One of my favorite movie quotes comes from “Top Gun” when Viper (Tom Skerritt), the hardnosed flight instructor charged with running the Navy’s Top Gum program, stares out into a briefing room full of hotshot young pilots and cooly declares, “Remember Gentlemen, There are no points for second place.”
Generally, when it comes to sports I tend to believe that’s true (or, if you prefer a less dated movie reference I could refer you the newly minted, “if you’re not first, you’re last”). From a competition perspective (ie removing all the financial implications from a second place finish), second place is meaningless. The idea behind competing is to win and so if you do not win, then it is fairly irrelevant where you wound up in the overall scheme of things. As Nelly says, “Two is not a winner and three nobody remembers.”
Therefore, I feel a little bit odd as I take the position that the USA Soccer team actually came out ahead this past weekend when it lost to Brazil, 3-2, in the Confederations cup final in South Africa. Seriously, I think that’s true. I’m not going to say that they came out farther ahead than had they won the tournament, but I’m not convinced that isn’t true either. Ultimately, I think that the USA’s second place finish holds great value to the team and stands to benefit the squad by paying major dividends down the road. Here’s why:
1. The US team played well in the final game. This is really important. After the Spain game it was crucial that the US team come out and compete against Brazil. Let’s not forget that earlier in that same week the US team had gotten trounced by the Brazilians 3-0. In that game, Brazil was up 2-0 twenty-five minutes in. It wasn’t close. If that had happened again in the finals, the world would have written off the US win over Spain as a fluke and thought no more of the American team.
In the finals, however, it was the US team that jumped up early on Brazil, capitalizing on a nice cross from Spector and a bit of a lucky finish from Clint Dempsey (note: nothing wrong with being lucky. Not meant to take anything away from the goal). Heading into the locker room, it was the Yanks who held a 2-0 lead. While it’s true that Brazil came out in the second half and dominated play, eventually pouring in 3 goals, The USA’s first half made everyone, even Europe (although they will pretend it didn’t), take notice. After vanquishing Spain in the Semi-finals 2-0, team USA came out and beat Brazil in the first half of the finals 2-0.
There was no letdown and it was not a case where a clearly overmatched team, high off the improbable victory over the Spaniards, was brought crashing back to reality by the mighty Brazilians. Instead, it was Brazil who went into the locker room flustered and embarassed. It was Brazil’s coach Dunga who needed to find a way to turn the tide of the game. While he certainly did that, the American squad still managed to get his full attention and that of the rest of the world, as it enjoyed it’s third consecutive half of winning soccer over the world’s #1 and #2 teams. In the end victory was not for USA, but the message was sent. The US team earned their second place finish – they deserved it.
2. Donovan’s goal was nothing short of world class. One of the things that great teams do is score goals that are absolutely majestic. One touch passes move the ball around quickly and when the ball is ultimately put on goal there is no chance for the goalkeeper. It is a thing of beauty to watch such a goal. Against Spain, the United State’s scored goals that were gritty and opportunistic. Altidore’s goal took advantage of the Spanish Goalkeeper’s off balance approach and even though it was deflected, found its way into the back of the net. For his goal, Clint Dempsey simply robbed Spanish defender Sergio Ramos after Ramos inexplicably trapped a ball inside his own 6 yard box. Both goals were fantastic and to succeed a team needs to take advantage of every opportunity that it is presented, but I would not say that either goal made the soccer world sit up and take notice.
However, Landon Donovan’s counter-attacking goal against Brazil, orchestrated with Charlie Davies, was absolutely brilliant. Streaking up the field in a 2 on 2 situation Donovan played a great ball into space for Davies to run onto. Davies then hit a first time cross that was perfectly positioned and allowed Donovan to receive the ball on the edge of the eighteen yard box without interference from the Brazilian defender. Donovan took one touch to the inside, turning his man around and taking him out of the play, before burying the ball in the corner of the net with a great left footed strike. It was clinical.
I imagine that most European soccer fans who watched the US v. Spain game would say something along the lines of: “Yeah it’s great that the US scored 2 goals and shut Spain out. However, if Iker Casillas (Spain’s goalkeeper) had not been off balance then he would have saved Altidore’s shot. Likewise, if Ramos had simply cleared the cross off the line like he was supposed to, Dempsey never would have gotten that second goal. Credit to the Americans for taking advantage of the opportunities they had, but shame on Spain for allowing those opportunities to present themselves.”
But with Donovan’s goal in the Brazil game there can be no such analysis or qualifying. That was simply a great play. There was nothing Brazil could have done differently to prevent the goal. The US was better the entire length of the field and executed several difficult passes before Donovan buried a ball where no goalkeeper in the world could have gotten to it. Even the harshest critic of US Soccer would have to concede that on that play, the US was the superior side.
Now, it’s just my opinion, but I believe that when the rest of the world takes measure of the US team following the Confederations Cup, it will look at that goal and be genuinely impressed/concerned. Excuses can be made for much of what happened leading up to that moment in time, but for that brief period, the USA was better than Brazil.
3. The US Team isn’t ready to deal with the Expectations that Winning would have brought. The American public is not very realistic in its demands on it sports teams. I guess no fan base really is. The bottom line, however, is that if the US had beaten Brazil in the Confederations Cup there would be a large population of newly minted US Soccer fans that would believe and expect that the US team would be a favorite headed into next year’s World Cup.
Moving forward, the US fan base would expect nothing less than sustained excellence and excuse me for saying this but I’m not sure if this team is ready for that. This team is young and as we saw in the weeks preceding Confederations Cup and then again against Italy and Brazil in the group stages of play, this is a team still prone to lapses and periods of uninspired play. I think it’s great that they got things turned around against Egypt and then stunned Spain, but realistically, this team still needs room to grow. Their showing in the finals is an accurate representation of where they are. Close, but not there yet. Again this is only my opinion, but I believe that the shade that second place provides is much preferable to the bright lights that winning would have brought.
Now, the US team can return to World Cup qualifying (and Gold Cup play) with the knowledge and confidence that it can compete with any team in the world. That is good. It does not, however, have to deal with the pressure of being considered (if only by Americans) to be one of the world’s elite. That title can remain safely where it belongs – with teams like Spain, Brazil, and Italy. Teams with World Cup trophies and full of players who play on the marquee teams in the best leagues in the world.
In the meantime, the Americans can go about qualifying for another World Cup and attempt to build on the success (and learn from the failures) that came out of the Confederations Cup. If they do, then the day is not to far off when following a game against a European or South American powerhouse, the US team will be able to look eye to eye with their opponents and feel as though they are truly equals. A day when an exhausted Kaka will walk up to Michael Bradley and say, “Hey you play a pretty good brand of futbal, you can play out on my wing anytime.” Bradley of course will respond, “Bullshit, you can play out on mine.”