Monday, June 20, 2016

USA vs Argentina: A Pivotal Moment for US Soccer

For the first time since their friendly on March 26th, 2011, The United States and Argentina will lock horns with a berth in the Copa America Centenario final at stake.
By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

Face it, we’ve been spoiled these past few weeks.

An NBA finals that looked all but over at 3-1 was turned on its head. We witnessed a player get suspended for a low blow after being the recipient of a LeBron James tea-bag, the league MVP threw his mouthpiece at a fan, his wife tweeted that the NBA was rigged in pushing the series to a 7th game for more money, and the Cavs completing history by becoming the first NBA team to ever come back from that series deficit to win the title.

The 2016 Euro Cup hasn’t been too shabby either, supplying an amazing amount of drama, with over 31% of the tournaments goals coming after the 88th minute of play. In addition, we’ve seen flares light up the pitch and explode in a collector's face, Russian and English fans duke it out in the streets of Marseille, with Heineken bottles as their weapons of choice, and the smallest country in the tournament (Iceland) stun Hungary and Portugal with draws.

But under the radar, something else has been just as exciting and worthy of our attention -- the Copa America Centenario.

To many American fans, the Copa America is a foreign entity.

Beginning in 1916, the Copa America is the world's oldest international continental soccer competition, used to determine the champion of South America. Since 1993, its leaders allowed two teams from other confederations, usually from CONCACAF (the confederation of the United States, along with the rest of North/Central America and the Caribbean), whose members are geographically and culturally close, to be invited to participate.

The USA competed in the first two editions of the new format, but turned down invitations to the next four editions because of scheduling conflicts with Major League Soccer.

Having participated just three times in 95 years, the announcement in 2012 that the Centenario (100th year) tournament was to be played right here in the United States was music to many people's ears. Although there is always the prospect of humiliation, having the likes of Brazil and Argentina playing in your own backyard was seen as a win/win for everyone involved, particularly the USA.

This tournament arrives at a critical juncture in our nation’s sports landscape. If you were to ask a random person on the street’s of the United States to name the ”Big Four” in a sports context, they typically associate the phrase with American football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

However, soccer is quickly closing the gap on the 4th place NHL. The MLS has seen double digit growth across a variety of metrics, including local sponsorship, season tickets and attendance. In 2014, the MLS had ninety-eight night games televised. This past year, MLS had all of its 340 games on air.

Total gross viewership currently sits at 30 million, a 50 percent increase from 2013, and an all time high for the MLS. More importantly, for sponsorship reasons, gross viewership was 17.3 million among the coveted 18-49 year old demographic, accounting for a 25 percent increase over 2014 among that group.

So why is this important?

It's a sign of real momentum and an opportunity that shouldn't be taken lightly.

For years, soccer was the ATV on the dirt road. But now, it’s at the on-ramp, revving to get up on the highway, and the Men’s national team is the engine that’s gonna push it over the edge. Unfortunately, that engine has required quite a bit of oil and piston changes throughout its history.

Although they have won five CONCACAF/ Gold Cup titles, many in the public remain unimpressed. When your toughest competition is Mexico, and you’ve been beaten by the likes of Jamaica and what was at the time a terrible Guatemala team, people lose interest. In the modern era, they are yet to progress past the quarterfinals of the World Cup, and have failed to consistently produce talent that starts, let alone stars, in Europe’s Top-5 leagues.

With a population of over 318 million inhabitants and more resources than most would know what to do with, the lack of success remains a mystery.

Fortunately, Tuesday night can provide some real concrete evidence of progression.

Argentina are currently the number 1 ranked national side in the world. Take stock in the rankings or not, but the talent at their disposal is undeniable to even the most biased Brazilian fan. They’ve seemingly made a mockery of the competition, outscoring opponents 14-2 without so much as breaking a sweat.

If the USA back line was Bran, Meera, Summer, and Hodor dashing through the tunnel, then Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, and co. are the Night King and the rest of the white walkers.




The United States, meanwhile, remain a bit of an unknown. Their tournament got off to a disastrous start in Santa Clara, losing to Colombia 2-0. They were dominated in possession and displayed the shot accuracy of a drunken Shaq at the free throw line. They were, however, able to bounce back nicely against less talented sides Costa Rica and Paraguay to unexpectedly win the group.

Luckily, they drew Ecuador in the quarterfinals but uncertainty still remained.

Excluding the Gold Cup, it's not that often the U.S. wins a knockout game in an international tournament. You have to go back to the 2009 Confederations Cup, when the Americans beat heavyweight Spain 2-0, to find the last time they won such a match after the group stage.

After the men in white played perhaps their best, most balanced half of the Copa, it was Ecuador who came out in the final 45 minutes on fire. The physicality was amped up and tempers got out of control, but in the end, the Americans were able to hold on for a hard fought 2-1 win. The price was steep though, especially for the USA, as Jermaine Jones was sent off in the 52nd minute along with Ecuadorian midfielder Antonio Valencia.

Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya later picked up their second yellow cards of the tournament, meaning they'll be suspended for the semifinal as well. The soccer federation was considering appeals for Jones' ejection and Wood's  yellow card, but it seems unlikely the U.S. will get the relief it seeks.

Kyle Beckerman is the most likely candidate to replace Jermaine Jones in the midfield. Limiting Leo Messi will have to be a collective effort from the defense, but if anyone has to play the game of his life, it’s the 34-year old American. The U.S. will surely try to impose their will physically, but it remains to be seen just how far they can go. Already coming into the game with a depleted bench, some of the players may think twice about committing rash fouls, especially if the referee assigned is quick to show a card.

Let’s be honest: The challenge at hand is immense, but Argentina are not without faults.

Their big question coming into the tournament was its central defense pairing of Nicolás Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori, who didn’t exactly light the Premier League on fire this past season with Manchester City and Everton, respectively. The pair has been better than expected in the Copa, but cracks were evident against Venezuela when Salomón Rondón was able to split the pair for a header reminiscent of Clint Dempsey’s against Ecuador.

For all of the pressure on the shoulders of the U.S. team playing in front of 70,000 fans at the NRG Stadium in Houston, even more could rest on the Albiceleste. For a side that has boasted some of the game's greats, they still remain without a major senior trophy since 1993. The longer the U.S. is able to keep the game close, doubt may begin to sink deep into the Argentine psyche.

We are a people that loves an underdog, and for one game you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger one.

"Well, we'll take it the way it kind of comes along," USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "We don't need to talk Argentina any bigger than they are. We had two years ago [Cristiano] Ronaldo coming to Manaus, [with Portugal]; big game, too. We had them down there 2-1 until the 96th minute. So we'll give everything we have with all the respect for the opponent. We'll talk about the opponent the same as Colombia, Ecuador and Paraguay, because they're all wonderful teams. But we've come so far now and we get even hungrier for the next now, even if we totally understand it's a big one."

Bob Bradley had the 2009 Confederations Cup win against Spain.

Bruce Arena had the 2002 World Cup win against Mexico.

Now, Jurgen Klinsmann has his signature win staring him in the eyes.

A title may not be on the line with this singular game, but rest assured, the prize both in the present, and the future, is one that will reverberate around this country for generations to come.

1 comment :

Alessandro Pugliese said...

Nice read, good work Justin!