Posted by: mdegeorge | June 12, 2010

The start of something great?

It was by no means the most inspiring performance by Team USA in their 1-1 draw with England in today’s Group C opener. But it was something even more important: a positive result.

A draw with England sets the Americans up much better for the future than the most beautiful of 4-3 losses ever could have. Beauty here is very much in the eye of the beholder, and that eye is holding a point.

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The structure of Group C is such that the results of match one is magnified. USA’s first opponent is, with all due respect to Slovenia and Algeria, the highest caliber they will face in the group; I guarantee you everyone on that team knew they would return home from the Royal Bafokeng Stadium singing one of two tunes.

Team USA could have boarded their bus disheartened at a poor performance and doubting their ability. They would know a five-day layoff awaits to stew over the loss and prepare for a do-or-die game that many believe they should win with a new-found degree of pressure.

Or, they could have ridden home with a wind in their sails and the knowledge that they have an extra day of rest. There’d be momentum to build on with the most daunting opponent behind them and confidence that any result against a team of England’s caliber could certainly be duplicated against less experienced foes.I think of it this way: imagine each opponent is literally a hurdle. England represents the first hurdle and is decidedly higher than either of the subsequent two. If Team USA gets over that hurdle, they might just be able to stay high and soar past the other two. If they fall flat, there’s no guarantee they can pick themselves off the ground, especially with most everyone expecting them too, and muster enough momentum to surpass the final two obstacles.

What I imagine Bob Bradley and company are feeling right now is a mix of the two. Something along the lines of, “Yeah, we didn’t play our best. Clint’s goal was as much to his credit as Robert Green’s blame. And they dominated large stretches of the game to where we were lucky to escape that second half with a result.

“But every good team benefits from a lucky bounce or two. Teams that get those bounces force them from their opponents. Clint made a great run from a position on the pitch where he had no business shooting and he made Green make the mistake. And yeah, England took the game to us a lot. But the fact that we could absorb that pressure with a previously suspect defense and still escape with a result bodes well for this team’s character.”

The hidden storyline is that by playing England level, a realistic chance of winning the group still exists, something that wouldn’t be the case had the Three Lions taken all three points. Team USA now knows they just have to get past Algeria and Slovenia in better shape than England. And the pay-off: avoiding probable Group D winner Germany in the Round of 16. With all due respect to Serbia, Ghana, and Australia, there’s no one who would pass up the opportunity to avoid the Germans (especially given the history between England, the USA, and England yet again with them).

This tournament isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. And marathons are never won by the team with the fastest first-mile split. It’s too much to ask for any team to be dominant for seven games over five weeks. The teams that win these tournaments, much like athletes that win any distance race, are those that are capable of building their form and improving with each successive match. Five days may not seem like a long time to fix problems, but for a team that has been together for so limited a time, it’s massive (probably a 15 percent increase over what they’ve already done).

If there’s another factor in any improvement other than time, it’s confidence: confidence in a job well done and in the doability of the next challenge. Team USA has plenty of both right now.


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