Fans of U.S. soccer are ecstatic about Friday’s World Cup draw, which has set the U.S. in a group where they will play against England, Algeria and Slovenia. Predictably, that joy has been accompanied by an overconfidence that is entirely unwarranted. On ESPN, Alexi Lalas was practially giddy over the prospect of a U.S. cakewalk into the second round. Only the England game is viewed as a challenge. According to ESPN Soccernet, “there should be few problems for the U.S. as they survey their group.” Few problems? Personally, I think these people are out of their minds.
To be sure, the draw went as well as could be expected. The U.S. was going to have to face one of the top seven teams in the world and drawing England is surely more favorable than drawing Brazil, Spain, Italy, Germany or Netherlands. (The only better draw would have seen them play the host, South Africa.) They were going to draw a team from either South America or Africa and Algeria, who struggled to qualify, is probably the weakest of that bunch. And from the final pot, drawing Slovenia is surely preferable to facing one of the European nations they might have drawn: France, Portugal, Serbia or Denmark.
Of course the goal for the U.S. has to be first or second place in the group, which means advancing to the knock-out round. They accomplished this in 2002 but disappointed in 2006, when they failed to advance in Germany. But the folks who think that the U.S. should be strongly favored to advance, or think that they will do so easily, have clearly swallowed the Kool-Aid.
For starters, anyone who thinks Algeria will be a push-over ought to consider the kind of adversity the Algerian team endured in order to qualify. And as the only Muslim nation to qualify for the World Cup, Algeria will be motivated and put all of their pride on display against the Americans. As for Slovenia, one need only look at what this tiny nation had to accomplish in order to qualify, finishing ahead of Poland and the Czech Republic (a team which beat the U.S. 3-0 at the 2006 World Cup) and then upsetting Russia in a qualifier. Here’s the deal: The U.S. has qualified for the last five World Cups and each time, it has lost to a team from Eastern Europe. It was the Czechs in 2006, Poland in 2002, Yugoslavia in 1998, Romania in 1994 and Czechoslovakia in 1990. You get the picture. They really play soccer in Eastern Europe. They usually play it better than we do.
But I’m looking forward to the June World Cup and as for as expectations for the U.S. team, there should be hope and humility. I’m especially looking forward to the game against England with all of the plots and sub-plots. (The 1950 U.S. upset win in Belo Horizonte, Beckham vs. Donovan, that whole American Revolution thing, etc.) And it should make for a fun scene at the pubs in New York City. Right now, I think the keys for the U.S. success in South Africa will be 1) the fitness of Oguchi Onyewu, 2) the emergence of Jozy Altidore (or another striker) as a true scoring threat, 3) avoiding that most fatal of conditions – overconfidence.