this one he has become the most recognizable figure on the team.

With his performance under the bright Florida sun Donovan moved into a second place tie in international goals scored for the US. Also, lets not forget that alongside Donovan for his “disappointing” performances was everyone’s hero Claudio Reyna. The further removed Reyna’s playing days have become, the more mythical his stature.

My point is that this team, despite marketing efforts to the contrary, isn’t about one or two players. While Donovan scored the goals and garnered the headlines it was the play of Ching and the rest of the mid field that opened the field for the L.A. Galaxy star to bury his opportunities. Ching’s wonderful lead pass led allowed Donovan to use his speed on the breakaway goal. It was a sensational cross from DeMarcus Beasley minutes later that allowed Donovan to drill his third goal into the back of the net.

Isn’t it more American, more democratic to have a team of good players that play great together than to have one or two “superstars”? Bradley seems to understand that and allows the team to play that way. It would be a shame to alter what he’s built just to bring a big name coach in.

The bigger tests will come later in the year as the team plays games away from their comfort zones in the US. With CONCAF action right around the corner, they build on the success they’ve had since the dismal World Cup performance. I’m not asking that you buy tickets or paint your face for their upcoming games, but at least give them a chance. U.S. Soccer, give Tampa another chance as well. It would be nice to have them come into town more than once every twelve years.

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